Let Them Eat Cake

On February 9, there was a remarkable event at Carnegie Museum of Art. We opened an exhibition called 20/20: Celebrating Two Decades of the Heinz Architectural Center with a birthday party. Five local architects teamed up with bakers to create elegantly crafted models of iconic works of architecture out of cake; visitors got to vote for their favorite one and then eat it. We advertised the free event, called CAKEitecture, almost exclusively online and expected a few hundred people to attend. Instead, we stopped counting at 2,000 visitors! A professional jury chose the pastry rendition of Fallingwater as their favorite, but the popular vote went to “A Delicious Day in the Neighborhood,” inspired by Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make Believe, which included a motorized trolley car. The event was a success not just because of the number of attendees but also because it was a wonderfully diverse crowd. I would estimate that a quarter to a third of the visitors spent quality time in the exhibition.

When something like CAKEitecture happens, you have to ask yourself why. What about this idea—clever as it was—generated so much participation? What about the event brought all of those people, many of whom were not regular visitors, to the museum that evening? Was it the cool animation created by our multimedia producer to promote the event? The fact that the bakers and architects also spread the word? The novelty of seeing buildings modeled in pastry? The fact that it was free? Undoubtedly, it was all these reasons together and others I haven’t thought of.

CAKEitecture was one of our recent experiments in attracting new audiences, as was the opening of Oh Snap! Your Take on Our Photographs on February 21Oh Snap! is a collaborative project that invites the public to respond creatively to 13 photographs from the museum’s collection on view in our Forum Gallery. Visitors can submit their own photographs online, which we then print and hang in the gallery alongside the works that inspired them; participants are notified when their works are hung and invited to return to the museum for free to see them on view. Even before the show opened, our exhibition microsite and social media presence generated several hundred submissions from different parts of the world; so far, we’ve received 521 submissions from as far away as Finland.

We know that Millennials and Gen-Xers (roughly 20- to 40-year-olds) don’t use museums the way older generations do. The launch party for Oh Snap! was geared to a younger set, with a DJ and varied participatory activities. Around 700 people attended, and many of them—it seemed like most—were in the gallery studying the photographs. I have been impressed by the crowd-sourced images, many of which are formally refined, the result of carefully looking. Is it mostly artists who are responding, or does sophistication result from the increasingly visual nature of our culture?

Both the Oh Snap! launch party and CAKEitecture have generated many questions.  Why were they so successful, and how can we create other new experiences that attract these audiences? Most important, how do we take the momentum of these two events and translate them into an ongoing relationship with visitors, one that encourages them to return often to the museum and dig more deeply into the meaning of the art we show? That is the aim of the Oh Snap! project, which will continue to evolve as visitors add photographs in the coming months.

We want present and future audiences to associate Carnegie Museum of Art with the kind of energy and interest these events created, so we’ll continue to experiment. If you were at one of these celebrations, please let us know why you decided to come and what you thought of it. If you have ideas for events you’d like to see, we’d love to hear them.

Until next month,

Lynn

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.