LAWG Week: Learning from Non-Visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Art by Elizabeth Bolander

My name is Elizabeth Bolander, Director of Audience Insights and Services at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) and President-Elect of the Visitor Studies Association. We do a variety of research and evaluation activities at CMA, all with the goal of learning about the needs of our various constituencies and communities. This work is particularly important in light of our new strategic plan, which recommits us to our mission of “for the benefit of all the people, forever.”

Over the last few years, we’ve completed several studies focusing on the barriers to entry among non-visitors. This has ranged from community-based panels where we worked with local libraries to host and recruit residents for discussions to focus groups with infrequent and non-visitors that met certain demographic criteria (i.e. young professionals, parents with children under age 8 in the household, etc.).

Lessons Learned:

Establishing mutually beneficial partnerships is critical to success

When we wanted to reach residents in traditionally underserved communities by the museum, we knew we needed a partner that could help establish trust and generate participant interest. Yet, we also wanted to ensure the partner was getting something out of the relationship as well. When we worked with local library branch managers, they helped spread the word about the open discussion groups and made sure we got our target respondents for the study, while we made sure they also received our findings.

Prepare internal stakeholders

Many of the key insights we gleamed from these non-visitor studies were not always the easiest to hear because they often challenged the status-quo and internally held assumptions. Laying the groundwork in advance and encouraging ongoing conversations after the formal presentation helped make the findings easier to digest and immediately actionable.

Research as a community engagement tool

Going out into the communities and listening to their thoughts and opinions helped create additional in-roads in these neighborhoods. Some community members felt more apt to attend CMA programming because we took the time to listen to them and engage.

Rad Resources:

Even if you think you’re not an “art museum person” like some of our respondents, I hope many of you will come see us while you’re attending AEA in Cleveland this fall. In addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the University Circle neighborhood  is home to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland History Center, MOCA Cleveland, and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as being adjacent to Little Italy. The RTA Health Line bus departs from Tower City as does the Rapid train, where you can take the red line to the Cedar-University Circle or Little Italy-University Circle stops. The free CircleLink bus operates year-round throughout the neighborhood, or you can take a stroll through the beautiful parks and Case Western Reserve University campus.

We’re looking forward to the fall and the Evaluation 2018 conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to contribute to aea365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to

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3 thoughts on “LAWG Week: Learning from Non-Visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Art by Elizabeth Bolander”

  1. Hello!
    This post was really interesting to me. I study psychology, but I always have been interested in the arts. That was my first option for my career. However, I ended studying psychology and watching the art and the artist from another angle. I may say that I think that your mission “for the benefit of all the people, forever” is very strong and to my point of view it calls the people.

  2. Kimberley Waldbrook


    I just wanted to say that one of your statements really resonated with me: that “we knew we needed a partner that could help establish trust and generate participant interest.” Wow! As I read through other program evaluations, I often find myself wondering how to access and interact with stakeholders on a deeper (and perhaps, more honest) level. I think you and your organization have really hit the nail on the head here by identifying that the way to make inroads with a community that you wish to access (but haven’t yet) is through a trusted partner.
    Thank you!

  3. Michelle Pruefer

    Hello Elizabeth,
    I read this post with much interest. I work at a mid-sized university in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and fundraise for our campus art museum.

    Our museum is also focused on engaging non-visitors and uncovering and addressing the needs of the campus and local community.

    Barriers to entry for non-visitors is something I would like to explore within our setting. Your approach involving a strategic partner, especially one that already elicits trust, is innovative for your purposes. You reference mutually beneficial partnerships-can you elaborate on the benefits for the libraries?

    This format could work within our university town. Gaining an understanding of the symbiotic relationship between our museum and the library system would help to refine our approach.

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