Art as Experience?

By Lucy Wright

In a 1998 article, Pine and Gilmore outline the evolution of economic value through the analogy of a birthday cake. In the agrarian economy, birthday cakes are made from scratch, by mixing flour, sugar, eggs, butter – readily accessible agricultural commodities. As the industrial economy advances, you pay Betty Crocker for premixed ingredients – more expensive but more convenient. Once the service sector is in full swing, why bake yourself when you can pay the baker for a ready to eat cake? Of course, we now have to factor in the cost of the baker’s labour on top of the ingredients. Today? You can bypass the whole ordeal by ‘outsourcing’ your entire birthday to a business who will stage a memorable event – often throwing in a cake for free. Welcome to the experience economy. 

The experience economy is said to provide a distinct economic offering to goods and services. Businesses orchestrate events that are memorable and engaging for consumers – to the point where the memory becomes the product. Take music festivals or art museums: the intangible experience itself is the commodity. Often, companies simply wrap experiences around their traditional offerings, intentionally using their services as the stage and their goods as props to captivate and engage individual consumers to create experience.

In a 1996 article, Rolf Jensen argued that the story which shapes the feelings about a product will become a large part of what people buy when they buy the product. This is certainly evident in both traditional forms of marketing and advertising, as well as more contemporary examples. The emergence of concept stores from Apple to Peloton prioritise brand establishment and experience over in-store sales, transforming the traditional market place into a marketing performance. 

Image Source: The Business Journals

In Future Shock, first published in 1970, Alvin and Toffler outline the creation of an economy geared to the provision of psychological gratification – the provision of places where people envision a better “quality of life”‌. Manufacturers sprinkle a “psychic load” onto their goods and services, and we witness the rise of industries whose sole output consists of simulated environments, offering consumers something intangible, abstract – experience.

It could be suggested that advancements in technology catalysed the emergence of the experience economy as businesses respond to increasing consumer expectations that commodities should transcend their utilitarian purpose and instead cultivate a memorable experience. Senior partner at McKinsey & Co, Warren Teichner, highlights the growing importance of the experience economy, outlining that “both new and existing companies are increasingly incorporating heavy experiential components into their business”.

One consequence of the expanding experience economy is the blurring of the line between consumption and entertainment. An example where the experience phenomenon has proven to have a huge impact in redefining the rules of the industry is in art museums. Anyone with an Instagram account will be familiar with the growing trend of pop up museums with unconventional subject matters: selfies, pizza, ice cream. These spaces aim to offer “an attraction that combines a memorable (and Instagrammable) in-person “experience” with the cultural enrichment of a classical museum”. With millennial pink walls, hanging ice cream cones and a sprinkle pool, the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) appears less like the Louvre and more like the set of a Taylor Swift music video.

Some find it difficult to see the MOIC as anything more than a series of Instagram backdrops, questioning its status as a ‘museum’. The opportunities afforded by social media have played a major role in the success of the MOIC, however, some reviews warn others not to go with high expectations, detailing that the museum fails to transcend any stereotypes that it is simply a selfie factory. Beyond the made-for-instagram exhibits, some have expressed that “in person, the rooms can feel somewhat one-dimensional, the whimsy can fall flat” – falling short of the crucial element of the experience economy to manufacture meaningful and memorable experiences. The aims of such installations as those found at the MOIC are further complicated by their inherent commercialism.

The popularity of museums such as the Museum of Ice Cream, however, seems to suggest a desire on the part of consumers to engage in these far from traditional forms of cultural experience. On the opening of the San Francisco location, the entire six month MOIC exhibition sold out in less than 90 minutes, with tickets costing $38. While it is easy to focus on criticisms that the museum is only skin deep, valued at over $200 million, the MOIC, along with other highly interactive, experience driven museums, subverts the growing fears surrounding the financial viability of museums and art galleries following public funding cuts. 

In 2012, London’s Barbican Centre made headlines with its Rain Room exhibit. The installation featured a curtain of rain that paused when someone walked beneath it, simulating the experience of controlling the elements. The interactive experience caught attention on social media, with its popularity leading it to travel across the globe to be exhibited in Los Angeles and New York. While the Rain Room wasn’t curated for social media, it’s enduring online presence serves to demonstrate a demand for exhibits engaging with consumer experience.

Author and cultural strategist András Szántó explains how “museums, just like brands, need to tighten their connections to their audiences and create compelling experiences that genuinely attract and hold the attention of today’s audience”. Ignoring the economic and cultural benefits that the experience economy has to offer could be to the detriment of traditional cultural institutions. In an age where resources are increasingly diverted away from the arts, traditional museums should take advantage of the opportunities showcased by their younger rivals who are ultimately aiming to immerse their consumers into their commodity.

Culture Track’s Diane Jean-Mary maintains that looking backwards is no longer an option. If legacy cultural organisations want to grow their audiences, they need to adapt and transform to meet their needs. “If arts organisations can leverage that new understanding in a way authentic to them and on-mission and without abandoning their core purpose,” she says, “all audiences benefit.” Art is intrinsically bound up with the viewer’s experience. To captivate audiences and remain economically viable in this new age, museums may have some lessons to learn from the experience economy.

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