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Week of September 30, 2013

An unexpected alliance of art, social science

Universities foster odd bedfellows.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art wanted to do a survey of visitors to one of its major exhibitions. The Program in Survey Methodology at the university’s Institute for Social Research was looking to give its students real-life survey experiences.

A perfect match.

It all started in late spring when the art museum was putting the finishing touches on a curated exhibit for the summer — “Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930.” As part of the exhibition, the museum wanted to ask visitors about their experience.

Potential funders often require evidence of an evaluation method to show that the exhibits they fund are having an impact, according to Carrie Throm, UMMA’s deputy director of development and external relations. And the museum needs to conduct surveys to improve its offerings, and even to gather basic information about who comes to the museum and why.

“Since we are a free admission museum, we do not capture information on a regular basis about the kinds of people that visit us—demographic information, zip codes, gender,” Throm said. “So it’s very important for us to be able to speak to the people that we are serving.”

The art museum wanted this survey to be a little different. Instead of paper forms, most visitors would answer questions on an iPad. But as the start of the exhibition approached, the museum still hadn’t found someone to design and conduct the survey. Enter Jim Lepkowski, research professor and former director of the U-M Program in Survey Methodology.

“We were talking to a woman at a survey company, and she said, ‘Well, I know Jim over there, and he may know of somebody who could do that kind of work,’” said Sydney Hawkins, UMMA’s communications marketing manager.

Lepkowski did. Mingnan Liu, a third-year doctoral student at the Program in Survey Methodology, agreed to take on the project with the help of six of the program’s master’s students — three to work on survey design and three to help administer the survey. UMMA would pay $3,500 to cover student data collection time and analysis.

Liu had worked on surveys before, but never under such a tight deadline. They had three weeks to draw the sample, write and pretest a questionnaire, program the iPad and train interviewers.

“It happened really fast,” he said.

During the 15 weeks of the exhibition, two volunteers at a time — drawn from a larger group — put in periodic shifts at the museum’s doors to ask departing visitors for feedback. The survey, which took about three minutes to complete, asked 21 questions: What was the main reason you decided to visit the museum today? How did you hear about the U-M Museum of Art? What kind of art and exhibitions would you like to see more of in the future?

Visitors who toured the Isamu Noguchi/Qi Baishi exhibition were asked to rate it: the images, text, layout and even the exhibition’s story (a U-M alumnus and art collector brought the two artists together in Beijing).

When the exhibit closed at the end of August, Liu had 433 survey responses. He expects to complete his survey analysis by early October.

Throm called the collaboration with the Program in Survey Methodology an all-out success — an experience UMMA would like to repeat.

“Feedback has been very positive internally about the process,” Throm said. “It feels like a natural partnership.”


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