Museum pieces

Museums and galleries have had to sharpen up their marketing skills and produce incentives for their generous donors, or ‘friends’. Helen Jones looks through the latest crop of magazines which have sprung up largely, but not exclusively, for this group

Publications from the UK’s museums and art galleries used to consist of little more than badly photocopied lists of forthcoming exhibitions, or learned treatise on obscure subjects such as Saxon sheep farming written by even more obscure academics. But museums and galleries are wising up.

Like credit card firms, mobile phone companies and even supermarkets, they are now offering loyal supporters glossy magazines to ensure their further interest, as well as using the publications to attract new blood.

Some of the magazines are run by the museums and galleries themselves and some are produced by the organisers of the friends of the institutions. However, some of the friends’ organisations complain that their ambitious plans have been thwarted by the more conservative directors of the museums and galleries that they are working with and that editorial freedom is curtailed.

One representative of a friends’ organisation says: “We have been held back by the institution that we represent. They want to increase readership but they want to dictate what is published and often they don’t have a clue. Articles are sometimes terribly dull or are put in for reasons of internal politics. They also take an unhelpful view on advertising – some of them seem to think it is vulgar and we shouldn’t have it but, without advertising, we can’t expand the publication. It’s a bloody minefield.”

“Editorial interference is not a problem” for Tate Magazine, according to its editor Tim Marlow. It is produced by Blueprint Media which is an independent publishing house. “No one from the gallery sees the copy before it appears and we are given free reign. We have a close relationship with the Tate but we are an independent publication, with our own voice and vision.”

Marlow says that this is due to the fact that the publishing director Nick Barley approached the Tate with the idea for the magazine in the first place. He adds that Tate, unlike some other museum- and gallery-related publications, is not primarily produced for the friends of the institution. “The Royal Academy Magazine is excellent but it is 99 per cent produced for RA friends. The Tate has between 21 000 and 22 000 friends but our circulation averages 50 000 an issue so huge numbers of our readers buy the publication from independent outlets – we sell 200 copies in New Zealand alone.” The magazine costs 3.50 on newsstands.

Marlow also says that Tate’s readership is younger than that of other museum and gallery magazines. “The average age of people who buy the magazine is lower than the average age of the friends who receive it. Many of our readers are in their early-30s,” he adds.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is hoping to emulate some of Tate Magazine’s success and has recently launched a new title called V&A Magazine. It is published three times a year and replaces two previous publications, In View and Friends. Although the new magazine is aimed at the friends of the V&A, it is also looking for a wider readership and is on sale in the museum shop and at the admission turnstiles. It may eventually go on sale in art book shops as well as other outlets.

V&A Magazine editor Jeremy Myerson says: “The V&A reviewed its communications strategy and wanted to publish material on the Internet. It carried out research among the museum’s friends but found they weren’t great users of the Internet. They liked the newsletter format and so it was decided to launch a new magazine especially tailored for them.”

Myerson says that, editorially, the V&A Magazine is a lively, accessible balance of information, comment and insight about all the museum’s activities. It combines a behind the scenes look at the development of new initiatives and exhibitions as well as detailing additions to the collection. It is designed to support the efforts of the museum and its friends rather than act as an independent voice. The first issue covers subjects ranging from the forthcoming Power of the Poster exhibition to the role of the museum in society.

The magazine is produced “virtually” with Myerson as freelance editor, Bart Marsh, who formerly worked at advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, representing the V&A and design group HGV creating the overall look.

The target market is an advertiser’s dream in that it is very tightly defined – reasonably affluent, university educated, over 45s with time on their hands. The sort of “empty-nesters” who frequent arts and antique shows and have money to spend. Initial advertisers include upmarket holiday companies offering “classical” tours of ancient Egypt, antiques dealers and clothing company Daks.

Myerson says that the design, which uses lots of white space, is “not leading edge graphic design because that would be wrong for the target audience. It is neutral and classic and the white space means that the priceless antiquities which are displayed can speak for themselves.”

The British Museum is also overhauling its publication and is currently redesigning it to create “a sharper, crisper feel” says Sarah Carthew, organiser for the British Museum Society.

The British Museum Magazine is a fat glossy with features on everything from a haul of 16th century gold found off the coast of Devon, to the history of the condom. It is produced by the British Museum Society which supports the British Museum in collecting, conservation and services to the public. The magazine is accessible and likely to appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in history.

The British Museum Society also produces a magazine for children called ReMus which is packed with information, quizzes and gory facts about Mummies.

And, like the V&A Magazine, the British Museum Magazine is mainly read by over 55s with a professional background, but Carthew says she wants to attract a much broader readership. “We want it to be much more widely read, which is why we are redesigning it. We hope that more visitors to the museum will buy a copy at the shop and we may eventually sell it in other places. We have big plans for the magazine but I can’t talk about them yet,” she adds.

Until recently, the house journal of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce looked much as it did when the society was first formed in the mid 1880s.

‘It was the Hansard of magazine publishing, printed on Bible stock paper and was very, very bland,’ says Mike Dempsey, partner at CDT Design and the man charged with creating a new look for the publication. ‘The RSA represents virtually every creative discipline and the journal wasn’t expressing that through its design,’ he says.

The RSA surveyed 1000 of its fellows and found that, although most of them fully intended to read the publication, only a very few of them actually ever got around to it. One of the problems was that the journal recorded all RSA lectures in their entirety as well as the question and answer sessions. It was very wordy and illustrated – if at all – only in black and white.

RSA chairman Dick Onians says: ‘It would be inconsistent, if not hypocritical, if the RSA, with its mission to act as a catalyst to encourage improvement and change in others, were not to keep its own organs relevant and progressive.’

Dempsey’s solution was to change the format and bring in full colour for the first time in its 146-year history. The lectures have been condensed with accompanying photography and illustration – those who want the full text of a lecture can write in and ask for it.

The journal’s editor Imogen McEvedy says: ‘Our aim is clarity – each page is labelled and articles are introduced by explanatory paragraphs. The size of the text has increased as has the spacing and the paper is white and more opaque.’ Forthcoming events have been extracted from the journal and printed as a separate news leaflet with a calendar style for ease of use.

To offset the additional cost of full colour, the magazine’s frequency has been cut from ten issues a year to five and the RSA is now considering taking more advertising. ‘No content will be lost, the same quantity of pages will be published, with more time spent on the quality,’ says McEvedy.

Dempsey will continue to design the covers for each issue but is currently discussing with the RSA whether it will produce future issues using the template he has designed or if CDT will do it.

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