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Crystal Bridges success creates challenges

story by Jamie Smith, with submitted photos
jsmith@thecitywire.com

BENTONVILLE — Any massive project requires great amounts of planning and expertise and creating a world-class museum is no different. Like all things in life, some things are not known how they will go until they happen.

Every detail of opening the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was planned as carefully as possible but everyone on the staff knew there would be issues come up that couldn’t have been seen ahead of time.

Flexibility would be the proverbial name of the game and in the first year of the museum, that philosophy has worked well for the museum.

COMMON THEME
There is a common theme threaded through most unexpected issues that came up in the museum’s first year:  numbers.

Based on research made at other museums in similar-sized markets, planners hoped for about 250,000 guests with about 3,000 members joining the museum the first year.

Those figures were blown out of the water.

As of Nov. 4 this year, a week short of the museum’s one-year anniversary, the museum welcomed more than 595,000 people and has more than 7,500 "Original Members." Such members are anyone who joins the museum until Nov. 30 and those members are afforded additional benefits to their membership.

More guests means more food has been ordered, more employees hired, schedules altered and even more parking has been necessary. Those issues are just some of the lessons learned during Crystal Bridge’s first year.

“The first year is always trial and error,” said Diane Carroll, media relations manager. “We’ve been adapting to the overwhelming response.”

MORE PERSONNEL SUPPORT
The museum has needed to add employees in all departments and the schedules have had to become even more creative based on the museum’s busiest days.

Saturday is “hands-down” the busiest day of the week with 25% of the visitor traffic. Thursdays are the slowest day with 11% of the usual traffic.

The museum added an entire new department this year when it created the group tours department, which focuses entirely on meeting the needs of the large groups that visit the museum. There have been more than 350 groups visit the museum, with more than 100 additional groups are expected by the end of the year.

“That was a need we heard and we responded,” Carroll said.

Scheduling during peak times including the spring and fall months, and the holidays have also been a learning experience. Dogwood season in the spring and fall foliage season in October proved to be some of the busiest times so far this year.

Scheduling employees and volunteers during the summer was also a learning experience as coordinators realized that many of their volunteers went on vacation during the summer, but that’s also when thousands of people chose to visit the museum on their own vacations.

Fewer available volunteers combined with more visitors created some unique challenges this summer, said Jennifer Dunham, volunteer services manager.

There are nearly 700 volunteers who have gone through the training process to be a part of the museum and more volunteers are always needed, she said.

Volunteers are used throughout the museum including administrative support, culinary support, group tour guides, museum store sales associates, library guides, school visit assistants, trail guides and museum guides.

Dunham said the volunteers come from all age groups with the largest portions being 70 to 79 years old (18%), 50 to 59 years old (19%), and 60 to 69 years old (26%).

A combined total of about 21% of the volunteers at the museum fall in the 30 to 49 year old range. There are some volunteers who are as young as 16 and 3% are older than 80. About 80% of the volunteers are women, but the men who do volunteer are very active, Dunham said.

“It’s a very diverse group,” she said.

The museum tracks its volunteers using several metrics, including age, where they come from, why they volunteer and other pertinent information so that when the time comes for them to recruit more help, they will know what demographics to seek out first. So far, however, no recruitment efforts have been necessary.

“I’ve never been anywhere that has had such an outpouring of people willing to volunteer,” Dunham said.

The museum guides are the least filled positions and the most needed. Those volunteers go through a nine-month training process where they learn just about everything there is to know about the museum including the art, the artists and the grounds.

On Nov. 13 the museum will have its first class of guides to graduate since the opening. Those guides working for the past year, trained before the museum opened.

The paid staff embraces the volunteers and welcomes their input, Dunham and Carroll agreed. The volunteers are regularly sought out for their input on what would improve the museum experience or make processes more efficient.

Listening, along with the increase in numbers, has been another common theme throughout the year, Carroll said. They also listen to guests who provide input or ask questions and that information is used when deciding everything from menus to which of the museum’s more than 2,000 art pieces are put on display.

LIVING MUSEUM
The human side of the museum is not the only living aspect that has been affected by the drastic increase in numbers. The museum grounds — from the building itself to the trails — are in constant motion and change.

A major part of the museum’s mission is to provide sustainable means of protecting the environment and the landscape that falls under its stewardship.

“It’s been a surprise how many people have come to the museum and the trails,” said Scott Eccleston, director of facilities and grounds. “The trails and the landscape have become a life of their own.
“It makes us happy that people come here to escape and to dream.”

More people means more parking. Museum planners tried to minimize the amount of space taken up by concrete but it soon became clear that more parking was necessary. An additional lot was constructed adding 375 spaces to the existing 250 spaces, he said.

Solar-powered electric shuttles were also added to the museum’s services to help people get to the front door from far-away parking spots.

“We’ve found different ways to move people without using gas,” Eccleston said.

The museum maintenance staff has found other earth-friendly ways to manage issues that have come up this year. For example, when hundreds of Canadian geese descending on the large ponds surrounding the museum, the staff knew they needed to make the geese leave but they didn’t want to harm the birds. So, they devised a radio-controlled boat that they put in the ponds that scared away the birds. They also use a radio-controlled leaf blower to remove leaves off the ponds so that the process can be done without making a mess or creating a less-than visually appealing view for guests.

“People don’t even realize it’s going on,” Eccleston said.

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Cleaning the museum is another major task, something that usually happens on Tuesdays and at night when the museum is closed. Museum visitors are treated to countless windows that let them see the natural beauty on the outside of the museum while they peruse the works of art inside.

The problem with so many windows is how to clean them in a way that is safe for personnel and the environment. The curved windows that overlook the ponds create special challenges for the staff. They created a pontoon boat system that allows them to float to the outside of the windows to clean them using ionized water that doesn’t have chemicals.

“Whatever we put in the water has to be green,” Eccleston said. “We’re an eighth of a mile from the water treatment plant so anything we put in the water (including runoff from the landscaping) must be very neutral and green.”

The entire staff takes managing the facility and grounds very seriously.

“All of it is a shared resource with not only our visitors but the animals that live here,” he said.

Although the drastic increase in numbers has created challenges, the museum staff and volunteers are grateful that so many people have appreciated the museum.

“It completely furthers the vision of the museum to bring art, architecture and nature to a wide audience,” Carroll said.

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