On a Thursday evening earlier this summer, young professionals milled about the Academy of Natural Sciences well after its normal business hours. They sipped drinks and nibbled on bites of cocoa-rubbed chicken over a vinegary chickpea salad, dinosaur skeletons towering over their heads. They met two skunks, Hamilton and Lavender, from the museum’s Live Animal Center, sampled herbal candies from Shane Confectionery, and examined a Cannabis sativa plant collected in 1899 for the museum’s herbarium, which holds about 1.4 million botanical specimens.
This was a typical night for Door 19, the Academy’s adults-only after-hours event, held four times a year.
As he snacked on a lavender-flavored macaron, one attendee remarked, “This is much classier than Dinos after Dark,” the monthly pay-what-you-wish event with a beer garden and activities for kids.
“Door 19 feels a little naughty in a way because it’s after hours,” said Mary Bailey, the Academy’s head of public experience. “There’s a drink in your hand, and you’re seeing stuff you don’t normally get to see.”
Door 19 is one example of several carefully crafted after-hours events, complete with themes, activities, food, and booze, that Philadelphia museums offer in hopes of intriguing young audiences.
Rather than rely solely on the traditional draw of exhibits and galleries, museums are taking a page from the success of interactive “experiences” to capture the interest of younger visitors. (A 2017 Eventbrite study found that three out of four millennials were more willing to pay for an “experience” than “something desirable,” i.e., a material purchase.) Time-honored institutions — including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Franklin Institute, and the Barnes Foundation — have adapted to more modern tastes, incorporating Instagrammable backgrounds, escape rooms, pottery lessons, and live music into their programming. It’s all in the hopes of converting event-goers into long-term, dues-paying members — often at a premium.
When the Museum of the American Revolution opened in 2017, staffers knew its success hinged on reaching millennial audiences through social media and newsy, eye-catching programming. Elizabeth Grant, the museum’s director of education, calls it a “ladder of engagement.”
“So many people’s first experiences with the museum is through a field trip, for example,” Grant said. “We don’t want them to not return until they have a child. We want to build that relationship through different stages of life.”
The museum began hosting its monthly evening program, History After Hours, in 2018. Visitors pay $10 for drinks and food that are paired with talks, Q&A sessions, and activities that tap into the today’s news. During Pride Month in June, a workshop analyzing coded correspondences spotlighted the contributions of LGBTQ people to the American Revolution. April’s tax-themed event had attendees guessing how much items would’ve cost under the Stamp Act in a The Price Is Right-esque game show.
“It allows us to be a bit more playful and test what content resonates with visitors,” Grant said. But the events’ other major advantage lies in the 5-8 p.m. timing: “People who work on the weekends or during the day or [who] are students really value being able to visit then,” she said.
The Franklin Institute’s similarly named evening program, Science After Hours, started in 2013. Each month, visitors shell out $25 to partake in topical activities — testing for poison at a Game of Thrones-themed evening, or following clues to find a speakeasy during a Roaring ’20s event. Staffers relate all the presentations back to science or history.
“Our goal is to make sure you are actually doing, learning, and having fun doing it,” said Franklin Institute CEO Larry Dubinski.
Dubinski said one thing he’s noticed is that attendance often depends on whether the event’s name resonates with potential attendees.
“We had one titled ‘Gym Class,’ and it was more of a sports theme,” he said. “But I think people saw ‘Gym Class’ and were like, ‘I really didn’t like gym class,’ and that turned them off from coming. Candidly, if we had named it differently, we would’ve seen more turnout.”
In 2016, the Franklin Institute launched an event-oriented membership track for people ages 21 to 40, called Innovators. At $300 a year, it’s significantly more expensive than a standard $89 membership (for two) and $149 family membership. On top of typical perks like free admission, Innovators’ memberships include two tickets to every Science After Hours and monthly Speakers Series events, featuring the likes of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, addiction-treatment doctors, and, once, Bill Nye.
The Innovator track claims a fraction of the members as the family program — there are 225 Innovators, compared to 31,000 families — but it plays an important role in helping the museum decide which direction to go in with its exhibits and programming. The museum often asks Innovators to participate in surveys and focus groups.
“Cultural institutions across the country really fail when they give you their offering as opposed to saying, ‘What do you want to see? What do you want to know more about?’” Dubinski said. “We just need to refine and look more closely at the newer generations, so we can go out and meet them where they’re at.”
The Barnes Foundation started its Young Professionals Nights in 2012, when it moved from Lower Merion to the Parkway. The swanky Friday night parties, featuring live music and cocktails, are anchored by a theme, often derived from the techniques and palettes employed by the artists within the collection: Past events have celebrated pointillist pioneers like Georges Seurat and Henri-Edmond Cross I — “Spot On” — while September’s upcoming “Orange Crush” event toasts the fiery hues in Paul Cézanne’s paintings.
The hope, according to senior director Will Cary, is that Young Professionals Night attendees will begin to feel comfortable coming to the Barnes. From 2017 to 2019, the museum averaged about 750 guests for each event, held three times a year. A ticket costs $35.
Millennial-aged Barnes visitors also have the option of joining the Contemporaries. Launched in 2013, the $500 annual membership for those between 21 and 39 is substantially more expensive than the standard $90 membership.
“We’re not trying to wring as much money out of them as we can,” Cary said. Instead, the pricey program was designed to foster deeper engagement with the museum, while minimizing turnover.
Thirty-four-year-old Eric Grad, who works in the finance sector in Center City, joined the Contemporaries program after moving to Philadelphia in 2010. He said the membership ultimately introduced him to the people who make up his core group of friends today.
“You might meet someone at an event and think they’re really cool,” Grad said. “But you usually have to see them twice to establish credibility to hang out with them again. If I see them at the museum and then bump into them at Parc, then I have two different data points, and I can reach out to hang out with them. It’s a great way to network and find like-minded people.”
“Right now, the largest group in Philly are young professionals,” Cary said. “We’re hoping for a 40-year relationship with this demographic. We’re playing the long game with them.” According to the Barnes, 62 households currently subscribe to the Contemporaries; membership includes free admission and tickets to Young Professionals Nights.
Cary said that, thanks to a New York Times wedding announcement, he knows of at least one marriage that has come out of the Young Professionals Nights.
“It’s serving its purpose,” he said with a chuckle.
Just down the Parkway, the Art Museum’s Young Friends program currently claims over 300 members, who pay $50 in addition to the standard $75 membership fee. The premium gives them access to specially curated experiences — a tour of movement-inspired artwork with Pennsylvania Ballet dancers, say, or an exclusive peek at the European and Decorative Arts storage space, followed by a pottery lesson.
“We definitely recognize that all audiences are looking for experience-based offers,” said Jessica Sharpe, the Art Museum’s director of visitor operations and membership. “They want to share museums and cultural events with their loved ones, friends, and family. We’re providing entry points for visitors to do that, while having the museum as the backdrop.”
Last summer, the Rodin Museum, a sister institution of the Art Museum, added a pop-up bar to its grounds, allowing guests to wander its formal French garden and gaze at the sculptor’s masterpieces, rosé in hand. The 23-day event wound up bringing in more than 6,000 guests — a mix of longtime museum members and young professionals visiting for the first time.
“It’s about the future,” Sharpe said of the outreach efforts. “So we can set the stage for this institution in the next 10, 15, 20 years.”