6 Creative Program Ideas for Arts & Cultural Organizations

Have you ever been to a museum with no permanent exhibits?

On a recent trip to Chicago, I checked out the Museum of Contemporary Art. I was surprised to discover that every exhibit there was a special exhibit. As I walked around delighting in the weirdness that is contemporary art, I realized how advantageous it can be to not have any permanent exhibits.

Every exhibit felt new and fresh, and whether this was intentional, the exhibits all seemed to create a cohesive experiential thread—which can be difficult to do with a more conventional mixture of permanent and special exhibits. Plus, I know the next time I’m in Chicago, the museum will be a totally different experience, so I’m highly motivated to go back. If I lived in Chicago, I’d be constantly popping in to check out what’s new.

That experience got me thinking about other ways arts and cultural organizations are innovating with their programs. From food festivals to light shows to lectures, there’ve never been more options for arts and cultural programming. I wanted to share some cool things I’ve seen various organizations do in the hopes that you’ll be inspired, too.

1. Use Your Space Creatively

Another fun thing I did in Chicago was go to the zoo in the dark, freezing cold. Why? Because they had a holiday light display. Christmas lights, ice sculptures, and penguins sounded pretty awesome! The Brookfield Zoo hosts this event annually, and it’s a great way to get people through the doors at a different time of day. Other organizations have benefitted from hosting special dinners or other food-related events during their off season or renting out their space for weddings or other special events.

2. Engage New Audiences with Tailored Special Events

Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin, has regular adults-only nights, and they’re a great way to engage people who might not normally attend. (I don’t have kids, so I’d feel a little creepy visiting a children’s museum by myself.) It’s also a great way for adults who regularly attend with their kids to experience the space in a new way. (Who doesn’t like a night off from the kids to play in exhibits with a cocktail and fare from a local food truck?) The Houston Museum of Natural Science has a similar, equally popular series for young professionals.

Learn how the Speed Art Museum is delivering an exceptional experience for visitors and employees: read the story

3. Free Days and/or Late Nights

Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art always offers free admission on Thursdays, and it’s open late one Thursday a month. Now that my student days are behind me, I realize just how essential it is to have museums open after working hours so I can actually go to the museum during the week. The Blanton isn’t the only museum trying to entice a late-night crowd: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a similar program on Friday nights (complete with a rooftop garden that is fabulous in summer), as does the Louvre in Paris (no garden, but—well, it’s the Louvre).

4. Think Beyond Your Primary Service

Ballet Austin not only hosts ballets throughout the year, but also has Pilates and ballet classes for adults and children. Many museums and zoos offer summer camps for children. A lot of art museums will host special film screenings in their theater. Offering programs that are related to your main programming can be a great source of additional revenue—and also spread your mission in new ways to new audiences. 

5. Get Interactive

One of my favorite Austin traditions is the FronteraFest Short Fringe festival at Hyde Park Theatre. During January and February, they feature a series of short plays nightly, and the audience gets to vote on their favorite. Winners get to perform again in a special Saturday night showcase. These events are always packed, not only because it’s a great way to see some emerging art, but also because people love to be asked for their opinion. Other ways to promote interactivity include having supporters vote on the name of a new animal at the zoo or on their favorite piece of art, or go on a scavenger hunt through the exhibits. How can you get creative to improve interaction with your patrons? 

6. Make It Easy

No matter what you decide to do, it should be easy for people to attend! Ensure sign-up (and registration, when applicable) is easy and forgiving. Nobody wants to click through a million pages to sign up for an event, and the likelihood of someone registering at all drops precipitously if the registration link doesn’t work or points them to the wrong page.

Want more tips and tricks for improving programs at your organization? Blackbaud University has created a new 90-minute Organizational Best Practices workshop (sign in required) on programs just for arts and cultural organizations, Arts and Cultural – Programs. Network and swap ideas with your peers while developing an action plan to start making immediate changes at your organization.

What creative program ideas have you seen or implemented? Share your experiences in the comments below!