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LOW PROFILE The Selling of the DMA

Can marketing whiz Pam Wendland do for art what she did for Slurpees?
By Kimberly Goad |

IT’S THE LAST WEEK IN JULY-months before an exhibit called Black Art-Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art opens at the Dallas Museum of Art in December-and Pam Wendland has called a meeting to discuss the marketing strategy for the upcoming show. Black Art combines pieces from the museum’s permanent collection with those of private lenders, and Philip Morris, the sponsor, has provided an ample budget for national exposure. But the DMA has to rely on what Wendland calls a “grass-roots effort” to spread the word locally.

One brazen strategy involves tours conducted by high-profile black personali-ties. Names like Clarice Tinsley, John McCaa, and Rolando Blackman are tossed about. Alvia Wardlaw, the exhibit’s chief curator, says she knows of a Dallas Cowboys player who has an African-American art collection. He should be called.

Then, suddenly, everyone in the room begins to question the validity of substituting big names for the museum’s trained docents. Celebrity tours are a great marketing tool, but the fear is that they compromise the exhibit’s educational aspects. A compromise: the celebrities will be paired with trained museum docents.

“There’s the scholarly side and you have to maintain the integrity of that,” Wendland says later. “We were afraid the celebrities would feel uncomfortable.” Wendland admits that even she had trouble “imagining a basketball player taking the time to learn about an exhibition in the middle of the season.”

But unexpected twists are an old trick of the ad trade, and Pam Wendland, at thirty, is fast becoming a whiz. As the first-ever marketing manager of the Dallas Museum of Art, it’s Wendland’s job to tackle the museum’s identity crisis, discovered last year when a study by The Getty Center for Education in the Arts revealed that the museum suffers from startling image problems.

DMA director Richard R. Brettell lured Wendland away from Southland Corporation last spring in hopes that she could do for the museum what she’d done for Southland during 7-Eleven’s “Red Hot Summer.” As project manager in the Advertising Development group of the company’s marketing department, it was Wendland’s job to help create an identity for Southland’s national products. When Southland brought together two of 7-Eleven’s signature products (hot dog and Slurpee) with two national brands (Oscar Mayer and Coca-Cola) summer before last, Wendland helped devise the marketing campaigns that would go on to become two of Southland’s most successful: “Slurp! The Real Thing” and “Oscar Mayer Big Bite.” Hot dog sales jumped 42 percent and some 10 million Coca-Cola Slurpees were sold nationwide within the first four months.

The Dallas Museum of Art, meanwhile, was in need of a jolt of mass culture itself. When the DMA moved into its prestigious new $50 million Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed home in 1984, it was heralded as the cornerstone of downtown’s burgeoning Arts District. More than 14,000 people stepped through the museum’s doors on opening day. Overall attendance the first, year more than doubted and membership tripled. It seemed that Dallas, never a museum-going kind of town, was changing its ways.

Yet, five years later, the DMA finds itself with serious perception problems. When The Getty Center conducted focus groups for the museum last spring, the number of people unaware of the museum’s existence was shockingly high. Those who did know the museum and had visited it at least once in the last year saw the institution as little more than a showpiece, there in a pinch for out-of-town visitors who want to do something Dallas-y, but of scant practical value otherwise. Worse still, a substantial percentage of those who know of the museum-but have never actually visited it-believe the museum is still located in its former quarters at Fair Park. (Which may explain why the DMA received an average of thirty-five phone calls a day from people looking for information on Ramses the Great while it was temporarily housed in the Automobile -Building, which is in Fair Park.)

If The Getty Center is any judge and it’s true that the museum “doesn’t exist in the minds of most people,” as Richard Brettell puts it, it’s not a problem unique to Dallas. Fact is, the DMA-like other museums and cultural institutions-is competing for its audience against such late-20th-century pastimes as football games, television, radio, and, alas, shopping malls. Sure, the museum is a popular enough sort of place to visit when, say, a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit comes to town (Georgia O’Keeffe: 1887-1986, in fact, attracted a record-breaking 206,000 people during its eleven-week run last year). But according to the Getty study, few people are aware of the museum’s gift shop, Gallery Buffet restaurant, its Sunday movies, children’s programs, brown-bag lecture series, or its permanent collections-including what Brettell believes are “world-class collections” of modern art, American decorative arts, American paintings and sculpture, contemporary art, African art, pre-Columbian art, textiles, and impressionist and modern European paintings.

“We can’t just be a beautiful place that people come to. We are a major cultural resource, and in order to broaden our audience we need to think of our audience as a shopping mall or any other concern might,” Brettell says. “We need to create a higher profile for our [permanent] collection and our activities. We need to analyze our strategy of attracting people, work on our profile of the audiences, and then work on a positive way of expanding. The Kimbell, the Amon Carter, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the Meadows Museum all have very restricted and clearly defined specialties. We don’t have one specialty. We’re about breadth and >wide coverage. The three museums in Fort Worth have enormous private endowments. In a funny way, they don’t need the public as much as we do. We have to be user-friendly.”

So, boldly following in the footsteps of The Art Institute of Chicago (Brettell’s former home as Searle curator for European painting), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the DMA has enlisted a marketing manager to, as Wendland sees it, “create an identity for the museum and market that identity.

“We’re making a big effort to bring the museum into the mainstream,” says the Arkansas transplant. “The museum is a living, breathing, growing thing. It won’t be the same five years from now as it is today because we’re always trying to adapt to the community’s needs- Populations are growing, family structures and lifestyles are changing dramatically, and we have to adapt and change for that.”

Wendland’s commitment to making the museum as accessible as, say, an Oscar Mayer Big Bite comes from more than a drive to succeed. Her mother’s philosophy-based on “an unquestioned understanding that the museum, the theater, the symphony are for the community”-has become her own. “She raised me not to have prejudices, to see that cultural events are not for the elite,” she says.

For a while there, in the Sixties, her mother, Mrs. Willa Zitomer, seemed to be behind every cultural cause in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She founded the city park and the Community Arts Center, which houses a neighborhood theater center. It was from this Community Arts Center that she launched the Beaux Arts Ball as an annual fundraiser. (She later was very involved with the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.) Not surprisingly, Pam and her two sisters regularly auditioned for the plays, took ballet lessons, and entered the arts center competitions-the results of which are still framed and displayed like fine art throughout her parents’ home.

In another household, her artistic bent might have been considered nothing more than part of a well-rounded upbringing, but Wendland says it was always understood that she’d make her career in the arts. She studied graphic design at TCU (where she earned a bachelor of fine arts) and at East Texas State University, where she spent a year taking graduate classes. She credits her instructors at ETSU for showing her how to visually communicate any given concept, be it Coca-Cola Slurpee or an exhibition of fine art. Though it was called “creative problem solving” in college, she now refers to it as her “little formula.”

Rather than rely on the classic museum approach-enlarging a major piece from an exhibit with the title and dates printed across the bottom-Wendland puts ads together “in your old advertising way” casting herself as creative director and hiring a copywriter and designer. “I don’t know that the museum has ever hired a copywriter before, but I wanted perfect advertising headlines,” she says.

“The museum’s identity needs to be a cross between the importance of the works of art and scholars that are here [and] the importance of the role the community plays in allowing works of art to be exhibited and programs to happen,” says Wendland. “There’s the human side of it and the scholarly side of it, and one can’t happen without the other.”

WHEN A5KED IF SHE HA5 VET TO FEEL THE CONstraints inherent in working at any nonprofit institution, Wendland answers with a resolute “no.” In fact, she sees little difference in working for the DMA and a large corporation like Southland. “I haven’t lessened my stress load. Basically, the museum is this large corporation, but with fewer people who aren’t being paid as much. There’s this feeling that you’re producing something worthwhile, that you’re giving something important back to the community. With Coca-Cola Slurpee there’s certainly a sense that you’ve done a job well, that you’ve moved your company forward, but you’re bringing it to the public from a bottom-line basis. That’s not true of the museum.

“Look at New York and how people interact with museums,” Wendland says, recalling a summer she spent there following graduation. “They couldn’t live there without those museums-it’s so difficult and harsh. To walk inside a museum and have beauty and education and even social interaction is survival. You have more options here, but look at how much more urban we’ve become. You’re never going to make Manhattan Island out of Dallas, Texas, but at the same time you can integrate the museum with lifestyles.”

If you’re one of those people who wishesthey knew more about the Dallas Museum ofArt, you can call 922-1200 for informationon upcoming events.