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The curious fixation of the Rodin Chaser: a museum's proactive strategy heads off potentially damaging media coverage.

Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, is one of Canada's largest and most entrepreneurial museums, welcoming more than 160,000 visitors every year. Home to an art gallery, a library and archives, the museum presents three major temporary exhibitions annually. In 2004-2005, one of these exhibitions was Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession, Sculpture from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, which was traveling from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation in Los Angeles, home to the largest private collection of Rodin works in the world. It was the first Rodin exhibit to come to Calgary, and Glenbow Museum was the first Canadian venue for the exhibition on its North American tour.

Several months before the exhibition opened, the Cantor Foundation advised the museum that the Calgary media would likely be contacted by Gary Arseneau, an artist and gallery owner from Florida and a self-proclaimed crusader on a mission to expose supposed art fraud. Previously, Arseneau had contacted the media in cities where the Rodin exhibit was to be held with claims that some of the casts were fraudulent replicas being passed off as originals. Arseneau's efforts generated negative media coverage and raised questions about the role of museums in producing culturally authentic experiences. While most art experts, scholars and museum curators dismiss Arseneau's claims, the allegations could divert attention from the true value of the exhibition and the goal of presenting the work of a remarkable artist whose work had a huge impact on the course of modern art.

Glenbow's communication team needed to protect the museum's reputation and to communicate with key audiences that the upcoming Rodin exhibition was authentic. The sculptures in Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession were original, cast either during Rodin's lifetime or post-humously according to the artist's explicit wishes and instructions to the French government, and now overseen by the Musee Rodin in Paris. All the bronzes in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collection and Foundation were vetted by the world's leading expert on Rodin, the late Dr. Albert Elsen of Stanford University.

Rather than waiting for possible controversy, Glenbow Museum decided to take a proactive approach by getting to the media first, thereby not only developing pre-exhibition interest but also controlling the message before Arseneau contacted the media. Calling Arseneau the "Rodin Chaser," the communication team carefully crafted a media advisory to let local media know they could expect to hear from him. The intention was to beat him to the punch.

Objectives

The museum's first goal was to maintain its reputation as a leading cultural institution, reaching Glenbow's media contacts prior to the Rodin Chaser and controlling the media message in a proactive manner.

The team also aimed to create awareness and understanding about issues of authenticity in the art world through media coverage, with a specific focus on print media in Calgary's two daily newspapers, the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun.

Lastly, as part of the overall objectives for the Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession exhibition, the museum set a goal of meeting an exhibition attendance target of 27,600 and a revenue target of CDN$200,200.

Solution and implementation

Because of the complexity of the casting process and the issues surrounding authenticity, Glenbow's staff began by conducting informal research. They learned that Arseneau previously targeted daily newspapers in the host venue's city and usually contacted the media within two weeks of the exhibition openings. They needed to advise the media of Arseneau's intentions earlier than this.

The team also researched previous media coverage on the authenticity of Rodin sculptures. In 2001, a controversy erupted over a Rodin exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. The ROM received negative media coverage about the authenticity of the sculptures in this exhibit, which were not authorized by the Musee Rodin. The Musee Rodin denounced the works in the ROM's exhibition. However, the bronzes in Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession were made and authorized by the Musee Rodin, in accordance with Rodin's will.

Following the research phase 10 weeks prior to the exhibit's opening, the team developed a media advisory, a backgrounder on authenticity and a fact sheet. The media strategy was discussed with the President's Office of Glenbow Museum, and the background materials were distributed internally via e-mail to all Glenbow staff five weeks prior to the opening. The materials were sent to the visitor services staff, who deal with frontline queries; the curators and conservators, who oversee all curatorial content; and the fund development staff, to ensure that exhibition sponsors were aware of the media strategy. Specific questions pertaining to the casting process would be referred to the art curator rather than the president, given the level of detail required. All media queries and interview opportunities about the Rodin Chaser would be coordinated by Glenbow's communications specialist.

After the internal stakeholders were informed, the media advisory with the accompanying backgrounder was distributed to key Calgary media contacts, with phone followup. The media had not yet heard from Gary Arseneau.

Media coverage on the Rodin Chaser began shortly after Glenbow's advisory was distributed. Three weeks afterward, Arseneau sent a 15-page e-mail to more than 90 contacts at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Glenbow Museum. Arseneau was very surprised by Glenbow's proactive approach, and stated so in some of the subsequent media coverage. By this point, the media were well informed of Glenbow's position. Glenbow's art curator, Monique Westra, had a number of opportunities to address Arseneau's claims about authenticity in the media and to reaffirm Glenbow's good reputation.

Measurement and evaluation

As a result of the team's efforts, Glenbow contacted the media three weeks in advance of Arseneau, giving the museum the opportunity to generate the story rather than be the story. The success of the media strategy led other museums and art galleries in North America to implement similar practices for other exhibitions of Rodin sculptures, including those at the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia; The Detroit Institute of Arts; the University of Kentucky Art Museum; the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in Bellingham, Washington; and the Pensacola Museum of Art in Florida.

The Rodin Chaser media strategy was featured in a number of news outlets, surpassing the initial goal of coverage in Calgary's two main papers. Coverage included features in the Calgary Herald (three times), Calgary Sun, Edmonton Sun, Mount Royal College Journal and Fast Forward Weekly.

The museum exceeded its attendance goal with 49,366 visitors (79 percent over target) and generated CDN$277,444 in revenue (39 percent over target) during the exhibition run.

Tanis Shortt is a communications specialist at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. She and colleagues Monique Westra, art curator, and Stephen Dundas Smith, project manager, created the Rodin Chaser media strategy with support from Judith Sobol, executive director of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation in Los Angeles.
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Title Annotation:Glenbow Museum
Author:Shortt, Tanis
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1139
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