The first art museum iPhone app was launched by the Brooklyn Museum in July 2009. Since then, a handful of museums have gotten into the mobile game. General awareness and popularity of a museum does appear to have an influence on the number of people who are engaging with the iPhone app. The Louvre app has 28,895 ratings (average score 3.5 stars) since its launch in March 2010. The iPhone app created for the Yves Klein (a modern artist with less mainstream appeal) special exhibit at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., launched in June 2010 and has 16 ratings (average score 4 stars). However, popularity is no guarantee that an art museum will have an app—both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in D.C. have not yet created apps.

Three challenges that museums face when developing an app are the cost, how much content to include and how it impacts the bottom line. Art museums typically don’t have the in-house expertise, budget and staff to create an iPhone app. The Brooklyn Museum’s app was created for free by an outside developer; the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) app received generous support from Bloomberg. Art museum development offices could leverage an iPhone app sponsorship as a way to attract forward-thinking donors. A number of app development agencies such as Toura and Antenna Audio offer more off-the-shelf solutions that can help minimize costs and speed time to market.

Art museums have an enormous amount of content, and deciding what to include in an app can be daunting. The MoMA app offers access to 32,000 works of art while the Louvre offers approximately two dozen of its most well known works. MoMA, the Uffizi in Florence, and the National Gallery in London offer customized tours for different visitors (children, visually impaired) and artistic themes. The content should enhance the experience of looking at the art in person—visitors should not be so distracted by the app that they fail to look at the art itself. All of the apps offer visitor information, including museum hours, calendar of events, admission, location and museum maps.

For museums that offer their iPhone apps free of charge, the apps can help to raise a museum’s profile with tech-savvy visitors as well as the general public. Attracting more visitors can lead to increases in revenue from admissions, gift shops and concessions. For paid iPhone apps (The National Gallery London $2.99, Uffizi $1.99 and Yves Klein at the Hirshhorn $1.99), the price is an additional income stream. Finally, while harder to measure, having an iPhone app is an opportunity for PR and can convey that a museum embraces new technology.

Implications and Action Items

With projections that half of mobile users will be using Web-enabled devices by Q4 2011, it’s not too early for art museums to begin thinking about how they may want to integrate an iPhone app into their program. Art museums can approach an iPhone app in a number of ways. All of the options listed below should include visitor information such as hours, admission, events calendar, location and maps in addition to the content.

  • Launch an app for a special exhibit. It’s a great opportunity to test the waters and gain experience. In addition, the narrow focus of a special exhibit lends itself to a more manageable scope.
  • Create an app with selected works. Rather than provide access to thousands of works of art, offer detailed information for the “best of” the permanent collection. Often, these are the works that many visitors are drawn to anyway. Culling visitor research data may offer some insights into the pieces that are the most visited.
  • Build a comprehensive, full-experience app. Provide robust access to the museum’s permanent collection, special exhibits, specialized tours and multimedia enhancements.
  • Consider using an iPhone app as an opportunity for sponsorship and/or charitable giving.

Author: Kara Reinsel, RTC Relationship Marketing