An unexpected alliance of art and social science

By Susan Rosegrant
September 13, 2013

Universities foster odd bedfellows.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) wanted to do a survey of visitors to one of its major exhibitions.

The Program in Survey Methodology (PSM) at the university’s Institute for Social Research was looking to give its students real-life survey experiences.

A perfect match.

In all started in late spring. UMMA was putting the finishing touches on a curated exhibit for the summer: Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930. Noguchi, a young and rising American sculptor, and Qi Baishi, a renowned Chinese ink painter, met in Beijing in 1930. The relationship changed Noguchi’s artistic vision, a transformation that is clear in examples of both artists’ work from that period.

As part of the exhibition, UMMA wanted to ask visitors about their experience. Potential funders often require evidence of an evaluation method to show that the exhibits they fund are having an impact, according to Carrie Throm, UMMA’s deputy director of development and external relations.

A UMMA visitor responds to a survey about her experience at the museum. The survey was designed and conducted by PSM students. Photo by Eva Menezes/ISR.

A UMMA visitor responds to a survey about her experience at the museum. The survey was designed and conducted by PSM students. Photo by Eva Menezes/ISR.

And the museum needs to conduct surveys to improve its offerings, and even to gather basic information about who comes to the museum and why. “Since we are a free admission museum, we do not capture information on a regular basis about the kinds of people that visit us—demographic information, zip codes, gender,” Throm says. “So it’s very important for us to be able to speak to the people that we are serving.”

UMMA wanted this survey to be a little different. Instead of paper forms, most visitors would answer questions on an iPad. But as the May 18 start of the exhibition approached, UMMA still hadn’t found someone to design and conduct the survey. Enter Jim Lepkowski, research professor and former director of PSM. “We were talking to a woman at a survey company, and she said, ‘Well, I know Jim over there, and he may know of somebody who could do that kind of work,’” explains Sydney Hawkins, UMMA’s communications marketing manager.

Lepkowski did. Mingnan Liu, a third year doctoral student at PSM, agreed to take on the project with the help of six PSM master’s students—three to work on survey design and three to help administer the survey. UMMA would pay $3,500 to cover student data collection time and analysis.

Liu had worked on surveys before, but never under such a tight deadline. They had three weeks to draw the sample, write and pretest a questionnaire, program the iPad, and train interviewers. “It happened really fast,” he says.

PSM students Yuan Zhang and Qiaoxian Hu assist a survey respondent. Photo by Eva Menezes/ISR.

PSM students Yuan Zhang and Qiaoxian Hu assist a survey respondent. Photo by Eva Menezes/ISR.

During the 15 weeks of the exhibition, two volunteers at a time—drawn from a larger group— put in periodic shifts at the museum’s doors to ask departing visitors for feedback. The survey, which took about three minutes to complete, asked 21 questions: What was the main reason you decided to visit the Museum today? How did you hear about the U of M Museum of Art? What kind of art and exhibitions would you like to see more of in the future? Visitors who toured the Noguchi/Qi Baishi exhibition were asked to rate it: the images, the text, the layout, and even the exhibition’s story. (A U-M alumnus and art collector brought the two artists together in Beijing.)

When the exhibit closed at the end of August, Liu had 433 survey responses. (Almost one quarter were completed on paper; some respondents did not want to use the iPad or all the tablets were in use.) Respondents received an UMMA tote bag as a gift.

Liu expects to complete his survey analysis by early October. He says he was glad to work on the project. “It’s a learning experience,” he says. “I learned how to use the software to program the questionnaire, which is cool.” He also visited the exhibition once himself. “I don’t know about the Japanese guy, but the Chinese one—everybody in China knows him.”

UMMA, meanwhile, is looking forward to learning what the survey will reveal. And Throm calls the PSM collaboration an all-out success—an experience UMMA would like to repeat. “Feedback has been very positive internally about the process,” Throm says. “It feels like a natural partnership.”

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