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The Culturephiles

When in doubt, bring in the cats

How the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa is Transforming Experiences with Feline Intervention

Andrew Recinoa

Andrew RecinosPresident, Tessitura Network

TitleWhen in doubt, bring in the cats

Published12/16/2020

Read/View Time7 min


Since the start of the pandemic, Tessitura has talked with thousands of cultural professionals about their challenges and successes. We have synthesized our learnings into Six Traits of Forward-Looking Cultural Organizations. This post is about Trait 6: They Transform Experiences.

Of all six traits, I think this one is the top indicator of success on the other side of the pandemic. While expanding and strengthening relationships with audiences and streamlining operations are critical to survival, the ability to rethink the delivery of your mission points to an even higher level of innovation.

One of my favorite examples of Transforming Experiences comes from the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Transforming Experiences is….?

What do I mean by transforming experiences? I define this as delivering your art and culture in a novel way. When the Austin Opera takes a traditional staging of Schubert’s Winter’s Tale and reimagines it as an immersive reality film, that is a transformed experience. It is still Schubert. It is still opera. But the experience is transformed.

The Philbrook Garden Cats

The Philbrook Museum story begins, as any good story does, with cats. As the pandemic took hold in March, the Philbrook staff held brainstorming session about how to stay connected to their audience. Half-joking, a member of the fundraising team proposed what became "the Garden Cat Pen-pal" program. The Philbrook has a lush 25-acre garden, and it happens to have two garden cats patrolling the perimeters: Perilla and Cleo.

While the entire institution was closed due to COVID, the garden cats became lonely. And so, via social media, the Philbrook invited folks to write letters to the cats. It didn’t matter if you lived in Tulsa or had ever visited. The cats were happy to hear from anyone. With a whimsical campaign, the Philbrook was taking advantage of the moment to Engage all Audiences (Trait 1). More than that, they announced that the cats would write everyone back. They would be full on pen-pals! What better way to Strengthen Relationships (Trait 2)?

The Philbrook was flooded with letters. So many, in fact, that they brought back furloughed staff to help answer them all.

Meanwhile, the Philbrook Online shop sells locally-created merchandise featuring the now famous Garden Cats, providing Revenue Diversity (Trait 3). When the Philbrook did start to reopen in late spring, they began with their gardens, and the cats played a part in that too — serving as models for good safe gathering behavior (Trait 5).

Transforming Experiences at the Philbrook Museum

The museum had created a phenomenon around the cats - so popular that they were profiled in People Magazine. It was whimsical, but also vulnerable and personal. As suggested in this post, utilizing your own rock stars is a way to Strength Relationships through a transformed experience.

 

Just as the Dallas Opera has transformed the experience of understanding opera through the TDO Network, the Philbrook Museum utilized the Garden Cat Pen-pal program to create a new experience they never would have considered without the pandemic. People couldn’t wander their galleries, but they could stay connected to their institution through their feline rock stars.

Shining Example of a Transformed Experience

What began as a fun social media idea became a sensation that engaged new audiences and strengthen relationships with existing ones. The Philbrook staff found many of the letters deeply personal and even cathartic. They profiled one particularly extraordinary letter in an episode of Museum Confidential, their popular podcast.

From their garden to their cats to a two-way dialogue with their community to a podcast, and all of this was done without ever once even referencing a piece of art on the wall of a museum. That, friends, is the definition of Transforming Experiences. A museum that exists to create meaningful connections with humans, regardless of the medium.

All of this was accomplished without ever once even referencing a piece of art on the wall of a museum. That is the definition of Transforming Experiences.

Tessitura and Transforming Experiences

This is the last in my series of posts about the Six Traits of Forward-Thinking Cultural Organizations. From Tessitura's perspective, we stand ready as our industry experiments and innovates. We are proud that one can purchase tickets for the Car Concert series at the Grand Theatre through Tessitura today. We are proud that fundraising for TDO Network at Dallas Opera is being managed through Tessitura. And we are proud that the thousands of Garden Cat pen pal relationships at the Philbrook will be managed through Tessitura, in hopes that those relationships last for a good long time.

In short- we are proud of the thousands of transformed experiences our member organizations are creating all around the world. And like a boxer that stays on their toes to be ready for the next pivot, we await the next transformed experiences that we can support, encourage and deliver.

 

Andrew Recinoa

Andrew Recinos

President

Tessitura Network

Andrew Recinos spend his days in conversation with professionals devoted to advancing the world of arts and culture.

He considers himself very, very lucky.

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