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Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York and the Challenge of a Rural Art Museum

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Rural art museums face distinct challenges when it comes to building audiences for exhibitions and programs. Unlike our counterparts located in urban areas or population centers, rural art museums must compel their audience to travel a good distance to partake of their offerings, and they must tailor their exhibitions and programs to the particular patterns favored by those travelers. At the same time, they must do so while building a donor and sponsorship base that is likewise not local or at least only seasonal.

Several years ago these challenges appeared to be worsening for the Fenimore Art Museum with no upturn in sight. Attendance had eroded slowly over the course of a decade, and our Central New York region had suffered economic decline and the subsequent loss of population. We clearly needed a change in strategy.

The approach we took had two basic components: collaborate with other area non-profits and shape a series of American art exhibitions to fit the needs of current and would-be visitors to Cooperstown.

For the 2010 season, we worked with an outside art historian, Patricia Hills of Boston University (and my former graduate school professor) to create a small exhibition of works by John Singer Sargent. Our theme, Sargent's portraits of women, had never been shown in a museum setting. The combination of having a first-rate scholar and a new approach got us the loans we needed to stage a 20-painting exhibition in a 1,500-square-foot gallery. This was a far cry from the 100-painting retrospectives commonly seen in larger art museums, but for our audience it was perfect. We offered an exhibition with a brand name artist that could be viewed in an hour to an hour-and-a-half. This gave visitors time to view other areas of the museum, enjoy a leisurely lunch, explore Cooperstown, or attend an opera matinee at the Glimmerglass Festival nearby. We promoted this exhibition extensively and strategically, most notably during a multi-day media tour in New York City, the origin of many of our summer visitors. The quality of the product captured the attention of art and travel writers as well as our visitors. The result was a 10 to 15 percent increase in paid attendance.

In 2011 we went a step further. The Glimmerglass Festival had hired a new Artistic Director, Francesca Zambello, who was enthusiastic about collaborating with us to generate a higher level of excitement and awareness about our seasons. The Festival's 2011 season included an opera inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper entitled "Later the Same Evening," so we went to work on a Hopper exhibition that would be on the same scale as Sargent. Fortunately, another former professor from Boston University was a Hopper scholar, Carol Troyen of the Museum of Fines Arts Boston. Our subsequent exhibition, "A Window into Edward Hopper," offered opera-goers insight into the artist's formative years in painting, drawing, and etching. In addition, we collaborated on discount coupons that were distributed at our respective box offices along with that of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art in nearby Utica, whose exhibition "Prendergast to Pollock" we featured that summer. Again backed by an aggressive public relations campaign, the response was beyond our expectations: the Hopper exhibition actually drew a bigger audience than Sargent by about another 10 percent.

Importantly, the spirit of collaboration generated a lot of excitement and positive feelings about our two organizations and our commitment to working together. This new partnership promises even greater results this year. Our exhibitions staff has worked with Glimmerglass and the Metropolitan Opera to present two exhibits highlighting the Met's collection of costumes and props from historic productions of Aida and Armide. Visitors to Cooperstown will now gain a richer experience by watching those operas performed at Glimmerglass and coming to the museum to see their illustrious history on stage.

But there's more. This year we also worked closely with the Arkell Museum at Canajoharie to showcase their renowned collection by building a strikingly beautiful exhibition of American Impressionism around a core group of paintings from their permanent collection. To these we have added loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others to create "American Impressionism: Paintings of Light and Life." This exhibition features Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman and many of the other American Impressionists whose expressive and colorful works remain with us as reminders of the endless and idyllic summer. What better way to enjoy the beauty of Cooperstown and Otsego Lake on a lovely day in July or August?

In general, the approach that worked involved the knowledge of our visitation patterns gleaned from a variety of audience surveys conducted over the years by both independent agencies researching tourism in the region and our own volunteers studying the people who came to our doorstep. Our method of tailoring a well-publicized must-see product to fit into an archetypical "perfect day" consisting of art, opera, scenery, and food proved to be the formula for moving attendance numbers, at least for now. Our hope is that the increased exposure to the museum's magnificent permanent collections, which are always on view and include the incomparable Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art and one of the best American folk art collections in the country, will gradually build the base audience for the museum. While reinvigorating a small rural art museum in an economically challenged region is a satisfying accomplishment, we recognize the need for an open-minded approach to the unknown future needs of residents and visitors of Central New York.

Dr. Paul D'Ambrosio is President and CEO of Fenimore Art Museum & The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York