Note: Updated Nov. 10

This weekend (Nov. 10), the largest American survey of Chinese Contemporary Art ever presented opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,” Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” As part of that exhibition—but not solely tied to it— SFMoMA is rolling out a multi-pronged, unprecedented museum marketing and education campaign aimed at welcoming Chinese visitors.

The global cultural industry, from art museums to orchestras, appears to be preparing itself. The massive increase in Chinese outbound travel, and the likelihood that the influx of culture-loving tourists will only grow in coming years, is going to have an impact on revenues and attendance at many of the world’s cultural institutions.

In that climate, the Bay Area insitution’s ramped-up effort to attract Chinese visitors—with initiatives ranging from a social media WeChat mini-program to strategic hiring of Mandarin speakers—is something that other cultural institutions could learn from.

“Our main goal has been to work on broadening brand awareness so that SFMoMA will be on traveler’s minds when visiting from China,” SFMoMA’s Manager of Tourism and Group Sales, Lesley Makishima, explained. While wooing the local Asian-American community to SFMoMA is also key, museum officials say they really want to tap into the booming market of travelers streaming out of mainland China.

Chen Shaoxiong

“5 Hours” by Chen Shaoxiong. Photo courtesy SFMoMA

It’s a relatively new marketing arena for an American museum, so SFMoMA tasked a tourism team with finding fresh ways to reach out. “We are working directly with China-based operators, including a lot of trade shows,” said Makishima, who joined the museum last year and had previously worked in tourism for Macy’s and Hilton Hotels.

An effective vehicle for the museum’s outreach has been the city’s destination marketing group, SFTravel. “We went with SFTravel to China,” said Makishima. “SFTravel also has reps in China that reach out for media tours to promote inbound travel. We’ve been very involved with them.”

SFMoMA recruited destination marketing group SFTravel to help promote the museum in China

The initiative includes putting museum promotion onto SFTravel’s Chinese social media accounts this past year, specifically Weibo and WeChat. SFMoMA has also gotten on SFTravel’s platform for Ctrip, the leading Chinese online booking platform. But the museum wanted to push their online presence beyond SFTravel’s scope, so they opened their own Weibo and WeChat channels in July and hired staff to operate the platforms and a consultant to create updated content for the pages.

Lesley Makishima

SFMoMA’s Manager of Tourism and Group Sales Lesley Makishima

In July, the museum had about 100 WeChat followers and 150 on rival Weibo, but since then followers have doubled on WeChat and quadrupled on Weibo. “We’re hoping for 500 and 2,000 by the end of the year,” the tourism head said. The team has launched a self-guided audio tour on WeChat in Mandarin and is working on the logistics of SFMoMA merchandise sales through Chinese mobile payment platforms like Alibaba’s Alipay and WeChat Pay.

So far, much of the initial feedback SFMoMA has gotten from their trips and research, both locally and in China, has centered around tourists wanting museum material and guided tours translated into Mandarin. So the museum decided to hire two full-time, Mandarin-speaking museum guides who will be available for all of the museum’s shows, not just the China show. (Indeed, museum officials say they first saw a marked demand for Mandarin tours for a architecture exhibition they did months ago.)

The SFMoMA has reason to hope for a blockbuster. A Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition exploring Chinese influence on the history of fashion attracted a record 816,000 visitors in a four-month run that had to be extended twice. The 2016 exhibition, “China Through the Looking Glass” and its success were seen by the South China Morning Post as “proof of the nation’s increasing clout in the west.”

SFMoMA hopes to replicate the success the Metropolitan Museum of Art had with its 2016 exhibition on Chinese fashion that attracted 816,000 visitors

The “Theater of the World” exhibition, according to the SFMoMA, is a survey of works by 60 artists and artist groups, produced roughly between 1989 and 2008. In 2017, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum hosted the original “Theater of the World,” curated by Alexandra Munroe, which is about the transformation of China into an economic superpower. (Somewhat controversially, a trio of Chinese contemporary artworks featuring live animals or depicting aggressive animal behavior, were censored in New York and are shown similarly neutered in SF.)

The exhibition runs through February 24, 2019.

SF MoMA store

The SFMoMA gift shop now accepts mobile payments. Photo credit © Henrik Kam 2017










Museum Experts’ Marketing Tips:

  • Use Chinese social media channels
  • Update Mandarin web content regularly to encourage repeat visits
  • Stock a varied inventory of higher-priced merchandise in the gift shop: Chinese tourists traditionally bring back lush gifts and souvenirs
  • Work directly with China’s tour operators
  • Don’t limit outreach to one exhibition
  • Make  buying exhibition tickets and purchases in the gift shop easy by accepting online mobile payments


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