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Museum uses “virtual” membership to build college-age patron base


At exam time, the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA) window-lit café fills up fast with local college students, armed with laptops and change for coffee.

Museum staff could not be happier.

“They’re welcome here seven days a week. It doesn’t cost them a thing,” says Janice Henry, who oversees College Town, FIA’s free, online membership initiative targeting the city of Flint, Michigan’s more than 29,000 college and university students.

The brainchild of FIA Director John Henry, College Town is a collaborative effort to connect the 81-year-old art museum with younger audiences. College Town membership enables students from Flint’s Baker College, Kettering University, Mott Community College and the UM-Flint to enjoy all the benefits offered to full members, minus monthly postal mailings. That means free admission to special exhibits, discounted admission to FIA’s weekly film offerings, special fundraising activities and opening night events.

Flint Institute of ArtsMore than 3,000 students have participated in College Town since its start-up in 2007. More than 800 have signed up for the 2009-10 academic year, exceeding previous year’s benchmarks. Janice Henry is hoping enrollment will reach at least 2,000. She’s working with FIA’s student advisory board to develop a variety of low-cost events to entice more students to venture out into the community — particularly to the city’s tree-filled, 30-acre cultural center campus that has been FIA’s home since 1958.

“It’s a work in progress,” says Henry. “What we’ve learned over the past two years is that we are the only art museum in the state reaching out to the college population in this way — we may be the only museum in the country with a formal membership program for students at four colleges.”

Eager to promote Flint’s budding reputation as a college town, the presidents and chancellors of each of four local colleges and universities have been enthusiastic founding partners, promoting College Town on their individual campuses and this year, kicking in $2,500 each to start a “college night” film series at FIA.

“They’ve been very interested and supportive from the start,” says Janice Henry of university faculty and staff, who also are eligible for virtual membership. One of the most exciting outcomes of College Town is “Let’s go Arts!” a new general education course developed to introduce University of Michigan-Flint (UM-Flint) students to arts venues and activities off campus in Flint.

The FIA absorbs the entire cost of College Town, supporting the program through small grants from local individuals or family trusts. The Mott Foundation, which has supported the museum since 1928, granted the institution $1 million in operating support in 2009.

Initially, Flint’s resident student population, which has grown significantly with the opening of several new dormitories and loft apartment buildings within walking distance of the museum, was FIA’s target audience. But commuter students — who frequently have time to kill between classes — represent a growing percentage of College Town’s membership as well.

The student presence adds a lot of life and energy to FIA’s newly renovated and expanded facility, much to the delight of long-time members and benefactors, who find it “gratifying to walk into the building and see young people,” says Henry.

“College Town makes the opportunities available through an art museum accessible to the busy schedules of college students. The length to which the Flint Institute of Arts has gone in order to engage the local college community is truly phenomenal.” “Our selfish motive is to build a cultural community for the future. College students are the last hurrah — if we don’t engage them, we’ll lose them forever.”

Adding college-age members to FIA’s advisory board has invigorated the museum’s programming as well. Students encouraged the museum to extend gallery hours on Thursday evenings through 9 p.m. and launch the free “College Night Film Series.”

“We love this age group — they’re full of ideas that have helped us expand our appeal to other audiences. They’re very connected — they’ve turned out to be great promoters for us.”

As a result of the relationships built through FIA’s student advisory group, an informal intercollegiate student council has emerged, bridging the interests of each campus.

“We have four very different sets of students in Flint,” said Henry. “Traditionally, they don’t socialize on each other’s campuses, but that’s beginning to change. The intercollegiate council is a way for students to begin reaching across those boundaries.

“We’re ambitious. We’re trying to come up with an annual ‘mega’ event that will bring everyone together early in the year. Right now, each of the campuses operates their own ‘Relay for Life’ event. We’re hoping to consolidate efforts — run the marathon through the Cultural Center and maybe keep the buildings open all night for the occasion.”

Lauren Buswell, a student representative on the College Town advisory board for the past year-and-a-half, says the experience has opened her eyes to what the city has to offer.

“Before learning about College Town, I had never ventured much beyond the boundaries of the UM-Flint campus.

“College Town makes the opportunities available through an art museum accessible to the busy schedules of college students. The length to which the Flint Institute of Arts has gone in order to engage the local college community is truly phenomenal.”