The Dallas Museum of Art's New, Uncharted Course is About a Lot More Than Being Free

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Mark Graham
DMA Director Maxwell Anderson
As the announcement sunk in, so did comprehension: The Dallas Museum of Art will do away with general admission fees and offer free memberships beginning in January of 2013. But how?

The last 10 months of Maxwell Anderson's stint in the director's chair have been a barrage of smaller successes that, when laced together, form a financially sound institution devoted to self-reliance. Grant funding for new projects now reaches into the multimillion dollar range, allowing for expansion of the building's physical space, the DMA's technological reach and the diversity of its collection, which before Anderson took office tipped too heavily toward modern art.

These individual announcements now lay face up on the table, and they look a lot like winning hand. Combined with free admission, they will lead to visitation increasing next year. And the museum has carefully positioned itself to accommodate a larger, and more diverse, audience than ever before.

But the most thrilling card hasn't been played, and that's because it doesn't exist. Not yet. Not anywhere.

"We're building it ourselves." Anderson tells the Observer. "And it will be open-source and offered for free to any other museum that would like to use it."

He's speaking of an interactive program the museum is building that will thread throughout all points of museum communication -- so intricate it will require the diligence of two new, full-time software developers. Its limits are currently unknown, but conceptually it has the potential to self-study and mold central aspects of cultural interactivity.

Some goals are more easily identifiable than others, but all will weave through the Dashboard tool and website. Soon you -- and the museum staff -- will be able to access Dashboard and check out how many people, exactly, are in the museum at that time. But as the technology behind it advances, so will the layering of detail.

"We'll be building an interactive map so that you'll be able to see, in real time, what zip codes people are from," says Anderson. Merge that with census data and you've got the socioeconomic status and background details of who's taking advantage of the services being offered. And, more importantly, who isn't.

"Pretty soon we'll get a good picture of who's not visiting us," says Anderson, "which is what I really want to know."

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