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Art Institute of Chicago CMO Speaks to MSLCE students about Van Gogh’s Bedrooms and Marketing for Nonprofits

By Zach Hyman

You may have seen the buzz all over the Chicago social sphere – Vincent van Gogh is at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” an exhibit featuring the tortured artist’s three interpretations of his chambre in Arles, has run through most of spring and will continue until May 10.

In a special presentation to our Marketing Strategy class, Art Institute Chief Marketing Officer Gordon Montgomery brought an insider perspective on Van Gogh and nonprofit marketing. His main challenge? Bringing “for-profit experience” to a Chicago cultural mainstay.

“They were awash in data without a sense of how to use it,” said Montgomery. “But people enjoy success. Everybody wants to be on a winning team.” The Art Institute, as a nonprofit, mission-driven institution, will host exhibits that aren’t meant to make money – which means Montgomery needs to stay flexible when working with the curation staff.

The museum’s exhibitions themselves, though, are meticulously planned out years in advance. Montgomery rates each one’s likely performance based on recognizability of names and images, assigning a Large, Medium, or Small rating. “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” which draws in over 4800 visitors per day, would be “a double XL, or even a triple.”

Montgomery worked with creative agency Leo Burnett to design a promotional campaign around the bedroom as an intimate and personal space. Their print ads were only one step of the puzzle, Montgomery explained: “Digital activates the print space and brings it to life.”

The most viral aspect of the marketing campaign was a unique Airbnb experience where visitors could literally spend the night in the infamous bedroom for only ten dollars. The end result – over half a billion media impressions and $5 million in publicity value – was far beyond original predictions.

Six weeks before the exhibit closes, the Art Institute has already exceeded their paid attendance goal and racked up record-breaking press coverage. Montgomery’s keys to success: “Do your homework, be disciplined in your decision-making, and it’s amazing how far you’ll get.”

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