Museums are historical. They are stately, scholarly, quiet, serious — and often about as much fun as hanging out with your stodgiest relative. So it’s hardly surprising that when a loud, laughing, selfie-taking Museum Hack tour group bursts into a gallery, they stick out sharply among the crowds of somber art appreciators. While everyone else is reading plaques, Museum Hack–ers are making up art-inspired songs, inventing romantic backstories about subjects, and trading bits of gossip about vintage scandals.
The tours are lively. They may even be raucous. And they’re drawing growing crowds of nontraditional museumgoers at a time when, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, average adult museum attendance declined by as much as 30 percent between 2002 and 2012. Faced with such decreases, museums are looking for new ideas to entice phone-bound would-be aesthetes off their couches. And Museum Hack tours of iconic museums — from natural history in New York to art in D.C. — are nothing if not refreshingly new.
Launched in 2013 by Brooklyn impresario Nick Gray, Museum Hack wasn’t supposed to be a business. In the beginning, Gray just wanted to go on a third date with a cute girl. He even let her pick the location. She chose a venerable old art museum.
Really, stodgy art on a Saturday night? Not a club or a movie, a restaurant or even a coffee shop? Gray was dubious, but game.
His date had a passion for art, and she led him to her favorite pieces (and past everything else): furniture, paintings, Egyptian artifacts. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and that night, as Gray says in his 2015 TEDx Talk, he fell in love — with the museum.
He returned again and again, captivated by the cavernous and elegant space, doing his own research on the objects that thrilled him. When his sister visited him, he gave her his special tour. His next birthday party was a museum tour, and then his friends demanded a redux, and another, and another… until a local blog picked up the story of the “friend tours,” and overnight, more than 1,000 people emailed Gray to get on the waiting list for the next go-round. Museum Hack was born.
Hosting private shindigs that got public attention wasn’t new for Gray. A 2009 New York Magazine profile, “Meet Nick Gray, Thrower of ‘Culturally Significant’ Williamsburg Parties” — helpfully filed under the magazine’s “hipsters” tag — explained to readers that Gray’s casual monthly apartment fêtes were in fact low-key salons brimming with NYC tastemakers.
“I love to host parties, and when I moved to New York, I had roommates who were really successful. I didn’t want to ride on their coattails,” explains Gray. “Our apartment had a downstairs space that was good for parties, and when you move to a new city where you love the people, throwing parties is a great way to attract them into your life.”
The ebullient Gray would start talking to people at the grocery store, in the park, or on social media, and when he liked someone, he’d issue an invite. Soon enough, a city of strangers was starting to look like a whole bunch of potential new friends. “People messaged me after that New York Magazine article, asking, ‘Can I come?’” he says.
Of course they could! And they could come on his museum tours, too. Gray had long wanted to have his own business, and staring at a mailbox full of eager messages, he thought he just might have found it.
Gray already knew something that museums hadn’t yet figured out: People want to have fun and museums, well — they often aren’t. Make them fun, and people will go.
He mused: “How do we get people who were like me — who think, I’m not a museum person, I don’t like museums — how do we get that person in the door? Because if you go and have a good time, you’ll come back.”
So he set about constructing a new type of museum tour, one that centered squarely on fun. He asked his groups to explain which of the faces in a portrait gallery would be given a “Most Likely To…” superlative in a yearbook, or to take a photo of themselves trying to imitate a subject’s expression. He had them imagine what they’d keep in a priceless gold case meant to hold sacred objects, or do group “Washington Crossing the Delaware” poses.
And it worked. The tours were so popular that, before long, it was too much for Gray to keep leading them all. He hired guides, in New York, and then in D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and he let them construct their own tours, focusing on whatever excited them personally. For just one example, a recent Museum Hack tour in San Francisco spotlighted important women who aren’t pictured in the dude-centric paintings in the early American gallery. Museum Hack also started throwing events — a 2017 Escape the Museum challenge in Arizona was the art museum’s fastest-selling event ever — and the group continues to come up with ever-more-creative outings.
“These days museums really welcome us,” Gray says. “We’re seen as thought leaders, a group championing new ideas and innovation within the field. We have popular newsletters that people in the museum industry follow, and tons of museums hire us every year for special event productions and trainings — it’s the fastest growing part of our business.”
In a pop culture milieu that sees museums as boring places filled with dead-white-guy portraits gazed upon sleepily by out-of-towners and school field trip groups, Museum Hack has found the fun, even in our most hallowed art spaces. Now a new generation of experience-seekers have a reason to hang out at the very same museums they were once dragged to. Maybe tomorrow’s hipsters will be as likely to have Saturday night gallery dates as dinner reservations or party invitations. Because nobody ever said art had to be appreciated quietly!