Marylin Monroe Moons the Museum

There is a fascinating branding disaster emerging in Palm Springs these days:

The Palm Springs city council just voted to install a cheesy 26-foot-tall statue of Marilyn Monroe with her panties exposed directly in front of the Palm Springs Art Museum.

The museum’s director Louis Grachos complained bitterly, but was unable to sway the vote.

Soon “Forever Marilyn” will be the museum’s most famous work of art and the image that visitors most closely associate with the institution – despite the fact that the museum has nothing to do with the statue or the decision to locate such a monstrosity at its doorstep.

Forever Marilyn, Seward Johnson

Who wants the statue? Well, just about everyone, but primarily the tourism community, which is comprised of people who know how popular it will be with visitors. It was originally installed about two blocks from the museum, where it became the most photographed and widely disseminated travel image in the city’s history. Now, after a three-year absence, Marilyn is scheduled to return, but this time in a much more highbrow location.

Personally, I think the statue’s great. As art it may be an embarrassment, but as a tourist magnet it’s branding magic. Palm Springs has always been a goofy, kitschy, sexy sort of place with a hallowed Hollywood history, and Marilyn embodies this perfectly.

My heart goes out to the Palm Springs Art Museum, which is a very nice regional museum, but is in many ways a victim of its own elitism. The museum has only the most tenuous ties to the tourism community that sustains the city (and that delivers much of the museum’s walk-up traffic) so it had limited influence in a decision that’s likely to have devastating consequences for its brand. I’ve approached the museum on many occasions offering to find collaborative ways to get more of my tour customers through their doors (cultural travelers all), but was told that as a serious museum they weren’t interested in courting the tourist trade.

Now the city’s visitors will be gathering at the museum’s doorstep taking countless Instagrammable photos of Marilyn – using the Palm Springs Art Museum as a backdrop. And this highbrow-lowbrow mashup will be zipping around the globe at lightning speed through social media for years to come – millions of impressions that fuse a corny colossus to an otherwise credible – if perhaps a bit too serious for its own good – fine art institution.

Brands are tricky things. You can never fully own your brand. You can never completely control it. And if you’re not paying attention, it can be snatched out of your hands by forces well beyond your sphere of influence.

Ultimately I think it’s unfair of city leaders to saddle the museum with such a burden as it struggles to survive the covid crisis. But it may also serve as an opportunity for museum leaders to lighten up a bit, insert an element of self-reflective humor into their brand strategy (if they have one) and find ways to engage with a broader cross-section of their potential audience.

Who knows, it may be the real Marilyn who offered the best advice when she said, “It’s better being completely ridiculous than unbelievably boring.”

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