Immersive Visitor Experience

Introduction Process Impact


Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) was founded in 1993 as an accessible, high-profile venue devoted to the creation and presentation of contemporary art representing diverse cultural and artistic perspectives. YBCA presents national and international artists, as well as local Bay Area artists. In actively commissioning new works in visual, performing and media arts, YBCA has launched the careers of hundreds of emerging artists and serves as a catalyst for local and regional artistic activity. The organization has an annual budget of $9.2 million, and presents nearly 30 exhibitions, performances, films and community projects annually.

YBCA Lobby
YBCA’s Lobby

Starting Conditions

Although it saw itself as “the people’s art center,” YBCA admitted that it had not always pursued this vision with creativity or discipline, often relying on conventional practices that were more piecemeal than focused, and saying to visitors, “Come, look, leave.”  As it looked around the country at other performing arts centers, YBCA saw a pattern emerging: architecturally significant buildings housing programs that were increasingly irrelevant to the world outside.

YBCA asked itself an ambitious question:

  • how could the organization overturn the traditional assumptions of how art is presented in order to create a more dynamic visitor experience that both reflected its own reputation for artistic risk-taking and recognized well-documented changes in consumer behavior?

To learn more, click PROCESS above.

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The Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts

With the specific goal of developing new cultural practices, YBCA applied to and was accepted Round 3 of EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts in March 2009.  The Innovation Lab is a three-phase program (research, retreat, and prototyping) that provides a strong framework in which new strategies can be developed in relatively low-stakes environments before a full launch.  Read more about the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts.

A Transformative Moment

The first breakthrough came at the Retreat when the Team realized it would have to narrow its ambition from broadly reimaging YBCA’s cultural practices to addressing a specific area of interest. The Team began to think from the viewpoint of the visitor, taking a close look at ways the organization was failing to serve visitors effectively.  “What could the organization do” the group asked itself, “to create multiple simultaneous conditions that would define and reinforce the immersive experience?” The Intensive was critical in enabling YBCA to identify the five key elements of the Immersive Visitor Experience.

Prototype #1 – Staff/Visitor Experience

The Staff/Visitor Experience Task Force set out to strengthen the connection between the staff and YBCA’s audience. In Project: Greet staff served as roving information kiosks during strategic high-traffic periods, welcoming guests to the facility, pointing them in the right direction, and suggesting must-see points of interest in the building. More than 40 staff participated in the program. A successful prototype, Project: Greet has become part of YBCA’s new Gallery Guide program in which paid docents interact with guests throughout the gallery spaces.

Prototype #2 – Internal Branding

To reinforce messaging among visitors who were already in the space, the Internal Branding Task Force gave away buttons that recipients could later exchange for free admission to certain events at the Center. In a follow-up proto type, the Task Force established a design competition, inviting the public to submit designs for another button that would reinterpret one of the Center’s thematic areas. The staff selected the winner and distributed these buttons at later performances. This prototyping led to a new software program that allows visitors to design their own buttons in the theme of the evening’s program and use these buttons for discounts on performances, films, exhibitions and membership.

Prototype #3 – New Technologies

YBCA’s New Technologies Task Force investigated a number of applications and tools that had been identified as potential enhancements to the visitor experience, including mobile ticketing, scanning systems and kiosks. While it is likely to recommend a scanning system, the Task Force has decided that kiosks are too costly and unreliable to warrant purchase. To help develop a comprehensive digital media strategy that was adaptable, flexible and not tied to a specific platform, YBCA used funds from the Lab to work with Hot Studio, a San Francisco design firm.

Interpretive Materials

The primary goal of the Interpretive Materials Task Force was to deepen audience experience using docent services and smart phone technology. YBCA tested a prototype in conjunction with its Kamau Patton exhibit in early 2010, using docents and smart phones along with the Center’s printed guides. The Center added a personal touch, giving visitors access to additional content, technical assistance in using the smart phone features, and individual concierge services. In Spring 2010, the Task Force met again with McCann to discuss ongoing efforts and to brainstorm new ideas that would continue the momentum already established. Based on these discussions, the Task Force expects to identify new ideas for prototyping over the next year.

Building Lobby

YBCA’s final prototype involved testing the limits of the building lobby. How could the Center create a more hospitable, fluid feeling for visitors without rebuilding the entire space? How could YBCA ensure that the changes it made would not interfere with the needs of rental clients? For help in answering these questions, the Re-purposing the Building Task Force worked with architect and interior designer Suzanne Greischel, who donated her services to help revamp the Center’s main lobby. Working with the Task Force, Greischel created sketches for specific areas of the lobby that aim to change the way people interact with the space.

YBCA Lobby ExperimentShifts in Assumptions

YBCA already had a well articulated point of view about its role in putting contemporary art at the center of community life. What changed as it traveled through the Lab and prototyped its innovation was the assumption that the best way to achieve this mission was to offer high quality compelling programs and exhibitions. As a result of its experience in the Lab, YBCA discovered that thinking from a visitor’s perspective gave the organization new insight into how best to animate its programs in the eyes of the public.


The funds provided by the Lab during the prototype phase were critical in enabling YBCA to move quickly, test multiple ideas, evaluate impact, adjust and develop enhanced proto-types. They were also important in allowing the organization to hire experts to help develop and refine technology strategies.


Throughout the process, YBCA encountered a number of obstacles, including the ingrained culture of “look, don’t touch,” administrative silos, project coordination, and enrolling other outside the innovation team.

Look, Don’t Touch: The organization and its staff struggled against ingrained field-wide practices, such as “look, don’t touch,” and had to work hard to engage curators who had been trained to perpetuate these practices. YBCA also had to re-educate audiences who had become familiar and comfortable with what they believed was appropriate behavior when viewing art and listening to performances.

Silos: The organization had to work consciously to break down the silos that impeded cross-functional collaboration. Within the organization, there was some resistance to YBCA’s shift in philosophy among those who saw the Immersive Visitor Experience as secondary to the Center’s mission. Because the new projects required considerable maintenance, YBCA’s Team had to be vigilant in getting other staff to see that these projects were integral to its mission and not “extras that take people away from their real work.”

Coordination: Coordinating the various task forces, managing the constant flow of information, and maintaining adequate communication – particularly during the prototyping phase – also proved difficult. YBCA had to work carefully to ensure that the prototypes reinforced each other, did not become redundant with other services the Center offered, and remained focused on the overarching goal – creating an immersive experience for visitors.

Enrolling Others: YBCA knew that rapidly building awareness, knowledge, acceptance and good will in a large organization of 25 Board members and 50 staff would be difficult. Its strategy for reporting the results of the Lab proved extremely effective. Instead of going to the Board to present a formal report on the Intensive, the Innovation Team adopted a one-on-one approach – a speed-dating encounter in which five two-member teams took one aspect of the Immersive Visitor Experience and made themselves available to individuals or groups of staff and Board to learn about what had happened during the Lab Intensive, how the ideas had emerged, and how the Team believed the new work would serve YBCA’s mission.

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YBCA’s practices changed as it used the frame of visitor engagement to break down traditional silos. What YBCA learned in the Lab has wide­spread implication for multi-disciplinary presenters. The leverage that came from thinking like a visitor didn’t change the content of YBCA’s programs, but rather illuminated and re-positioned them in the eyes of both visitors and staff.

Today, projects at YBCA are not dance projects or film projects or visual art projects. They are YBCA projects. The organization has re-organized its work into cross-departmental teams charged with bringing projects to life and using them to produce an Immersive Visitor Experience. This has created greater synergy within the organization, improved project coordination, and prompted colleagues from other organizations to call saying, “Hey, we hear you are doing something really new. Can you tell us about it?”

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