Caitlin Tracey-Miller: Cincinnati Art Museum’s resident ‘detective’

Caitlin Tracey-Miller likens her role at the Cincinnati Art Museum to that of a “museum detective.” 

Caitlin Tracey-Miller

“It’s my job to figure out who’s coming and why they’re coming; what they left with and what they’ll remember,” said Tracey-Miller, officially the museum’s assistant director of visitor research and evaluation. 

That title might imply that she spends her days analyzing data and looking at spreadsheets. Those tasks are, indeed, part of the job – but only part of it.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about the people that come in our doors and how we can best serve them. It might sound dry, but it’s really very people-oriented,” she said. 

Even during the museum’s mandated closure because of COVID-19, Tracey-Miller’s role of listening to what experiences the community wants remains key. 

“People often find solace in art during difficult times,” she said. “While we can’t have people physically in our building, we can provide art experience remotely.”

The hows and whys

On a given day, when the museum is open, Tracey-Miller (and her team of volunteers) might talk with visitors during focus groups or by approaching them in the galleries, or they might chat with attendees at community events to find out what would make them more likely to visit the museum. Or she might create thoughtfully designed surveys visitors can answer online, via phone or on iPads in an exhibition. Her list of potential touchpoints is long.

A data touchpoint at the CAM

“The more ways we collect these visitor voices, the more ways we can listen to them and make a difference at the museum,” she said.

Tracey-Miller’s work collaborates with other departments and examines the museum experience as a whole, from the time people pull up in the parking lot until they leave. “It’s not just about the artwork that’s on the walls,” she said. A curator might ask her to do visitor research about reinventing a gallery experience, for example.

“We think a lot about those details that you don’t think about until you need them: Places to sit, places to stop and have a cup of coffee,” she added, noting that she’s currently evaluating museum accessibility. “All those details matter.”

A museum dedicated to art has an additional wrinkle. 

“Art can be intimidating,” she said. “One of the ways we can make it less intimidating is to make it a good experience with good customer service.”

 

The design of the new grand staircase rising from the intersection of Gilbert Ave. and Eden Park Drive was guided in part by opinions gathered by Tracey-Miller.

Her path to the CAM

Tracey-Miller herself doesn’t have an art background, but as a “fiercely curious” person, she has enjoyed learning about it. Originally from Iowa, she attended Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where she majored in English and minored in history. During a study abroad program in London, her internship at the Florence Nightingale Museum sparked her passion for museum work and put her on her career path.

“Museums provide a place for engagement with beauty and with learning or with inspiration,” she said. “It’s a place to connect; you can learn about someone different from yourself or have an experience that relates to your life in a slightly different way.” 

Earlham is also where she met her husband, Nathaniel, a Cincinnati native. They dated long-distance while she completed her master’s in museum studies at the University of Toronto (where she had her first experience with visitor research) and he worked in Cincinnati. 

After finishing her degree, she relocated here and worked at the Cincinnati Museum Center and Harriet Beecher Stowe House in roles related to education, programming and volunteer coordination, before joining the Cincinnati Art Museum staff in a research role in January 2016.

Along the way, she “fell in love with the museum and arts community here,” she said. “I think we’re really lucky to be in a city that has such a vibrant arts and cultural scene.”

Life beyond work

When she’s not working at the museum, Tracey-Miller spends time with her husband and daughter, Edith, 2, enjoying the outdoors, doing crafts or going to concerts. A musician herself, she started playing the viola at age 9.

Tracey-Miller and daughter Edith at the CAM

“I picked the viola because it had a deeper sound, but I didn’t want to carry a bass or cello home because I walked to school,” she recalls with a laugh. 

She’s currently taking a break from performing with the Cincinnati Civic Orchestra, but plans to return when her daughter is a little older.

Another big part of Tracey-Miller’s life is her strong friendships.

“I love to laugh,” she said. “I surround myself by people who make me laugh, who have great senses of humor and who are able to find the gems of humor in really difficult times.”

She and her husband keep in touch with friends from around the region and the country, traveling to visit whenever they can. (Some of those friends are also colleagues at other museums with whom she shares ideas to bring back to her work in Cincinnati.)

“People will tease me a lot for always being busy,” she said. “I’m someone who always tends to fill up my calendar.”

On the other hand, as a self-described bookworm who’s married to a librarian, she also spends ample time reading. Fitting for a “detective,” she’s been on a mystery kick lately.

What she brings to the job

That personality combination – outgoing yet studious – is part of what makes her successful in her research, according to Amy Burke, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s director of visitor experience.

“She’s such a warm and caring person,” Burke said. “People just open up and want to talk with her … but then she’s got this analytical skill and she can sort through (the feedback) from a data perspective.” 

Burke said Tracey-Miller’s work is having a tangible impact on shaping the museum and helping it connect with the community in a more meaningful way.

“If we are getting to the heart of what the visitor wants, what the community wants in a gallery, a setting or a program, then we win,” she said. “We are better serving our community.”

This story was made possible by the Cincinnati Art Museum.

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