Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sustainability challenge: museums struggle to maintain relevance, court diverse audiences, preserve integrity of mission

Lately there has been a lot of chatter regarding the way museums go about increasing their attendance and broadening their audience. Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article about the limited success of the Brooklyn Museum's "populist" efforts. The article's author, Robin Pogrebin, rebuked the museum's leadership for pandering to the masses with exhibits like the Star Wars blockbuster and free First Saturdays where visitors can explore the museum one Saturday evening each month undeterred by admission prices. All of this set off a wave of opinions on both sides of the issue, as Twitter and blog postings flew through cyberspace supporting and further calling into question the wisdom of the museum's programmatic choices.

I take a middle of the road stance on the particular example offered by the Brooklyn Museum. On the one hand, I do not think that an exhibit entitled Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination belongs in a fine art museum. At the same time, opening your art museum on a Saturday night so that patrons can roam the galleries at their leisure, enjoy an adult beverage or two, and chat about life, sounds pretty much like your run-of-the-mill fundraiser. In the case of the Brooklyn Museum's First Saturdays, it was a friendraiser targeting young, urban, anti-elites without a hefty cover charge, and therefore it seemed pointless to some. It was assumed that these younger visitors and people of color were not really looking at the art. The argument was even made by Maxwell Anderson that these folks are not members of an art museum's "core constituency" and it's unlikely that the people coming in for free would ever pay to come back, so they don't have "residual value." Does anyone check up on members of the coat-and-tie crowd who shuffle in for a black-tie, big ticket gala to make sure they are all adequately examining the artwork? What if some of the who's-who only attend for the open bar, or to be seen writing a check, and never take the time to see the art? Do we make a fuss about that? Nah, because there are already enough white elites who do look at the art, so what if some of them just like to get their picture on the society page. Right, they matter.

We say we want our museums to be relevant, we say we want our visitors to better reflect the diversity of our communities, and we say we want to make experiences in our museums meaningful, but we don't want to do the hard work it will take to achieve these goals. We are already working so hard and not achieving these ideals, we say we just can't do anything more. We know that addressing the goals above will mean dramatically changing the way museums do business. It will mean pissing off board members who like doing it the way we've always done it. It will mean evaluating our current programs, getting rid of some we are very comfortable providing, and then replacing those with less comfortable alternatives. It will mean reaching out into our diverse communities on their terms and letting them tell us what they need. It will necessarily mean taking risks. Some new programs will fail, some will only record a modest victory, but if museums are to remain relevant and survive we must tackle this hard work, and then not define success towards these goals in outmoded terms.

Looking back at the history of museums, we started out as cabinets of curiosities and fine art collections held by the religious and aristocratic elite. These collections reflected the courtly world of artists' wealthy patrons and the fabulous grand tours and expeditions of Victorian gentlemen. Fast-forward to the present, and our challenge is to make these vast repositories of our cultural heritage meaningful to generations who have never used a typewriter, text while driving, and don't remember televisions without remote controls. The good news? According to a report from the Corporation for National and Community Service released June 15th, volunteerism in the U.S. is increasing at its fastest rate in six years, and a study from the American Association of Museums released in February of this year shows that despite the sour economy museum attendance for 2009 was up at nearly 60% of museums, and over 25% responded that they experienced a "significant increase" in attendance. So, if volunteerism and visitation are up, why are museums closing their doors, swimming in debt, and selling off collections? Where is the disconnect?

I believe we have a sustainability crisis on our hands. The size of our museum buildings, collections, staff, and in many cases even our missions is becoming unsustainable under the old model of how to run a museum. And it's not just museums, all kinds of our cultural and heritage organizations are straining, if not crumbling, under the weight of their current operations and missions in the reality of "the new normal." Here in Cleveland, it seems the tough times began in 2007 with the loss of Healthspace after their ill-fated expansion. Today, the Cleveland Botanical Garden is encumbered by debt, the Western Reserve Historical Society has sold off objects and cars to keep the doors open, Opera Cleveland stages fewer operas a year, and our incomparable Cleveland Orchestra weathered a strike by its musicians last January. What is the common-denominator? Let's see, how about our aging donor base, and core constituencies? Yes, we are all elbowing each other for the same slimmer slice of pie, and unfortunately, some just aren't getting enough to survive. That said, there are huge portions of our community who do not participate in all that our cultural organizations have to offer. We must learn to present ourselves in an approachable, comfortable, and compelling way to expand our audiences. We must tear down our programmatic barriers and open our doors to people of color, young people, and those who are intimidated just by our labels-- museum, gallery, historical society, arboretum, opera, and orchestra. We need to make these people part of our new core constituency.

Back to populism, that word that seems to strike fear into the upper echelon of artistic aficionados, patrons, and promoters alike. If we choose to ignore the aging demographic of our traditional museum financiers, and turn a blind-eye to the trend away from passive experiences, if museums, and others of their cultural kin, talk about populism, but thrive on elitism, they will die of insignificance and attrition.

To counter the foreboding do or die tone I have taken thus far, I offer a great example of a traditional art museum maintaining its relevance within its community. Today, I read Tahree Lane's report in The Toledo Blade about the Juneteenth celebration this Saturday, June 19th, at the Toledo Museum of Art. The museum is holding its 6th Juneteenth event, commemorating the end of slavery and reaching out into the community with a free event focused on African American art, culture, heritage, and traditional African crafts. How do we measure the impact and success of a program like this one? Hopefully, careful evaluation of outcomes can maintain the level of community engagement and ensure the future sustainability of efforts like the Toledo Museum's Juneteenth.

I am afraid there are no easy answers to many of the questions we raise when discussing issues of building audiences, finding resonance in our collections and exhibits, making meaning for followers (especially in 140 characters or less), and ensuring sustainability in a rapidly changing world. However, I am sure that slinging cheap shots from the moral high ground at museums who are down in the trenches trying to address these complicated problems is not the path to enlightenment.

Photo of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2009.


  1. In discussing audience diversity of background and expectation, you did not mention 'the long tail', This is particularly important for botanic gardens where visitors create their own plant and garden experience and message in combinations we can only imagine. We ignore the 'many diverse few' at our peril. To some extent at least this is probably also true of museums and galleries.

  2. Despite all of the debate about "populism" and how museums should or should not engage their audiences, it all does come down to the sustainability question. Will your organization survive into the future under its current circumstances? What are you doing to make sure you exist 100 years from now? Once museums start addressing these questions, maybe all of this elitist mud-slinging will finally stop.


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