WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘museum’

Remaking Museums

April 16th, 2010

Imagine a museum exhibition about how the Normandy coast inspired Impressionist painters – but one where the paintings come with photographs of those coastal landscapes and an immersive sound-scape. Or imagine an exploratory gallery where you can grab a giant lens and move it slowly over a Corot painting of a storm at sea in order to explore that turbulent surface in a way no self-respecting guard or docent would ever allow.  Both of these exist at the Dallas Museum of Art where five years of intensive visitor studies are reorganizing the way the museum and its curators engage with audiences.  This summer will see the publication of these studies and their implications as Ignite the Power of Art by DMA Director, Bonnie Pitman and Ellen Hirzy.  The volume details how the research has yielded a new understanding of museum visitors which has been used to double attendance, re-think exhibitions, and develop new programs such as the Center for Creative Connections, the online Arts Network, and insomniac museum tours.  Prepare to rethink nearly everything that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “art museum.”  More than that, prepare for a volume that could perturb your thinking about any and all cultural institutions from libraries and concert halls to aquariums.


The Fundamental Question

July 10th, 2009

Back in 2002 James Allen Smith addressed the Museum Trustee Association and Getty Leadership Institute and asked “What do economics have to do with culture?” He noted the “pressure we are under to justify our work in instrumental or utilitarian terms,” and how when “cultural critics talk about economics, or economists talk about culture, smart people can end up saying ridiculous, confusing things.” In the talk that followed he offered a comprehensive analysis of the trends in cultural sector economics that are increasing the pressure to evaluate, and described the issues behind the fundamental question: “In what language should we answer when policy makers and foundation funders speak their utilitarian prose and expect quantitative answers?” It is a talk well worth reading in its entirety.

In his book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Matt Miller challenges many long-held assumptions about societal norms. He posits that some core beliefs, which are “dubious at best and often dead wrong, are on a collision course with economic developments that are irreversible.” Examples include: • Our kids will earn more than we do;
• Free trade is always good, no matter who gets hurt;
• Employers should be responsible for health coverage; and
• Money follows merit
His premise is not that these principles were never valid, just that there are systemic societal changes occurring, which now make them obsolete. I’ll leave it to talk radio, cable scream-fests, and the blogosphere to debate over whether Matt Miller is correct that these are “dead ideas” (and what to do about it), but his concept caused me to contemplate whether these long-held assumptions in the world of nonprofit arts and culture are still valid: • Blockbuster art exhibitions drive museum attendance (ditto for musical
theater revivals and classical music warhorses);
• Museums can invest the proceeds of art they de-accession only in art acquisition;
• Having a large endowment increases financial stability;
• Nonprofit organizations’ cultural engagement experiences are perceived by the
public to be of a higher quality and more satisfying than commercial and
amateur experiences; and
• Long-range, multi-year strategic planning is a critical element in
organizational success

The value for arts leaders is using Matt Miller’s provocative book as a prompt to make sure that whatever underlying assumptions you are using to guide your organization’s decisions are still alive and kicking today.

MOMA’s New Face

May 5th, 2009

In the midst of doing some research for one of our clients on museum and library use of technology, the Museum of Modern Art in New York launched its new, state-of-the-art (or so they hope) web site that takes full advantage of the interactivity now possible on the web. (Warning – if you aren’t using the most current version of your web browser, you may have trouble taking full advantage of this site!) This web site is intentionally designed to “…open[ing] up the singular voice of the museum…” according to Allegra Burnette, creative director of digital media for the museum. And therein lies the interesting question. What are the sacrifices that MOMA is making by “opening its voice?” Burnette’s peers, whom I interviewed as part of my research, asked, “Who is MOMA on the new site?” If much of the site is dedicated to the voices of others, where is the museum’s voice? I readily admit to being overwhelmed by the options offered on the site now, but I am probably not the target audience MOMA is hoping to reach. Check it out and let us know what you think!

Museums for the Future

March 20th, 2009

Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures is a discussion paper written by Reach Advisors and commissioned by the Center for the Future of Museums. It provides a tantalizing look at some profound economic and demographic trends and how they might play out in society and, more specifically, in museums in 2034. The paper provides a useful, museum-specific context for frequently mentioned data points such as the aging and increasingly diverse nature of our population and the impact of increased travel costs. Beyond that, it begins to postulate alternative outlooks and roles for museums to consider as these trends come more clearly into focus. Among the more thought-provoking issues raised: how digital technology and remote access to collections might change the nature of museum “attendance” and how the role of the “expert” curator could shift to accommodate wikis and other collaborative approaches to information and idea processing. There is much food for thought here, although I came away with questions about how the social dimension of museums might be explored more deeply.

Catch Up Times

December 4th, 2008

LA Times
Is the current economic crisis causing all of the pain arts nonprofits are feeling right now, or are other forces at work? The case of the well-respected Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles offers a forum in which to ask this important question. Everyone wants to point a finger and uncover the financial breakdown culprit, but identifying cause is not so simple. Do current financial emergencies stem from a long history of bad habits and fallen fundraising? Are they emblematic of decreased public and private philanthropy, not just in Los Angeles, but in other major metropolitan cities? How do we know when emergencies are a combination of long present issues coming to a head, such as an organization increasing expenses at a rate that outpaces revenue growth? The upside to MOCA’s crisis is that it has the opportunity to be an example of significant organizational change that may not only revive it, but become the bellwether for a new kind of nonprofit structure nationally.

Over Thanksgiving, I went to The Frick Collection in New York and enjoyed the works of art with the help of a standard audio guide, the kind that has become commonplace in today’s museums. In Arizona earlier this year, I enjoyed a tour of an exhibition at Scottsdale’s Museum of Contemporary Art using my cell phone to learn about certain works of art in the show. Now the New England Aquarium is taking the use of personal devices one step further, as described in the above article. We are well past the days when people debated whether technology-mediated museum viewing was a good or a bad thing. The discussion today appears to be: what sort of technology is best?

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