Thursday, January 28, 2010

Falling on Our Faces or Handling Change (and Criticism) with Grace

Lately I have been watching past seasons of a show I had never before seen: "America's Next Top Model." No, this blog has not turned into a true confessions site and it is still about museums.

ANTM is similar to a lot of reality contest shows in that it presents the contestants with challenges and subsequent notes and advice from a panel of judges. That's pretty much standard workshopping technique. But one thing I have noticed in watching roughly 40 episodes in a row is that the success of the contestants rests pretty heavily on how well they are able to digest and incorporate the panel's critique and recommendations--even when sometimes their advice sounds contradictory.

Another thing I have noticed is that learning from and incorporating the panel's recommendations is exactly where most contestants fail. Some just outright ignore the advice, smiling and nodding in front of the judges and then doing nothing at all to change their behavior in the next challenge. Others, freak out and go so far in the opposite direction from what they had been doing that they've gone too far and still get negative critiques. And some simply get so confused and bewildered by all the different elements that they have to keep in mind while doing something that they thought was so easy and natural that they have complete melt downs or simply stop trying.

I guess what I am getting at is that improvement and navigating the tricky landscape of constructive criticism are hard work--harder for some than others, but hard for everyone--and I'm not just talking about would-be models, here; I am talking about museums.

Museums are at a critical moment in their history, poised for potential greatness in a new era or doomed to failure as they disappear into obscurity and irrelevance. It is possible, but unlikely, that museums will simply continue on with business as usual neither excelling nor failing--the market place is just too brutal right now to allow for middle of the road nonprofits. No, we will either be witnessing wonderful success or extreme failure.

With so much riding on their fates, museums are eagerly listening to the reactions from their "panel"--the public, the critics, the funders, their boards. And they are hearing a lot of messages--not just in closed meetings but in loud articles and op-ed pieces in such noted publications as the New York Times and such visible media sources as CBS news.

So what kind of feedback are museums receiving lately and how are they handling it--are they incorporating it gracefully or falling on their faces?

I will let you judge for yourself by pointing out a number of wonderful conversations and informative articles and interviews, most of which have already been posted or pointed out by others, but just in case you have somehow missed them, now is your chance to get caught up! (A complete list of materials cited follows my remarks.)

The issue of deaccessioning in order to keep the doors has open has been rearing its ugly head quite a bit lately. Some--including wealthy collectors and would-be donors--are incensed that museums typically only display between 1 and 5% of their collections at any given point in time. "Why not sell off part of the collection since no one sees those pieces anyway?" they ask.

Head of AAM's Center for the Future of Museums gave an initial response to that query when posed to her during a forum discussion on NPR. "That would be like selling one of your children in order to support the others," is essentially a direct quote. But she later rethought her answer on the CFM blog, revisiting the question of why not sell--resulting in a fascinating discussion. The State of New York has decided to put the kibosh on such questions. Legislators met earlier in the month in hopes of making it illegal for museums to sell their collections to pay for operating costs.

Borrowing vs Donations or Purchases
Meanwhile, getting back to those rich and influential collectors and would-be donors, they are still very concerned about the idea of their collections going to museums--and then just sitting in the basement collecting dust. Of course, we all know that once they go sit in the basement, they will be looked after with tender loving care and that in some cases, tucked away in archival housing is the safest place for those collections to be--but that is besides the point. Donors donate their collections in order for their possessions to be seen by and shared with the public. So more and more are taking the Eli Broad approach of either lending to museums on a long-term basis with the stipulation that the works must be on display, or else simply creating their own museums. This new approach leads to new issues as well, including the questions of curatorial control and whether or not vanity museums would further burden an already over-taxed museum market and philanthropic sector.

Curators vs Democratic Exhibits vs Donor-Driven Exhibits
Let's look at that question of curatorial control for a moment. According to AAM's "Standards regarding developing and managing business and individual donor support," museums must maintain curatorial control. A quote from Erik Ledbetter, AAM's director of ethics, these guidelines seek to "make sure the museum keeps authority over the content of exhibition" in order to avoid conflicts of interest. Elizabeth Merritt explained further (on my Facbook page) that the "idea being that you shouldn't offer people "pay to play" when it comes to exhibit development." In other words, curatorial control is lost, or at least jeopardized, in such a way as to potentially create a conflict of interest when donors get to determine what hangs in the galleries.

Elizabeth went to clarify on my FB page that this is different from the democratization efforts that some museums are playing with in the exhibit development process, that "crowdsourcing" exhibit development is a way to enhance the exhibit development process, even if it means giving up a certain amount of curatorial control. To that end, there have been several great and successful curatorial crowdsourcing efforts that were featured in an article in the New York Times. The idea behind these efforts is that, through the power of the Internet, the masses can be called upon to grow online collections, curate those collections and fill in the gaps where curators can't or don't have time. Michael Edson, new-media director at the Smithsonian, describes the process as "distributive knowledge creation." Pascale Bastide, founder of the Museum of Afghan Civilization, states that through this process "Curators are starting to realize that they can be challenged by the audience."

But curatorial control still plays an important role, even within the process of "distributive knowledge creation." Jake Barton, lead designer for Make History, one of the websites that employs crowdsourcing exhibit development and collection generation, recommends that constraints be used--that structure be imposed in order to create a shared narrative. One way that this can be done is by supplying themes for the would-be curators to respond to.

Caroline Rossiter, an arts writer based in Paris, agrees with Barton: "Far from making curators and editors of information redundant, the ever growing tide of user-generated content makes the curatorial role even more important." She does allow, however, as that history "appears to be less and less easy to mold in the digital age," and she can foresee a time when we all serve as curators of our own virtual exhibitions.

Nina Simon, museum participatory experience expert and founder of the Museum 2.0 blog sums it up nicely: "There's a difference between having power and having expertise. Museums will always have the expertise, but they may have to be willing to share the power."

Interactives vs Traditional
Part and parcel with "crowdsourcing" exhibit development is the strive to develop exhibits that are more participatory. This often means including interactive experiences and technology that can mimic the kinds of information technology and sharing that visitors are increasingly familiar with in the rest of their lives. But columnist Charles J. Adams of cautions against the overuse of these exhibit strategies. He describes walking through museums in which the "real thing" is being completely ignored in favor of the touch screens describing the actual specimens and objects nearby. This is somewhat counter-intuitive given that a poll done by CBS [see the end of this video] found that 80% of visitors would rather go see the "real thing" even if images and information were available online. But perhaps this is a generational discrepancy--the CBS voters were most likely adults, whereas the visitors described by Adams were youths. This hints at another point to be covered a little further on: shifting demographics.

Permanent Collections vs Blockbusters and Traveling Exhibits
But amidst all of this talk about what will happen to museum permanent collections--whether they will be, should be or could be sold; whether or not in the future major collectors will continue to donate their artwork or rather just lend select pieces for display--James Leventhal reports in his blog post on the general state of museums right now that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are in the black--apparently at least in part thanks to the blockbuster traveling exhibit Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.

Is King Tut such a singularly impressive exhibit and topic that this is a fluke, or does this point towards a more universal truism, that blockbusters are the way to make money--money that can then in turn be used to support the permanent collections? The question has been posed to me several times in recent days regarding whether or not sites dedicated solely to the display of traveling blockbuster exhibitions could realistically be competition for more traditional museums with permanent collections and a more modest exhibition schedule?

It is interesting to note that while the Guggenheim/Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas has closed, as has the Las Vegas Art Museum, the exhibition space in the Luxor devoted to Premier Exhibition Inc.'s Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition and Bodies: The Exhibition continues to thrive.

What will and what must the museums of the future look like in terms of their exhibitions and use of permanent collections in order to maintain their missions while also remaining financially viable?

Which brings us to the topic of sustainability. Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute speaks directly and succinctly to the question of sustainability for the arts, given the findings of the National Arts Index, which revealed lower health and vitality for the arts in 2008: "We need to rethink a nonprofit arts sector that in many ways remains tethered to support models that have remained unchanged for a half century. Arts organizations need to find creative ways to engage their audiences, build on the public's growing interest in personal creation, and stimulate audience demand."

Shifting Funding Priorities
It seems to me that there is something fundamentally unsustainable about the current nonprofit business structure. Admissions rarely come close to being able to single-handedly maintain museums and by-and-large the majority of museum budgets come from external funding sources. In a time when funding priorities are shifting and many funders are cutting back on their support due to their own financial difficulties, museums need to look at new ways to stay afloat--funding priorities may be changing, but as Brooks points out, the structure of support has not yet changed along with those priorities.

Shifting Demographics
Along with the National Arts Index findings, the NEA also recently released its 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. As with the National Arts Index, the findings were not happy. Museum attendance is pretty much universally down. Sure, there are some pockets of museums that are thriving, but overall and across the board, museums are seeing a decline in visitorship. Gregory Rodriguez points out that the demographics of museum visitors has not changed along with the shifting demographics of the population as a whole. Several states, including California, are already "majority minority" in terms of population make-up, with many more states, including New York, on the verge of becoming "majority minority." But 90%+ of museum visitors are still Caucasian.

On January 27 the Center for the Future of Museums hosted a lecture webcast entitled "Towards A New Maintstream" that included a video of a lecture given by Gregory Rodriguez on the topic of how to better address our shifting demographics. Also as part of the webcast was a sidebar for chatting during the lecture. A lot of time was spent in that sidebar talking about the value of including multi-lingual label copy and marketing in order to be more inclusive of a broader and more ethnically diverse audience. Rodriguez specifically addressed that idea in his lecture, however, urging museums to take a more expansive view of inclusion. His statements indicate that, up until now, museums attempts at inclusiveness have bordered on tokenism rather than true multiculturalism. He pointed out that second generation immigrants are fluent in English--there is no language barrier--but they still only feel welcome and invited by museums when there are events or exhibits specific to their culture.

On December 29, 2009 KQED radio, an NPR station, hosted a forum on Museums in Recession. There Rodriguez also explained how yes, Day of the Dead celebrations in museums were a great first step, but in order to be truly inclusive, museums must then follow-up with Latino communities, inviting them to other programs and exhibits that don't have anything to do with Latino heritage. Ethnicity must be "unpacked" Rodriguez says, explaining that museums need to start treating people as individuals, rather than as categories.

But inclusiveness does not only relate to ethnicity. Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian reminds us that "You really have to offer something that addresses a variety of styles of learning" as well.

Strategies for Staying Afloat
Reporter Sandra Hughes of CBS ends her video article with these words, "For the rest of us we can just hope that museums can find a way to stay afloat while we have fun with the art." So when all is said and done, with changing demographics and funding priorities, with furor over permanent collections and how to manage them and what it means--or what it should mean--to be and have curators, what can and will museums do to stay afloat?

Mikku Wilenius of Allianz, a forecasting company in Europe, predicts that the future will belong to companies that serve as aggregators of information, such as Google or websites that can offer consumers different best-price offers.

But let's think about this prediction in terms of museums: what would it look like for a museum to serve as an aggregator--or rather, would a museum simply be part of a network that formed an aggregator? An alliance such as the one just announced between five museums in Georgia might be a model for what that might look like. The High Museum of Art, the Albany Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum, the Telfair Museum of Art and the Georgia Museum of Art have joined together to form the Georgia Art Museum Partnership, an initiative that will "allow for the sharing of resources and collections among museums in Georgia and the Southeast."

What does that mean, practically speaking? Well, it could mean that visitors and members have access not just to the information, collections, programs, exhibits and expertise of one museum but all five. But what is especially interesting is that this partnership is actually much more internally focused than externally: the initiative in part will include workshops on topics such as fundraising, public relations, exhibit design and collaborations between curators and educators that will allow staff from all five institutions to "share ideas, receive feedback and relay successes." In essence, the initiative will start to build a network of shared resources with each of the five museums as a network hub.

There is a precedent already for museums as nodes of a larger web rather than individual stand-alone institutions. Naturalis, the National Museum of Natural History in the Netherlands, views itself as an integral part of an expanding network that brings its building, collections and scientific research to the network as assets, rather than a center around which a network may or may not revolve. Natural history museums here in the States are recognizing the need and value of seeing themselves as nodes rather than individual entities as well. The Biodiversity Collections Index allows researchers access to specimens and collections around the world through a collaborative effort of museums and research facilities. As the BCI website states, "Research into biodiversity relies on the use of specimens. These specimens are held in reference collections around the world. BCI is a central index to these collections."

Perhaps the best way for museums to stay relevant--and open--will be to take a page from the libraries and become better integrated and networked not just with our visitors, but with each other as well.

Or not. Maybe it's still too soon to see, maybe any attempt at solving these grand issues will turn out to be nothing more than a desperate search for a panacea that isn't there--that is, that any of these approaches will turn out to be not as far-reaching as we hope. As Andras Szanto puts it in his article, "Digesting the full cultural implications of a once-in-a-generation event like the Great Recession will take years, even decades. In the meantime, museum leaders have an opportunity to frame new visions for the future." Let's just hope that our leaders will seize upon that opportunity.

KQED Radio: Forum with Michael Krasny: Museums in Recession, Host Scott Shafer (audio)

Challenging Assumptions--Why Not Sell Collections? by Elizabeth Merritt

Museums and Lawmakers Mull Sales of Art by Robin Pogrebin

Can Collectors Have Their Art and Lend It, Too? by Kate Taylor

Online, It's the Mouse that Runs the Museum by Alex Wright

Museums of the Future: Crowdsourcing Storms the Ivory Tower by Caroline Rossiter

Travels with Charlie: Don't let the lure of technology spoil the joy of traveling by Charles J. Adams III

Bringing Art to the People by Sandra Hughes (video)

Happy New Year!: Physician, Heal Thyself by James Leventhal

National Arts Index Reveals Lower Health and Vitality of Arts Industries in 2008

Will US museums succeed in reinventing themselves? by Andras Szanto

LA Times Article on Attendance Should Make Us All Sit up and Take Note by Allyson Lazar

Towards a New Mainstream

Who can save the ROM this time? by Chris Nuttall-Smith

Future Trends of 2010 and Beyond

Georgia Art Museums Collaborate to Share Resources and Collections Across the State

CAM 2008 Session: Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century, Museums as Nodes by Allyson Lazar

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