Monday, May 21, 2007

Donors vs. Visitors Deathmatch: Can Collecting Museums be Democratic?

It's late at night at the Museum Curator smackdown. The preliminary bouts on cultural interpretation are over, and the crowds are roaring for blood. TONIGHT ONLY: Curator serves as referee between three worthy contenders: the DONOR, capable of vaulting museums forward with unique and prestigious additions to the collection, the CRITIC, capable of writing favorable reviews (which in turn garner more prestigious donations), and the VISITORS, capable of, well, enjoying and learning from the collection.

Is the fix in? Can the power of the visitor ever overcome that of the donors and critics?

Museum folks often talk about the time decades ago when museums began to shift from places for objects to places for visitors. My background is in science and children's museums, where it's relatively easy to keep visitors in the foreground. There are no donors to accomodate, and critical review rarely enters the doors (which I think is troubling for other reasons). Yes, there are funders for certain exhibits and programs, but the stuff of the museum is the visitor experience. Now I work at a history-focused museum with a similar mentality; as a for-profit insititution, we operate more like other guest service businesses (theme parks, restaurants) than collecting institutions. We generate all our revenue at the ticket counter, and since we can't draw a straight line from adding to the collection to increasing ticket sales, we don't actively seek out new artifacts.

But art museums and other institutions that collect specialized artifacts are judged by their collections more than by the visitor experience they provide. This starts with expectations and is exacerbated by economy. A "world class" art museum is not one with fabulous labels, comfy seating, and art that engages all kinds of visitors; a world class art museum has world class art, as judged by art critics, not visitors. And since the scale of dollars involved to maintain an endowment for a great art collection is so large, art museums can't rely on gate sales (and visitors) to thrive. I was amazed to hear an art museum person once tell me that at one museum where he worked, a review in the New York Times was valued as highly as one million visitors. Why try to make your visitor experience better for thousands when you could make the connoiseur's experience better for those few essential critics and donors? The donors and critics are in cahoots--their efforts impact each others' actions--and the visitors are left out in the cold.

Serving critics may mean pursuing exhibits that are inaccessible to non-art people, thus limiting your potential audience. Serving donors may mean shying away from risky interpretation techniques that might offend their sensibilities. I can see why many art museums are considered "conservative" institutions. They're like banks. They need to demonstrate an ability to manage and protect priceless items.

But I'm sure there are plenty of curators at art museums who don't see themselves as white-gloved keepers of valuables, that there are people who actively WANT to focus on visitors. But how can they do it without hurting relationships with donors and critics? How can collecting museums be democratic?

Find funders willing to invest in interpretation and visitor experiences.
Education programs, web activities, and other visitor-focused initiatives take money to run. The good news is that relative to the cost of a major piece of art, these programs are cheap. But they need to be incorporated into the collection pie. I don't know too much about how art museums work, but I imagine that anytime they take on a new piece, they must calculate the cost of preparing, cleaning, protecting, and displaying that object. Is interpretation factored into that cost? I imagine there are donors out there--as there are to science and childrens' museums--who are more jazzed about sharing their love of art with the world than about its importance in the canon of civilization. Could those funders be energized to support experimental programming and visitor-focused interpretation?

Ignore the big guys and focus on community-based or local art.
One of my favorite local museums, the American Visionary Art Museum, is the most "for the people, by the people" art museum I've ever entered. The art is all "outsider art" made by non-professionals, many in unconventional situations (imprisoned, insane, very young, very old). Since these are not artists in the standard canon, there are no hard and fast rules about how their art has to be displayed and interpreted. Plus, since outsiders are traditionally misunderstood, the museum has a commitment to making the art accessible to visitors. The starting assumption is that the art is inaccessible and needs to be interpreted, not that it is venerable and that visitors need to do work on their own to access it (which is what I see in more traditional art museums). The American Visionary Art Museum displays the art with love and respect for its artists, but also with a focus on making that art available and lovable to visitors.

Give critics something to talk about besides what's hanging on the walls.
Museums are willing to take risks on unusual artists and installations; why not take risks on programming and visitor events as well? It may be hard to find art critics willing to tear their eyes from the museum objects to observe museum visitors, but if the programming is innovative and pushes the envelope of how art is interpreted, it may get notice. Think of the Washington Post Joshua Bell "musician in the metro" experiment or the Tate Modern's reality show based on visitors explaining pieces of contemporary art; press are interested in the question of what art is, what regular people think it is, and how they deal with it. An article about a visitor experiment is just as valuable as one about a new exhibition... and it may bring in new visitors and funding streams focused on visitor experiences.

Be transparent about the provenance of pieces so visitors can understand how the donor cycle works.
Do you ever wonder WHY you are looking at a particular piece in a museum? I remember when I first saw the Insect Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It's excellent, and it's funded by Orcon. How do I know that? It says at the entrance to the exhibit. How I view the Hall is impacted by my knowledge about its funding source--just as the way I view politicians is impacted by their chief backers. In a democracy, you can trace content back to its source. I'm not sure if it improves the visitor experience, but at least it lets the visitors know who the other players in the development of the museum experience are.

I know there are some museums, notably the Brooklyn Museum, that have made novel efforts to connect with and focus on visitors, while still maintaining a high quality of collection (and presumably, good relationships with donors and critics). But I've also heard about other museums being slammed for similar endeavors. How can we keep visitors on the victory mat?

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