Archive for March, 2013

In celebration of the NAEA conference a few weeks ago, we tweeted out two articles about art museums.  The first, “The Power of a Masterwork,” was written by Brian Ferriso, Director of the Portland Museum of Art (see the March/April 2013 edition of Museum also shared at http://www.portlandartmuseum.org/document.doc?id=93 ).  When I read this article for the first time, I found myself nodding along with the article and almost audibly exclaiming “Yes!” (despite being in the designated quiet car on my train) as I read the second to last paragraph in which Ferriso poignantly notes: “The need for resources and relevance will continue to influence and affect the central mission of the art museum.  Nonetheless, the success of Portland’s Masterworks Series reinforces the notion that the foundational mission to bring together viewers and great works of art.  Moving too far away from this core can indeed lead the art museum into territory that will ultimately make it irrelevant rather than relevant.”

Art at the Core - Claes Oldenburg's Apple Core

Art at the Core
Claes Oldenburg’s Apple Core

Ferriso speaks directly to a concern of mine—that museums (not just art museums) are pandering to certain audiences in an effort to stay relevant rather than respecting the unique value that only they can offer to society and embracing that uniqueness wholeheartedly.  While these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, sometimes museums think they are.  I have seen evidence of pandering firsthand in our evaluation work.  For instance, a museum client may ask us to find out what visitors want from a museum exhibition or program.  This request is often met with a shudder on our part, as we explain that, as part of our philosophy of evaluation, we seek information that will help museum’s bridge the gap between their intentions and where visitors are (in terms of perceptions, knowledge, or skills).  Therefore, Ferriso’s suggestion that museums who move away from their core (which is what I see happening when a museum indulges an audience without regard to the museum’s intentions) are making themselves irrelevant resonated deeply with me.

A few days later, I came across another enthralling read.  That article was about Chris Dercon, Director of the Tate (see “Tate Director Chris Dercon: ‘Everything Can Change’.” at http://www.artnews.com/2013/02/27/tate-director-chris-derco/).  From even a quick scan of the article, it is obvious that Dercon is a dynamic personality.  For instance, the article’s title touts Dercon’s idea that “everything can be changed” and describes him “radically rethink[ing] the role of the museum in the 21st century.”  Despite mention that the Tate director’s “risk-taking has not always paid off,” the article left me feeling invigorated by the idea that art museums can and should turn over a new leaf and change the way they do things.

Can these seemingly contrasting ideas—turning to the core versus radically rethinking the museum co-exist?  Is the idea of turning to your core a stodgy and outdated idea that is too conservative?  On the other hand, is the idea that museums must radically rethink their role too progressive and detached from the museum’s purpose?

I came to wonder whether these ideas were as dichotomous as they sound.  That is, when Dercon talks about radically rethinking the museum, it seems he may be rethinking the impact that the museum can have on its visitors, for as the article states, Dercon has a “conviction that art is a vital force for civic good and an integral element of democracy.”  Yet, this radical rethinking is centered around the idea of mixing up art presentations and provoking visitors through art, such as by “confront[ing] Germans with Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling sculpture of Adolf Hitler” at Haus der Kunst—the museum at which Dercon served as director (prior to the Tate), which happened to be built by Hitler in 1933.  Therefore, while the lexicon used to describe these two directorships may seem different, the fact of the matter is that experiences with art are undeniably at the core of their institutions, a seemingly simple idea that is quite laudable in this day and age.

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Several months ago, I came across the DoSomething.org report about young people and volunteering (you can check out the report here).  Intrigued, I read it with a mind toward how museums might attract a piece of this teen-volunteering pie.  As we all know, volunteers are vital to museums.  The DoSomething.org report and other articles I came across suggest that the face of volunteering and philanthropy are changing.  It may be time for museums to take a closer look.

A lot of information in the DoSomething.org report is what I expected (e.g., reasons young people volunteer are not always altruistic; people who volunteer are happier), but the report also brings to light one important point: fundraising is the #1 way young people volunteer (38.5% of young people who volunteer have fundraised for charity) (p. 21).  This piqued my interest.  I realized that if this is true, perhaps there is a way for museums to use young people in roles outside of program presenters or “junior curators.”Robin Hood Funding Cartoon

The Center for the Future of Museums shared a Time magazine article titled “How Nonprofits Convince Millennials to Give: Customize the Cause” (you can read it here).  In a nutshell the article is about how Millennials want their charitable giving to be personal and local.  They want to feel like they are making a difference, but they don’t have deep pockets to write big checks.  However, these young potential donors aren’t shy about sharing their favorite causes through social media or about encouraging others to give to important initiatives.  In short, they excel at making their cause known and raising funds to support it.  Because Millennials participate in a fast-paced world, they expect to see the impact of their efforts—immediately, or at least more quickly than traditional donors.  They want precise details about how their donations are helping; they want evidence that their small donations, collectively, are making a big difference; and they want the ability to describe to others the effect their small donations are having.  In order to attract teens as potential donors or fundraisers, museums need to clarify the impact they hope to achieve and explain how teens’ donations will be used.  As my colleagues have pointed out many times in earlier blog posts, museums have to think concretely about the intended results of their work and then use this information as a starting point for all they do.

So, what do Museums do?

There are so many great teen and young adult programs at museums around the country.  Having perfected their teen programming strategy, perhaps museums are at a point where they can begin working with teens in new ways.  Museums, as organizations with deeply-held beliefs and passions, could use their passions to engage teens that have similar passions.  According to the DoSomething.org report, the top five issues teens care about are animal welfare, hunger, homelessness, the environment, and the economy.  And yet, the very same report says, “young people tend not (emphasis added) to volunteer on animal issues.  The problem is they don’t know how to help, or haven’t been offered any good ways to help” (p. 18).  What does your museum care about?  Can you extend your fundraising efforts to teens that care about the same issues?

In our digitally-connected world, people have endless platforms for sharing causes about which they are passionate.  And teens are more connected than ever, with a 2010 Pew Internet & American Life Project report saying that 73% of wired American teens use social networking sites.  Museums can harness that power and use it to their benefit by developing campaigns that encourage small donations.  Create one-time volunteer events for young people rather than programs that require a long commitment, or encourage your committed older volunteers to bring a young friend or family member to the museum and seize the opportunity to showcase how all can be involved in the museum in big and small ways.  Do you already have a program for teens through the education department?  If so, why not collaborate with the development department to find a way to encourage teens to use their personal, digital platforms to share your institution’s cause?

At the very least, these young people can become a mass of loyal supporters who can take your message into the community and highlight your museum’s deep passion—and really, who wouldn’t want that?

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