Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Capitalizing on capabilities and the changing role of museums.

While reading the Ulrich and Smallwood article I was reminded of a talk I attended last year at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The talk was given by Lynn Zelevanski, the new Executive Director, on her past year at the museum and what she saw as the museum's future. What struck me was that she emphasized that among of the many strengths of the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA) she counted the small size of the institution as a major asset as it made them more agile than their national competitors. This stayed with me after the talk because it was a perspective I hadn't really considered with the non-profit museum industry. The bigger the better. That seemed to be the presiding vision that has guided museums over the last century. To call to mind some of the largest and most successful examples of that vision, just think of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Smithsonian Museums in DC. They are humongous, awe-inspiring institutions that are so large that it is physically impossible to visit them all in one visit. Along with the awe comes the expanded responsibilities - large staffing requirements, larger revenue goals, plus the acts of collecting and conservation. A special note on the conservation and collection activities - these form 2/3 of a museum's mission, but almost never generate revenue and the efforts are rarely seen by the public. Since the 1990's, there has been a major shift in museums. Attendance has gone down (well, before the 90's, but the trend worsened in that decade) and the culture wars have wrought political hardships for the entire industry. The feeling that bigger is better became bigger is unsustainable coupled with the political demand to increase earned revenue instead of public and foundation funding. This is why what Lynn said struck me. She took a different angle that I had not thought of before. The CMoA is not the largest institution, but it is set up that they can be very agile. Shows can be curated and produced at lower cost due to smaller galleries to fill. Revenues are shared with the natural history museum since it is a combined facility. There are less bureaucratic levels to fight through to implement short term strategic shifts. They can act as a leaner, faster, more efficient museum than their national partners. It was interesting to see how she took what many in the museum world would have considered a weakness and focused on how small is in fact better, faster, and more adept at change than bigger. This willingness to think outside of traditional roles and expectations, but hold true to mission, is what may save many of our cultural institutions as they continue to be challenged on their sustainability and necessity in the US.

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