Leading Access in Museums #ArtsAdvocacyDay

Americans people museums twice as often as sporting events.  If you have worked in a museum, this is a fact you very likely know.  The high numbers feel field-affirming.  People like museums, see.  We know people like sports (LeBron anyone?) And, they love museums twice as much.

The challenge with all numbers is there is so much nuance.  Are there more unique visitors to museums than sports? Just because they go, do they like museums more?

This debate relates to real dollars.  Museums received millions of dollars in federal funding, through agencies like National Endowment for the Art, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Institute for Museums and Libraries.  Sports isn’t doing it on its own, by any means, but the funding is often in the form of tax breaks or tax subsidies. This difference is more than semantics.  In some ways, this is the difference between the discussion about welfare and farm subsidies. The former is burdened with (unfair) discussions of free money while the latter is about “helping out” important elements of society.

Basically, museums need to be less big institution and more big business.  There is a lot about Corporate America that I hope museums don’t adapt, but there is an important kernel to keep in mind. Museums talk about ownership, but companies truly have ownership involved. Businesses fail when they don’t get customers (set aside federal buyouts). Good ones adapt to keep people.  They make missteps and their stock goes down.  Shareholders are connected to the successes and failures of that company.

But, in museums, our idea of ownership is a feeling. So, their loss is perceived as a feeling. This is, of course, not true.  Museums, and art and culture in general, in many ways would make a much better investment. The arts in American make 704.2 Billion dollars for the economy.  That is 4.5 times the amount spent annual on the NEA.  Sounds pretty good to me in terms of business sense.

Now, I am not advocating actual stocks in museums. But, let’s admit people often have less investment in ownership in the fuzzy feeling sense than in the dollars sense. Museum can go with another business model–more customers.

But, museums aren’t doing a good enough job in terms of soliciting community ownership. Arts and culture are integral to our society.  If you are reading this, you are probably part of my choir.  But, I ask you—what are you doing to help change attitudes in our culture about our song?  In many ways, museums are part of the problem.  We make incremental changes to the way we present our objects and then laud them as being groundbreaking.  I am not attacking you; I am part of that we.  Museums feel inaccessible to many in our society. If they felt as vital, as essential to the nation as sport, rather than an add-on, the specter of funding cuts wouldn’t be so prevalent.

What can we do as a field to make our organizations accessible?  This is the holy grail question that I spent a couple of decades of my life trying to solve.  Family programs, for example, draw patrons to events but don’t necessarily create casual gallery visitors.  Outreach programs grow goodwill but don’t necessarily bring on-site visitors (or even online users).

I don’t have the answer. (And, I made you read this far.) But, I have some lessons learned:

  1. Cede some of your authority on your collection. Allow visitor voices. Bring in debates. Share the interpretation with those outside your field. Scholars won’t lose, but visitors and the organization will gain.
  2. Be truthful about your history. Colonialism, racism, sexism, classicism all go into building collection. It might be your institution’s truth, and museums are about the truth.
  3. Listen. You don’t like when others make choices for you. Why should you make all your choices for your visitors?
  4. Open your processes to your audience. Try new things and tell your audience about it. Listen to their feedback, and then try again.
  5. Don’t dehumanize your audience. Don’t create programs so that you can look diverse for your wealthy funders. Don’t.

With such integral, and fundamental changes, museums would transform their visitorship.  In a time, when so many people are seeking something (a respite from politics or a way to make sense of it, say), this would be THE moment to put real changes in place.  After all, every savvy business person knows, you got to strike while the iron is hot.

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