museum’s dyin’…who’s got the will? part one

It is no secret that I am a museum/nonprofit geek.  I read things like the National Endowment for the Arts 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts for fun! If the thought of reading tons of statistical data makes your eyes cross, you may want to watch the video of the December 10, 2009 roundtable discussion of the survey instead.

key findings related to art museums

  • About 55% of people who went to art museums or art galleries in 2008 were women.
  • Approximately 54% of 2008 art museum going adults had a college or graduate degree.
  • After topping 26% in 1992 and 2002, the art museum attendance rate slipped to 23% in 2008 –comparable to the 1982 level.
  • Demographic distribution of art museum visitors: 78.9% White*, 8.6% Hispanic, 5.9% African-American, 6.6% Other *

 *not including Hispanics

My gut reaction: duh.

However, my gut is not empirical, statistical or fundable.  Studies like the NEA’s are important, but an informal study of most art museums–and by “informal” I mean stand in the lobby or galleries and eavesdrop for an hour or two–would likely come to the same conclusions.

So why does this matter? Museums have heavily cultivated their main audiences for years, but now find themselves in a quandry:  retain the base yet engage new constituents.  Although it sounds like a play from a politician’s handbook, the idea is roughly the same.  Diverging too sharply from the familiar risks alienation, but dutifully trodding the well-worn path of programs and exhibitions discourages new encounters.

Rarely have there been so many entertainment options, many available without leaving the home, and while some seem reluctant to consider themselves as such,  museums are entertainment venues, a vital part of the arts and culture industry that anually funnels approximately $166.2 billion into the United States economy.

Although the NEA’s survey is not all gloom and doom, it has been referenced repeatedly as the bellwether of the current museum “crisis.”  I submit that by clinging to the status quo and doggedly adhering to staid organizational structures,  cultures and development schemes, many museums contributed to their own demise.

in memoriam: art museums that  passed on to the Great Collection in the Sky in 2009

the usual suspects or how the heck did this happen?

The most referenced scapegoat villian is recession.  The global economic downturn, which had been churning away since 2007, led to sharply decreasing values of  museum endowments heavily invested in the stock market and real estate.  And with declining endowments comes shock, alarm and knee-jerk reactions.   Heavy losses spurred museums to balance budget deficits by cutting employees, reducing and/or freezing salaries, limiting hours of operation, curtailing or eliminating public programs, implementing or increasing admissions fees, cancelling  exhibitions and temporarily closing (ArtInfo has a comprehensive timeline of these efforts.)

Another culprit? Since Jane Q. Public is struggling financially, she certainly won’t want to spend her weakened dollars at the museum (and who can afford the gas and/or the bus fare to get there?) so admission is inevitably down.  Free and pay-for-entry museums alike feel the pinch, with less income earned from the stores, restaurants, rentals, program fees and parking facilities that comprise their revenue streams.

And the donors? Foundations, corporatations and individuals elect to tighten their pursestrings and hunker down until the economic crisis resolves itself.   That means less underwriting of programs and facilities, shrinking contributions to annual funds and drops in bequests of art objects and monetary gifts.

Please understand that I am not making light of this.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gross assets decreased $672 million between June 30, 2008 – June 30, 2009 largely due to the decline of its endowment. To say that this has been a challenging year for those us employed in the museum industry is something of an understatement.  Newsweek‘s Peter Plagens  calls  it “The Great Museum Cutback” and worries for the future of museums.   However, since my bread and butter derives from this industry, I am duty-bound to examine it.

It’s the professional equivalent no one making fun of my mother except me.

Great, you’ve pointed out all the problems, but whadya do about it? I’ll examine that in part two.

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4 thoughts on “museum’s dyin’…who’s got the will? part one

  1. Pingback: museum snobbery on the ropes « Cabinet of Curiousities

  2. I read things like “the National Endowment for the Arts 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” for fun too! And yes, so much of what I read is “uh duh” for anyone working in the cultural sector. But the point is it’s all going to change when our demographics shift. I am lucky enough to have the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and PEW working on strategies to address engaging new audiences.

    If you have not already seen this the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance has some great resources in “Research into Action: Pathways to New Opportunities” and “Engage 2020,”, an initiative focused on doubling cultural engagement in Greater Philadelphia by 2020.

    Keep up the good blogging.


    • That is an excellent resource, thank you! And I am in full agreement that surveys and studies are extremely necessary, especially when it comes to the allocation of resources. Please keep me posted on your work and thanks for reading!


  3. Pingback: museum’s dyin’…who’s got the will? part two « Cabinet of Curiousities

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