museum snobbery on the ropes

Two weeks after publication, Robin Pogrebin’s article  “Brooklyn Museum’s Populism Hasn’t Lured Crowds” in The New York Times continues to reverberate in the museum world.  Some of my favorite responses (obviously, based on my ranty comments) can be found here, here and here. Please take a moment to read the article and make your own determinations, but I found myself having to pause intermittently and practice meditative techniques to keep my blood pressure from rising.

As a museum professional, I know a certain amount of bias can be inferred on my part.  But anyone who has read my blog knows that I am not afraid to question the industry which puts food on my table.   Critical assessment and self-awareness are critical to growth and any person or organization that does not take the time to engage in such exercises  is doomed to failure.

Maybe it’s just because I’m used to deciphering racial code, but I instinctively read Pogrebin’s article between the lines.  Let’s break it down (all emphasis mine):

‘Although I think First Saturdays are a very effective community outreach, I question whether people come to them to see art, or to enjoy music and drinks,’ said Michael de Havenon, who stepped down in 2006 after 22 years as a museum trustee.

In philanthropic and nonprofit circles, the term “community outreach” has regrettably become synonymous with “poor, brown people.” Same for the buzzwords  “underserved” and “urban”, which sometimes translates to “folks we really don’t want to serve but if we want foundation dollars and some warm fuzzies to trot out during the Annual Fund campaign we better throw them a bone.” And I’m still trying to figure out why it’s okay to assail the art with drinking and socializing when it generates revenue (annual galas, facility rentals, etc.) but not in an effort to provide informal exposure to a museum that, depending on what outcomes you decide to measure, has real value.

‘The core constituency of collectors who matter, and people who are members of an art museum, want to be taught and stretched and learn.  You may get people in the door for a motorcycle show or a ‘Star Wars’ show, but they don’t return, and there is no residual value from their visits.’

This from Maxwell Anderson, former Director of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and now top dog at Indianapolis Museum of Art.   This one really broke my heart. I’m still hoping that Anderson was misquoted. Could the same person who aggressively advocates museum transparency and actively encourages the IMA’s Nugget Factory to produce thought-provoking, engaging and entertaining digital content via overwhelmingly “populist” platforms such as YouTube, iTunesU, Twitter and the critically lauded ArtBabble really think that collectors and members are the only folks museums should be concerned with and that there is no inherent value in visiting a museum, even if it is only once? While Anderson has never shied away from the belief that highlighting a museum’s permanent collection should take precedence over temporary exhibitions, it is disappointing that if his statement is to be believed, all of that work is only in service of certain segments of the population.

The Brooklyn Museum has long faced criticism that its populist tack and exhibitions on topics like the ‘Star Wars’ movies and hip-hop music have diminished its stature.

There it is again! When did populist, meaning of the people, become a dirty word?  And dropping the hip-hop cluster bomb, inferring that anything highlighting that culture results in a demotion to low-brow status? For shame! Focusing exhibitions around pop culture topics is  nothing new. So Star Wars gets your goat but no one cares about Andy Warhol, an artist who unabashedly promoted himself in the open market and whose artistic efforts, once derided for their common-man appeal, now adorn everything from throw rugs to dinner plates?

And what about the recent blockbustery exhibition in Rome celebrating the 400th birthday of Caravaggio? I’m sure there was much discussion of his use of contrast and realistic portraiture, but if you think there wasn’t just as much attention paid to his notorious True Hollywood Story-esque lifestyle (patronage, murder, mental illness and illicit sex set against the backdrop of Counter-Reformation Italy), you are crazy. Dwelling on the darker aspects of an artists’ life, an artist who was immensely popular in his lifetime, banished to obscurity immediately following his death and resurrected 300 years later in the annals of art history due to the demands of university students? It doesn’t get much more common than that. However, since considerable time and entire careers have been have been devoted to reshaping Caravaggio’s work into an “acceptable” art form (and searching for his bones, which if proven to be the real deal, will undoubtedly be displayed somewhere) all is forgiven.

Don’t neglect the reader comments. While many were supportive of the Brooklyn Museum’s efforts, a few stood out.

  • One commenter wrote, “I want the real Brooklyn Museum back!” That brought to mind angry protestors who tearfully state, “I want my America back”  (at 1:15) while cashing their government-provided checks on the first of the month. “Real museum” = The way that best serves me and my interests.
  • Pogrebin missed the opportunity to examine the transportation difficulties that commenters described due to mass transit changes related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Transportation and accessibility issues definitely deter museum visits from the local community and tourists alike.
  • “Museums are supposed to be serious.” Really? Tell that to the Velveteria, a place where art and culture intersected like no other.
  • “Fixed values and fixed standards count. And always will despite the pandering instincts of the fools who have ascended to run these great institutions,” says a commenter who also harkened back to the good old days of the Brooklyn Museum in the “forties and fifties”, without offering any insight into what those values and standards were or should be, yet saying a lot about nostalgia as a powerful filter.   Was the Brooklyn Museum a segregated facility then like most leisure venues in New York City? If so, I certainly wouldn’t want to see a return to that time.

All right, I’ll let the horse be buried. But I have to end with this: Pogrebin’s article was a sucker-punch, an indelicate eff-you to those of us who work in museums because we love it and give careful consideration to the special role museums play in their respective communities. Inevitably, some may view the field a s a means to an end, just another gig, but have you ever asked a security officer with an MFA from a prestigious art school why she hasn’t traded on that expensive education and joined the corporate world instead of spending all day on her feet for minimum wage?

So show of hands: who’s in it to get rich? *crickets* 

Truth be told, my feelings were hurt.

See, I know how many hours (way too many) museum employees devote for (much too) little compensation to provide meaningful opportunities for visitors to engage, learn from and be motivated and inspired by objects in collections across the world. This is a nearly impossible task, borne of love. Somewhere, right at this moment, curators, educators, conservators, fabricators, designers, librarians and social media specialists are wracking their brains trying to boil thousands of years of art history down into an approachable form that doesn’t require a PhD to comprehend, while simultaneiously upholding rigorous scholarly standards.  Employees from the front line to the administrative offices are working hard to make museums places of inclusion rather than exclusion, to ensure that every experience–website, studio art class, parking garage, museum store, restaurant,  library, restroom–is a pleasant one.

I’ve attended meetings where language and image choices are debated for hours in an attempt to serve both the art and those engaging with it. The conversations are simultaneously heated, hilarious, insightful and tedious. Why, I often think, is this so flipping important? Does anyone care about this stuff besides us?  The answer is yes and no, for reasons too numerous to count. But if we choose to determine if our efforts are worthwhile simply by the number of people who enter the door, or whom is worthy of experiencing these efforts by measuring what we can take from them, then why bother even asking the question?

9 thoughts on “museum snobbery on the ropes

  1. Hi, Adrienne. Yes, those are my words—but not all of them. My fuller point was that the pursuit of crowds is not a sufficient goal for an art museum. Any more than it should be for a library. The core believers in museums—those loyal to them—will desert museums which consistently trade substantial fare for fluff. By substantial fare I include scholarly, tough, controversial, or ground-breaking shows. Projects devised to court corporate sponsorship or crowds WITHOUT any substance don’t serve a museum’s mission. A person who visits a museum for a spectacle temporarily grafted onto the museum most likely leaves with no lasting connection to that museum.
    And I wasn’t singling out Brooklyn—there are other museums that have occasionally strayed from presenting work they believe in just for ratings. I favor staging the projects that the professional staff believes in, and then working very hard to get the general public to care. What I don’t favor is giving up thoughtful or challenging fare in order to move the turnstile.


    • Thanks for clarifying your statement! I certainly agree that chasing the money is the most likely way to achieve mission drift. I took offense at the tone of the article, which seemed to imply that simply because an exhibition appeals to popular culture, it is inherently devoid of the characteristics that you listed.


  2. Okay. I laughed aloud at the “Who’s in it to get rich?” part with the crickets.

    This post gave me an adreneline rush in a big way; It’s so passionate! I adore that you went through the significant lines. I like the ones you chose because I think that you (or I, or any museum lover for that matter) could go through many of the lines picking out things that seem a bit off. I think you chose ones that get straight to the point.

    I like Rebecca’s point that the Brookyln Museum is taking risks that other institutions can learn from. Your post points to this as well.

    Thanks for a great post! There’s just so much thought-food from this NYT article about museums, nonprofit measurement, and folks’ perceptions of these institutions. The post got me thinking even more.


  3. I could say something, but I’d just be repeating something you said. I totally agree. It’s upsetting and pointlessly exclusionary in a time when most museums are really struggling to engage more diverse audiences. Thanks for covering this issue. I woulda missed it.


    • As another commenter pointed out, at least Brooklyn Museum is trying. You can learn just as much from your perceived “failures” as your successes! Perhaps if the article had taken that position rather than being so relentlessly negative, it would have read differently.


  4. I miss working at a museum sometimes, for all the reasons these people are arguing against. I can’t think of anything better or more important than a populist experience of ‘serious’ art.


    • I certainly miss your passion for it! I just keep thinking back to the fact that if someone hadn’t taken the time to help me make meaningful connections in a “populist” way I would not love art and museums as much as I do.


  5. The Brooklyn Museum is taking risks. The JHU Listening Post project recently published a study where museums are considered less likely to be creative/innovative, but we can learn from the BM current experiences. (the JHU study has been lingering in my mind for the last couple weeks esp coming from a small institution) In a time when visitation is down across the nation, if they can afford the risk and want to make it, why not try? I would surely hope the measurement of success cannot be based on sheer numbers alone. It cannot be overlooked that they were bringing in the younger generation when it seems like so many of us struggle with building that demographic! It seems like the BM really diversified the museum going audience and that’s something we can all learn from. We need to make ourselves relevant to our local communities but also keep in mind our missions and have realistic expectations- maybe that’s where they made their downfall? I really enjoyed the Center for the Future of Museums’ post on the NYT article too. We all need to continue to be a part of this conversation at our own institutions and beyond.


    • You make excellent points! Thanks for the tip on the Listening Post project. It all seems to boil down to each organization’s outcomes and methods of measurement, which should be as varied and unique as the museums themselves. Brooklyn Museum’s audience engagement strategy rolled out in 2004 and I doubt any amount of prognosticating could have predicted the economic messes that have proved fatal for some museums in the past few years. However despite the decrease in visitation industry-wide that you mentioned, Brooklyn Museum held fast to its community-based focus. Without seeing a stratgegic plan, it is hard to assess exactly what the expectations were (and the NYT article certainly painted a gloom-and-doom picture) and how they would be measured. I have to agree that any museum that bases success strictly on attendance is setting itself up for failure. You need numbers, so you book blockbusters, then you receive criticism for pandering to the lowest common denominator, thus reaching for the other side of the scholarly spectrum and alienating a large part of your potential visitorship, and so on and so on. All signs point to the fact that the demographics of our country have already shifted, and museums that fail to address these changes in a sincere way do so at their own risk.


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