Money, Market, or Mission? Museums in a Changing World

ethicsGuest blogger Sally Yerkovich is director of the Institute of Museum Ethics, founded at Seton Hall University in 2007.  The Institute promotes accountability, responsibility, and sustainability in museums by:convening conversations about critical ethical issues facing museums today, and creating a physical and virtual community of emerging and practicing museum professionals and museum studies faculty who can use our resources to make informed decisions about ethical matters.  This post is the first in our series of posts from accepted Museums and Politics conference speakers.  Sally will be speaking on “Is there a Future for Museum Ethics?”  and, as you’ll see, there’s much to ponder. We’re particularly interested in hearing perspectives from around the world. Please share your comments!

Since its inception, the Institute has hosted three international conferences and a number of lectures.  It has also generated courses on museum ethics and cultural heritage, initiated dialogues about contemporary ethical issues for museums through its website and listserv, and collaborated with the Center for the Future of Museums of the American Association of Museums on a nationwide forecasting exercise on future ethical issues.

The Institute maintains a LinkedIn group for discussions about museum ethics in the news as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts.  We post news articles on regularly and also maintain a listserv.  The Institute offers confidential consultations regarding ethical issues in museums.

The Institute of Museum Ethics maintains that ethical issues underpin all aspects of work in museums — from governance to education, registration to exhibitions, finances to operations and visitor services.

Whether in day-to-day decision-making or forging an overarching mission, museum ethics are about an institution’s relationship with people — individuals and groups in the communities a museum serves as well as its staff and board members.

We define museum ethics through principles of conduct related to individual and institutional behavior, such as integrity, accountability, loyalty, honesty, and responsibility.  We provide the tools to identify operative ethical principles, and we keep abreast of issues in the field as well as larger societal changes in order to anticipate the emergence of circumstances that might have an impact upon ethical practice in museums.

The Institute holds that museums should encourage understanding and promote social justice. As a result, we support the exploration of how institutions can use the past to address present concerns, facilitate dialogue among diverse groups, and empower marginalized communities, locally and globally.

This year as part of a three-lecture celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Seton Hall’s Master’s Degree in Museum Professions Program, the Institute hosted a conversation between award-winning arts and culture journalist Judith H. Dobrzynski and the Institute’s Director Sally Yerkovich on “Money, Market, or Mission?  Museums in a Changing World.”  The premise of the conversation was that ongoing challenges have caused museums to question accepted ways of doing business and to look for models that involve entertainment as much as education.  It addressed the question of how museums can respond to current trends in the market and build their audiences without compromising their educational and scholarly purposes.

The conversation started with the question of whether drawing larger audiences automatically brings more revenue to a museum.  Ms. Dobrzynski feels strongly that this is a false equation.  She pointed out that while some of the evening events held at places like the Brooklyn Museum or the Santa Cruz Museum of History and Art might bring in good crowds, one could question whether they attract people to the institutions for art or for entertainment.  She noted that the additional money these events generate – through sales in gift shops or museum cafes – is negligible when one looks at the larger financial picture.  And she questioned the ethics of the motivation to simply encourage larger numbers of people to museums for entertaining events – dances, festivals and the like – rather than to attract them for mission-related exhibitions and programs.

She went further to add that museums are in some ways responsible for the patterns of behavior of their visitors.  People have come to expect to go to museums for something special.  In the 1970s and 1980s, by putting on blockbusters and other special exhibitions, art museums ‘trained’ audiences to go to museums for special shows.  Is it no wonder, then, that now museums find their permanent galleries empty?  And that only special activities now attract increased numbers of visitors.  In essence, we are now training people to come for these events and she asked if this is really the right thing to do?

Dobrzynski noted, “The activities that museums are staging now, in many instances, have nothing to do with their collections or art and that’s what I think is…dangerous….because art museums are never going to be able to compete with entertainment venues and to even raise the expectation that they could is again mis-training your audience.  That’s not what they should be going to these museums for.”

Happily, Ms. Dobrzynski noted that not all museums are following this pattern.  She cited the example of the Worcester Museum of Art in Massachusetts that has recently re-installed its permanent collections.  Eschewing many art museum conventions – for example, hanging paintings from the same region together and identifying each work with wall labels – Re-mastered is an installation of the Worcester Museum’s Old Masters collection, hung medallion style.  Paintings are grouped in unconventionally to get visitors to look at them in a new ways.  For example, one grouping of paintings is all about the gaze and some of the paintings interact with others.  Ms. Dobrzynski quoted Matthias Waschek, the Worcester Museum’s Director who explained his motivation for this installation, “I want people to fall in love with the art.  When you fall in love with it, you think about something that is bigger than you are…, bigger than what you are feeling at the moment.  I want people to love the arts to bits.” For Ms. Dobrzynski, getting people interested in the art rather than just getting people in the door is key.

She stressed that there is no “one size fits all” solution – that it is important for each museum to find its own way.  Dobrzynski noted that the contemporary art market has spurred on many art museums to collect one of this and one of that to have works by artists who are making news.  But this may not be the best way to move forward.  She cited several instances of museums that have developed a specialty – for example, Milwaukee has a strong folk art collection and Cincinnati, a strong regional art collection – and pointed out that these institutions attract people to them because of their distinctiveness.

On the issue of whether museums should take their direction from the public, Ms. Dobrzynski was unequivocal.  Commenting on the recent hiring by the Indianapolis Museum of Art of an Audience Experiences and Performance Curator with the expectation that the public will have a say in what happens at the museum, she said, “I think that that is an ethical issue.  If Charles Venable [The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art] really thinks that the public should be determining what he does at the museum, I think he’s got it backwards.”

One of the members of the audience commented that the majority of museums in the US are not art but history museum and asked if small historical societies and historic house might have a different relationship to their audiences.  Ms. Dobrzynski agreed that these museums are different; however, she expressed great concern over their wellbeing.  She commented that right now many historic houses are in terrible trouble, “I think we have too many of them and I don’t think that they are all going to survive.  We are just not that interested in history any more.”

Ms. Dobrzynski recently wrote a story about historic houses and in the process became familiar with over 100 historic houses around the country.  She observed, “Even some of the best are in trouble.”  She doesn’t compare them with art museums, however, and noted that even with art museums there is a taxonomy, some are about collections while others, which may not have large collections or even any collections at all, have a different mission and can be more community focused.  She stressed that different kinds of museums have different roles to play and must adopt different strategies.

Dr. Yerkovich suggested that the question rests fundamentally upon the mission of the organization. What is appropriate for an historical house is very different from what it appropriate for an art museum.  She noted that when she was head of The New Jersey Historical Society, “we were conscious of the fact that we needed to relate to our community in a lot of different ways through programming, through our exhibitions, through allowing people opportunities to convene and talk about issues that were important to tem.  But because we were an historical society we were about identity and about civic responsibility, so we could do that very legitimately.”  This is a role that historical organizations can play much more naturally than art museums because so many of them are in and of their community.

The conversation touched upon a range of other topics including the appropriateness of museums functioning like businesses, the impact of tourism on selected museums, the use of technology, and how or whether museums should market to target audiences.

Dr. Yerkovich raised the subject of deaccessioning and asked if the recent experiences of the Detroit Institute of Art and Randolph College provide any lessons for the museum community at large.  Ms. Dobrzynski felt that these are each very special cases and don’t really relate to the majority of museums. Has the conversation about the value of the art held by either the DIA or Randolph College raised the awareness of the public about the monetary value of art and shifted the conversation to dollar signs rather than to the meaning and significance of the art itself?  Ms. Dobrzynski didn’t feel that it has.  Certainly the high prices in the contemporary art market have brought the value of art to the public’s attention, but this is just a fact of life.  And museums have to be well managed so that they can be in control of their own destinies.  Instead, Ms. Dobrzynski said that she feels the trend towards entertainment in museums is more of a threat.  “The more museums become entertainment, the less special they become and the less we can defend art as something that is inviolate and can’t be sold to raise money to pay for operations.”

In sum, Ms. Dobrzynski stressed that everyone should have the opportunity to visit museums and that museums, in turn, should feel accessible to all.  Her closing message was that museums have to focus upon their collections, they have to know their community, and they must concentrate on their core mission.  In short, “make it about art.”

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3 comments on “Money, Market, or Mission? Museums in a Changing World
  1. Pingback: Museums, Politics and Power | Money, Market, or...

  2. This is an extremely relevant topic that many museums need to continue discussing openly. As a graduate student in history, this complex relationship with the public is regularly studied, and it does seem like museums that want to remain relevant in a modern era make decisions based solely on what the public wants. Instead of manipulating a museum’s mission to fit what the public calls for at that time, it would be more beneficial to look at what the public needs within this larger society. This is not to say that museums know better than the public, or that the public should not have any say in exhibitions or events, but an appropriate balance should be reached. Museums depend on their community, and communities rely on museums for their role in presenting knowledge through history and art.

  3. Pingback: Museums, Politics and Power | Die Diskussion geht weiter!

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