Thursday, November 29, 2012

Should Museums Be Thankful?

Last week, before I began my big cooking blitz, I tried to make a list of things museums should be thankful for, but I came up dry. I’d spent the week trying to beef up my political scanning, and the results were pretty depressing. No matter how the current budget debate is resolved, both parties seem to accept a future in which government support for arts and culture (direct or indirect) is going to stagnate, at best, and possibly radically contract.

Many conservative policy makers frankly state their belief that government shouldn’t be in the business of supporting the arts. Here, for example, is a reply a colleague shared with me in response to an advocacy letter directed to fiscally conservative Senator Rand Paul (R-KY): 

September 18, 2012

Dear Mr. _____,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding support for the arts. I am a supporter and patron of the arts, however I think such programs are best supported through the generosity of private citizens and free of government influence and favoritism.
Also, in a time of trillion-dollar government budget deficits, we cannot afford to fund everything the government has funded in the past. I will continue my support for the arts in my community, but I cannot support federal government funding for the arts while adding to the national debt.
Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue. Please do not hesitate to contact me regarding future federal issues.

Rand Paul, MD
United States Senator

Well, that’s blunt. It echoes the sentiment I have heard expressed in newspaper comments, and on Twitter. Nina Simon highlighted one such comment from the debate over the millage proposal to support the Detroit Institute of Arts, to wit,  “Why don’t all the people who want the DIA to stay open pay fair market value for it?”

However this week, over the transom came an item that reminds me that however dark things sometimes appear, it could be worse. Apparently on Thanksgiving night, Fox News aired a panel discussion about the charitable deduction on Special Report with Bret Baier.  A correspondent who transcribed a recording of the show relays that conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said, in response to another panelist: 

"That's the major argument to retain the (charitable) deduction, because there are so many institutions that need and give and do and this helps them.

But there is another argument that I think is overlooked which is, all the other deductions and credits are ways for the government to influence you, exert its power over you.  For example, to buy a house instead of renting, because of the mortgage deduction. Charitable is the only one that's the opposite.

Charitable is the one where the government -- where you choose where the money is to go and the government is sort of adding power to your choices.  So it's strengthening all the institutions that Fred (Barnes) had mentioned, the churches, and the research institutions, the universities, the Rotary Clubs, and these are all the institutions of civil society that stand between the government and the individual.

So whereas the growth of big government over a century has diminished all of these institutions and marginalized them, these are the institutions that are the ones that are sort of the little platoons that stand up against the government.

So I would  . . . despite the fact that we have to do a lot of cutting of deductions, the only one I would protect entirely and exempt it from any of these cuts would be the charitable because it's precisely the thing that in essence drains some of the power out of big government and allows individuals to choose what institutions of civil society it wants to actually empower.  I'd keep it for only that reason, as well as the reason, of course, that the institutions that help the needy will need it."

(Here is the video for the whole segment. It's worth 6 minutes to watch it.)

So while conservative Republicans, on the whole, want to take the government out of the business of funding arts and culture, they are more than willing to encourage individuals to support nonprofits, as a form of direct populist support of public goods. (And don’t you love the idea of contributions to museums as a form of “sticking it to the man?”) 

This is of a piece with the trend towards characterizing contributions as "voluntary taxes." The recent founding of the Museum of Music by the CEO of Target was cited in an op ed piece yesterday on the NYTimes website as an example of a wealthy "self taxing" to support a social good. (I recommend you follow the public commentary on that op-ed, it is very interesting.)

Does this news qualify as something for which we can give thanks? I’m gonna have to think on that. Personally, I believe that one of the important things we do through government is hash out an understanding of the shared values and priorities that unite us. Personal giving may or may not be a viable way crowdsfunding public goods, but in any case it bypasses the deep, hard, messy and rigorous debate that forces us to explore, justify and maybe change our opinions about what deserves public support and why. As the writer of the op ed piece I cite above says, "the self-tax is at odds with a fundamental democratic principle--the idea that we raise money collectively and then, as a society, collectively choose how we will spend it." 

What do you think?

If you want to weigh in as Congress considers cutting the charitable deduction, you can use this contact form on the Alliance website to send a message to your representative.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Genomics of Art, Education & Commerce: Part I

 Recently I blogged about, a service built on “The Art Genome Project” that enables users to discover, learn about, and collect art that is suggested to them via a mathematical algorithm. That post provoked so much interesting discussion that I followed up with Christine Kuan, Chief Curator and Director of Strategic Partnerships at, to relay some of the questions raised by commentators related to’s educational goals, its for-profit business model, and its relationship to the art world. This is the first of two posts sharing her replies.

Q: What’s your background—how did you end up working for on this project?

CK: I majored in art history and English literature and then taught for a year at Beijing University. My first job, after getting my MFA in Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was administering The Andrew W. Foundation Mellon Chinese Museum Directors Program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Philippe de Montebello was Director then. I was deeply influenced by his philosophy of curatorial excellence and public mission. After that I was the editor of Grove Art Online at Oxford University Press, and then Chief Curatorial Officer & Vice President for External Affairs at ARTstor. In all of these roles, it was about building encyclopedic coverage of world art and cultivating relationships with people and institutions so that could happen.

John Elderfield,’s Senior Advisor and Chief Curator Emeritus of MOMA, approached me earlier this year about’s educational and scholarly ambitions. I became extremely interested in both the challenges of the project and the potential positive impact could have on the art world and on public engagement with art. The truth is, art isn’t as accessible to general audiences as people might think, particularly for low income and minority demographics and for people who don’t live in major cities., with its engineering, interaction design, and The Art Genome Project, is rethinking the way we provide online access to art.

For example, we have a gene for “Nude” which allows you to easily go from the Venus of Willendorf, 24000 to 22000 BCE to Peter Paul Rubens: Psyche, c.1612-15 to contemporary photographs of Kate Moss by Mario Sorrenti. This is significant not only for art historians, but for a number of areas of study—Feminist Theory, Popular Culture, Renaissance Studies, etc. Millions of images are already available at high-quality on the Web, but providing pathways and connections across 25,000+ artworks from all time periods and cultures in a way that everyone can utilize, not just experts in-the-know, is what’s really special about

Q: Your title at includes “Chief Curator”—how is what you do similar to what a museum curator does, and how is it different?

CK: It’s similar in the sense that I’m responsible for the overarching strategy for assembling the collections for and working with museums, foundations, artists’ estates, and individuals to cultivate those partnerships and relationships that will make our collections encyclopedic and compelling. We’re also going to be working on a number of online exhibitions in collaboration with various organizations, including Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), which is one of the largest archives of video art. While curators at museums are curating collections of physical objects and dealing with those issues around education, conservation, exhibitions, and public relations, I’m overseeing those same issues around digital assets—education, digital preservation, intellectual property, virtual exhibitions, and communicating our mission to our partners, potential partners, and the public. I’m always thinking about how we can represent a broader range of artists, geographical regions, different cultures and time periods and how we create a meaningful experience and service both for our users and for our partners.

Q. has both a profit motive and an educational mission. You’ve worked at both nonprofit and for-profit ventures—do you feel that being a for-profit affects the educational dynamic, and if so, how?

CK: Generating revenue is pretty much essential to every museum, nonprofit, and for-profit company these days. Even traditionally government-supported European museums have found their funding drastically cut in recent years and are searching for new ways to generate revenue. Whether it’s Target-sponsored free Friday nights at the museum or the Internet, we know that providing free access is the best way to pull in the largest number of visitors and to make the greatest impact. is building a robust, networked platform that is trying to anticipate where discovery, learning, and the art world will be 5-10 years from now. Today, 80% of art history students study contemporary art, and that the bulk of that art is being shown in galleries. Being for-profit, in the sense of taking a sales commission from artworks that sell through our website, is a sustainability plan that makes sense in the online realm and it enables us to be free to the public. I think the boundaries we draw in the analog realm really dissolve online—if you do a web search for any artist right now, you get works from commercial and non-commercial sources, and maybe also t-shirts, coffee cups, ads, birthday parties, and vacation photos. The difference is that is a curated platform that provides free, public access to art from more than 300+ galleries and more than 70+ nonprofit partners, including SFMOMA, The British Museum, Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt: National Design Museum, Fondation Beyeler, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Diebenkorn Foundation, Canadian Museum of Inuit Art, Asian Art Museum, Dallas Art Museum, Calder Foundation, Walters Art Museum, The Royal Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Estate of David Smith, and others.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Monday Musings: What Could Disappear?

I’ve blogged before about the importance of factoring climate trends into long term planning and risk assessment. Continued news of museums in New York and New Jersey coping with the aftermath of Frankenstorm Sandy, and the UK suffering under extreme rain and flooding, prompted me to use this Monday musing to remind you to spend a little brain power thinking about future risks to your communities, too.

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article called “WhatCould Disappear?” –the online version is an interactive look at how sea level rise is most likely to affect U.S. 24 communities. You can choose from three scenarios—a five foot rise (“probable” in 100 to 300 years); twelve feet (“potential” by 2300), and twenty-five feet (“potential in coming centuries”).

OK—let’s ignore the extreme projection for now. Heck, push the time frame far enough forward in geologic time and we are all going to perish in fire, ice or subducting tectonic plates.

But I’m not letting you off the hook for the 100 to 300 hundred year time frame. Even if you don’t expect your museum to be around in 2112 or 2312 (though you well might), you have an obligation to the descendents of the place and the people you serve. Does your community face hard choices about how it will adapt? Can you play a role in fostering these discussions?

It is highly likely that this question is pertinent to you. Fifty percent of the US population lives in coastal watersheds, and that share is increasing steadily. The distribution of museums in the US probably tracks this population distribution. Even if your museum does not serve a coastal community, you may have to absorb “climate refugees” fleeing their own submerged neighborhoods, as Houston did after Katrina.

Charleston, S.C.--19% Flooded
So go take a look. The article presents interactive maps for Baltimore, Boston, Charleston S.C., Houston, Jacksonville Fla., Los Angeles, Long Island, Mobile, New Jersey, New Orleans (88% flooded in the shortest time frame), New York City, Northern California, Philadelphia, Portland (both—Oregon and Maine), Providence, San Diego, Savannah Ga., Seattle, Tampa Bay area, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, Washington D.C. and Wilmington Del. (If your community isn’t on this list, use the interactive map at Surging Seas.)

And after you’ve primed your futures-thinking pump, so to speak, make time to get together with staff, community members and other stakeholders to ask “what might things be like in our community in 2112? And is there anything we might do now to make that a better (and more secure) future?” 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Guess Who Endorsed You! And Why Should You Care?

About two months ago I started to get emails with the subject line “so-and-so has endorsed you,” originating from LinkedIn “on behalf of” the person doing the endorsing.

At first I thought it was some kind of scam/spam. It’s legit, though, part of a new feature LinkedIn has introduced. Apparently the old “recommendations” took too long to fill out, and were too sparsely used, so this social networking site figured out a way to reduce the process of giving props to your colleagues to a couple of clicks and a few keystrokes.

Once I realized that people actually were “endorsing” me it made me uncomfortable in a number of dimensions. The first uncomfortable feeling was guilt. Most of these endorsements came from people I know and respect, and I feel a certain obligation to reciprocate. But, envisioning the cascade effect of all this mutual endorsing, it began to feel a bit like a chain letter, which triggered resentment. Is it impolite not to respond? Will breaking the chain trigger bad luck (or, at least, hard feelings?) Some of the endorsements came from people I don’t recognize, offhand. Should I remember them? (Cue guilt, again). Or are they just hoping to trigger a reciprocal endorsement, a pro forma “why thank you, you’re great, too.”

Ack. Digital social awkwardness.

Part of me wants to simply ignore this phenomenon. I make only limited use of LinkedIn to begin with. To me it’s the electronic version of exchanging business cards, with about as much meaning. I accept “invitations to connect” from people I know, but also from people I have never heard from as long as they work in a museum or have a job I think is interesting and potentially relevant to my work. I ignore a lot of random others (triggering guilt, again). When I originally signed up for the service I hoped it might help me help me find someone who knows someone who knows someone I am trying to get in touch with. But I quickly found out the sort of people I can’t get to through normal channels—Bill Gates, Steve Martin, Oprah—aren’t going to make themselves available via LinkedIn.

However, a recent conversation with Nik Honeysett, head of administration at the Getty Museum, made me realize I shouldn’t ignore this endors-o-rama. It is part of a broader trend that might disrupt traditional credentialing. Used to be, you backed up a job application with a resume and listed three references. The resume listed your alma maters, degrees, honors, and past employment. Now the soaring costs of education and high unemployment are combining to lower the ROI on traditional higher ed. At the same time, there is an explosion of high quality on-line content, some of it from the best universities in the country, and some offered with formal grading. Many companies are tinkering with various forms of microcredentialling, including digital badging, to enable learners to assemble a verifiable resume from bits and pieces of credible training and experience. As soon as employers start taking such self-assembled curricula seriously, the traditional system of higher ed is going to start unraveling (faster than it already is).

With “endorsements,” LinkedIn is trying to innovate around the other part of the traditional resume—the list of references. Much of the criticism I’ve seen online about the endorsements attacks the very ease that drives the system. People report that they have been endorsed for skills they don’t have by people they barely know. They snark that if people really have something to say about your work, they can take ten minutes to write a LinkedIn “recommendation” instead.

I think the snarkers are missing the point. “Endorsements” don’t replace LinkedIn recommendations; they are doing something else entirely, something kind of neat.

Endorsements document the breadth of your networks, general reputation, networking skills and (to some extent) your influence. LinkedIn suggests strategies for building up your endorsements—most simply, by asking, and by endorsing others. So what if you boosted your online credentials by asking people you know to click “endorse?” That measures something useful: how many people you know, who you can reach via social media, and your ability to mobilize that network. There are useful resources and skills that you can, in turn, put to the service of your employer.

What if you aren’t part of the “in crowd,” yet, and can’t demonstrate you already know folks in my inner circle? Maybe you can show you’ve mobilized endorsements from most everyone in your college class, instead—a not inconsiderable feat, one I couldn’t have pulled off as a new graduate.

So unless and until you intend to share a graphic of your Facebook network of friends on your resume, maybe “endorsements” are a good way to measure and report on the extent of your weak connections. Go forth & endorse… 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Role of the Campus Museum in an Age of Distributed Education

The “future of the campus museum” discussion continues with this guest post by Rebecca Nagy, director of the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida, a trustee of the Association of Art Museum Directors and President of the Florida Art Museum Directors Association. Rebecca takes on one of the questions I posed to encourage conversation on the future of the campus museum.

In her initial blog post about the “Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century” report, Elizabeth asked:  “With education increasingly unbundled and distributed, what is the role of museums in creating a sense of place?”

It’s a good question and one that academic museums take seriously, particularly as learning becomes increasingly diffused and digital. With an explosion of online course offerings, many students take classes from the comfort of home at any time of day or night, while others study at satellite campuses or in programs abroad. It’s hard to feel relevant to this cohort of students and it begs a question that stems from Elizabeth’s: Is it important that students experience works of art in person at the museum, or can a virtual experience be equally enriching?

All kinds of museums are grappling with that question and we’re racing to keep up with evolving technologies and the expectations of our audiences. At academic museums we know that students—digital natives—want immediate access to digital images and information on collections, exhibitions and other goings-on.  But will putting more art and information online actually motivate our students to visit their campus museums for meaningful, firsthand experiences of original works of art?

We know people crave authentic first-hand experiences, often in the company of crowds. We know they eschew early voting to experience democracy in action in line on Election Day, shell out big bucks to see favorite musicians on stage, and flock to Broadway to experience live theater. So, other than required class visits and assignments, what draws students to our museums? Although some seek solitary encounters with works of art, for most a greater attraction seems to be the excitement of gathering with friends, the chance to look, share ideas and interpretations, play, laugh, and experience art together. Facebook and Twitter notwithstanding, this kind of interactive experience is not replicated online. All the same, to appeal to students from a range of backgrounds and areas of study, we have to loosen up, be less stuffy, and relinquish some curatorial authority over how art is presented and interpreted. We need to let them participate and get them excited about art and museums during their college years. This way we can inspire them to be life-long museum-goers and arts advocates.

In a conversation of several museum and art administrators at the University of Florida earlier this month, we analyzed statistics showing that engineering students attend visual and performing arts events in greater numbers than students from any other academic discipline. Here at the Harn Museum of Art a recent Art in Engineering night brought out 792 people to celebrate the creativity of engineering students and faculty. They sang, danced, fashioned games for children and showcased their paintings, photographs, race cars, robots and other engineering projects. The engagement of engineers with the arts on campus reflects their inherent interest in creative endeavors. However, their full-on involvement with the museum and other arts venues is encouraged and facilitated by Dean of Engineering Cammy Abernathy, who had art history courses in college and says they changed her life. She and other faculty in her college get it. They know their students’ experiences of visual and performing arts ignite their creativity, leading to better engineering solutions and to products that have aesthetic appeal in a competitive global arena. They want to put the STEAM in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Math).

The Harn also has the full support of the University of Florida administration. Last year, we received a great new opportunity to reach students from all academic programs in a common freshman humanities course called “What is the Good Life?” Now more than 7,000 freshmen each year spend time at the Harn grappling with some of the fundamental questions of existence through study of great works of art from around the world. We’re getting them through the door for academic work and they’re coming back for fun, to share experiences with their friends and participate in programming.

Thinking back to those far-flung students accessing images and information about our collections online, they may not be able to visit the art museum on campus all the time. But, we can motivate them to visit other museums, galleries, sculpture gardens or public art installations wherever their studies and careers take them. Academic museums play a special role in shaping citizens who value the transformative power of the visual arts and the role of museums in making art accessible to everyone.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Will You Know Innovation When You See It?

Last week my virtual self gave a brief intro via Skype to Phelan Fretz’s session on Innovation at the NEMA meeting in Burlington, Vermont. Phelan (who is the executive director of the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington) challenged a group of attendees to address the question “Is the Museum Industry innovative?” He invited me to kick of off the session by priming people to think about what we mean by innovation, and now I’m going to share those thoughts with you.

Here’s the Prezi I used for the NEMA attendees, if you want the illustrated version:

I think museums need to focus on innovation by focusing on change that is: relevant, transformative, and significant for the field as a whole.

There are a multitude of ideas that are innovative, but unimportant. (Or, to quote Arte Johnson, “very interesting…but stupid.) Thanks to the internet it is only too easy to find examples of this: a toilet paper hat, so you need never be caught without a nose tissue again. The “cat ears” hair band, hooked up to a brain wave monitor so the ears “prick up” when you pay attention. The labor saving Baby Dust Mop and, for childless households, the Cat Mop variant. (See, I knew you would want to peek at the illustrations.)

Sadly, history is littered with innovations that are successful and important, but didn’t catch on. The Concorde was an engineering marvel, flying transatlantic flights in less than half the time of other airliners. Only 20 were produced, it flew for 27 years, and was discontinued after 9/11. A more tragic example of failed promise, to my mind, was the race to the moon. Technical success? You bet! Triumph of national will? One that shaped my childhood. But  the moon landings were supposed to herald permanent colonies that would be our launch pad deeper into space. Instead there were 6 manned landings, and none since 1972.

The difference between “brand new” and “actually transformative”
Clearly there are things that are cool and new, but not innovative: the 91st Frank Zappa album; the iPhone 5. Innovation launched the arc that led to these new things, but these particular examples are only minor variations on that innovative theme.

Think about scale. Some things are innovative locally, but are not at the state, national or international level. For example, it might be really innovative for your community to uncover its river and make it a centerpiece of urban renewal, but that’s been done in communities across the country (Providence, Hartford, Fall River, etc.)

The difference between innovative and “new”
When I challenged coworkers to name a couple of major innovations off the top of their heads, two that came up were Edison’s light bulb and Henry Ford’s Model T. I thought these were really interesting examples because neither of these guys invented the things that they are paired with in the popular imagination. The first light bulb was produced in 1840, 40 years before Edison’s patent. Edison refined the design and made it practical to produce, & competed successfully against others doing the same thing. There were factory-produced cars by the late 1800’s, and Oldmobile introduced assembly lines for auto production in 1903. Ford’s genius was scaling the process up, making cars affordable to the average working person and marketing the idea of personal car ownership. I would argue that, in these two cases, Ford and Edison were innovative businessmen—their success was in creating competitive systems of production and sale.

I didn’t have time to go into that important but complicated point: that we need to create systems that can support and exploit the potential of innovations. Ford and Edison got this right—they changed the marketplace, from production to marketing to distribution to infrastructure. The Concorde and the space program (arguably) failed because they didn’t create the requisite systems of support. I heard a talk yesterday by Neil Gershenfield from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, in which he said his teams working on distributed fabrication labs found they had to create a whole new infrastructure to support the adoption of their innovations. The technology was the easy part—the harder challenge is how to create support systems that enable the technology to be mainstreamed into schools, neighborhoods, villages around the world, where it can live up to its promise? (You can watch the archived lecture here—it was part of the Renwick Gallery’s program Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary Culture.)

So, what are the areas in which museums desperately need innovation?
Markets: how do get different people to care about what we do
Relationships: new ways of interacting with people, or entirely new kinds of interaction
Economies: how to monetize our work in new ways
Experience: how to deliver content in new ways

I’ll leave you with the six examples I offered to NEMA attendees as examples of new things recently tried by museums. It’s your turn to decide whether, based on the criteria above, they are truly innovative.

Bring your Baby to the Museum Program: Danforth Museum of Art This program expands the museums audience by creating a time for just moms & babies. No need to feel self-conscious about squeals and burps, and lots of support from other moms.

MOCATV LAMOCA introduced its own YouTube channel, populated by its own original content. Initial subscribers received a free museum membership.

The “O” at the Museum of Old and New Art in New Zealand MONA has banned signage from the building, and instead of exhibit labels, provides interpretation via iPhone touches loaded with a proprietary app.

Fashion and the Field Museum Collection Field Museum of Natural History invited fashion designer Maria Pinto to select objects from the collection to juxtapose with her fashion designs. (Unless you work in a natural history museum, you may not realize the depth of institutional culture shock this might have entailed.)

the First International Cat Video Festival The Walker Art Center ran a crowdsourced video festival & awards competition attracting 10,000 entries and over 10,000 attendees. (The winner of the Golden Kitty Award was Henri II: Paw de Deux.)

The “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum” crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo enable a nonprofit group to buy Tesla’s old lab, which was threatened with development. The group raised over $1,370,511, reaching their original $800k goal in under a week. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Interdisciplinary Campus Museum

Last week I blogged about the newly released Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century report, produced by the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago with the support of the Kress Foundation. Evidently, the report struck a chord (major, minor?) with a number folks who have volunteered to expand the conversation. First up, John Weber, Dayton Director of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, but soon to be (as of Jan 1) founding director of the Institute of Arts and Science, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Art is a great starting point for forays into other areas, and personally, I like working with art. But at times, if you want your campus museum to really be interdisciplinary you will have to show objects that are simply not art, and do shows that do not behave like the shows at art museums. That will mean behaving more like museums of material culture, science, anthropology and archeology, and history. To me, that openness and uncertainty are an automatic way to force curatorial creativity, but it does mean going outside your comfort zone. I’m not saying art museums should turn into science museums, or history museums, or whatever. But if they want to be more successfully interdisciplinary and harness more energy from faculty and students, looking regularly beyond art is a way to accomplish that.

Being something more than an art museum enables you to work effectively with campus constituencies—faculty in particular—for whom art is an afterthought, a diversion, or an intimidating challenge. In many cases, art simply does not fit in the syllabus. The smartest thing Skidmore College did in founding the Tang was to call it the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. It’s a mouthful, but calling out the pedagogical function and promoting the museum to faculty, staff, students and alums as an interdisciplinary teaching museum “about ideas” has been crucial. Faculty approached the Tang early on with proposals for shows about maps, chemistry, and other topics that they were interested in. I’m not sure that would have happened if they had seen the Tang as a straight up art museum. Happily, nearly all of those faculty-originated topics actually turned out to be good homes for art. And one of the things I’ve learned here is that art, as one English professor noted, is profoundly interdisciplinary at its core.

One of the potential stumbling blocks college and university art museums face in trying to play a broader and more meaningful role in academics beyond art is staff history and attitude—a point that wasn’t raised in the Campus Art Museum report. Art museums tend to be staffed by art museum people. No surprise. But if you want to be interdisciplinary, it is a lot easier if you build a staff sharing that orientation from the ground up, around a museum concept that does not appear to limit itself to art. (That’s what University of California, Santa Cruz is doing in creating a new Institute of Arts and Sciences, which I will join as founding director in two months.)    

Doing genuinely interdisciplinary programming means working with people who know things you don’t know. If you really want to address areas of the curriculum beyond art, you will need to share control with faculty who are not art people. You will need to learn about other subjects. That may make some staff members nervous. And if your org chart is filled with well-meaning professionals who, in their heart of hearts, would honestly prefer to talk mostly about art to people who are interested in art, then you will meet with internal resistance as you try to re-engineer your organizational culture. Museum leaders and their parent institutions need to decide where they want to go, and then build staff who share their vision and are equipped to implement it.

Before signing off, I want to amplify the report’s assertion that campus museums should be aggressive participants in discussions regarding new pedagogies and new ways of learning. Agreed!  In particular, museums need to help the academy come to terms with the profoundly visual and multimodal nature of communication, learning, and knowledge in the internet age. College education remains deeply biased toward verbal communication and the written word. Yet much argumentation, information, and assertion comes to us today in visual, audio visual, or verbal-visual packages via the internet. More than ever, students need to unpack and critically assess what is being said via pictures, pictures-plus-sound, pictures-plus-words, and in video. I will argue that they also need to be competent producers of such entities by the time they graduate, just as they need to produce competent written documents. Yet where do such competencies live within college curricula, and which departments, programs, and offices are responsible for delivering and assessing them? 

Good news:  museums can help. We can’t do it alone, but we can be part of an exciting larger movement to accept the challenging of educating 21st century students to be both critical viewers and critical producers of visual culture. The art we hold and exhibit is a tremendous resource in this effort, and our ability to create scintillating public exhibitions and attract audiences is a huge resource on and off campus. If we can add to that a capacity to work across disciplines with visual materials from other fields, college and university art museums can play a central role in meeting one of the most dynamic challenges confronting the academy today. If you love art, museums, and learning, I can’t imagine a better place to be. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Olly Olly Oxen Free! A Call for Hidden Research

Image from the University of Melbourne 

Phil and I get calls all the time from people asking “do you know of a study on x?” “Where can I find numbers about y?” All too often, our answer is “we don’t know of any published research on that topic.” Deep down we suspect there IS research that would give this person the information they need—but it’s proprietary, locked up in a file cabinet somewhere, probably forgotten even by the people who commissioned it.

To me, this is just plain wrong.

CFM’s 2010 report “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums” ends with a call for museums to develop a culture of shared data. Clearly, one statement in one report isn’t going to change the world. It may take a few blog posts, too, right? Seriously, if enough people speak up about the need for museums to change our attitude towards sharing research, we can make that change. Reshaping our own organizational cultures, however difficult, is still easier than, say, slowing global warming or fighting the obesity epidemic.

I enlisted some of my favorite museum research geeks into this campaign for sharing. Together, we compiled a list of “hidden research” we bet exists, and that we hope will come to light if we poke around:

  • Analyses of attendance and revenue after admission fee changes (free to paid, paid to free, raising or lowering)
  • Attendance projections (with details on methodology)
  • Branding studies
  • Community studies that pave the way for tax or bond proposals
  • Crossover studies looking at cultural and or leisure activity audiences that overlap with museum audiences
  • Exhibitions: cost, size, ROI; traveling exhibitions impact on attendance and revenue
  • Large format film research: cost of building and operating theaters, income, ROI
  • Measuring community impact, including non-economic metrics
  • Niche marketing analyses
  • Visitor demographics/psychographics, with a particular need for info on bilingual audiences

Of course, after we coax this data out of hiding, we will need a place to store and share it. One potential model is IssueLab, supported by the Foundation Center, which shares the “gray literature” related to social issues from foundations, think tanks, and related institutions. A similar project is the Policy Archive a “universal, easy-to-use, free, and open digital archive of foundation-funded and other public policy research” maintained by the Center for Government Studies. Hmmm. Who is the natural host for a site devoted to museum research, and how would it be funded?

Your turn. Please use the comment section to share:
  • What “hidden research” would you like to find?
  • What here-to-for hidden data are you willing to share?
  • What is your favorite model for a research-sharing platform, and how would you like it to operate?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Future of the Campus Art Museum: Join the Conversation

The Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago just released “Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century: a Conversation.” If you work at or with campus art museums, or art museums, or non-art campus museums, you should read it. Oh heck, just read it.

Tom Shapiro of Cultural Strategy Partners, Peter Linett of Slover Linett Strategies Inc. and Betty Farrell and Will Anderson at the CPC recruited eight museum directors and five outside experts from the art/museum world to look at how the field of college and university museums is evolving. Now that the report is out, it’s my turn to “think out loud” about how to promote “healthy evolution” and ask “what can these museums do differently or better to bring about [an] ideal future?”

With the blessing of the authors, I’m going to highjack the conversation and continue it on this blog—first by sharing one thought and two questions I had upon reading the report, and then by inviting follow up posts from other readers. I'll also be keeping my eye out for the Kress Foundation Campus Art Museum Study, which is forthcoming. 

Thought: The Future of the Campus
The first thing I want to do is to push campus museums to think on a longer time frame and a bigger scale. When we consider the future of the campus art museum, we need to consider the future of the campus itself. As a number of educators and futurists have pointed out (most recently the educational futurists at KnowledgeWorks Foundation in their new report, Reigniting Education) the school of tomorrow will be a very different place—when it is a place at all.

Mounting educational debt, uncertain prospects for employment, the outsourcing and devaluation of traditionally high paid career paths (law, medicine), and the rapid proliferation of low-cost or free, high-quality instruction via the Web is transforming the landscape of higher education, and the most fertile innovations are coming in the realm of virtual education. Established universities are offering courses over the Web (some for credit), wholly on-line degree granting institutions are springing up and many organizations are experimenting with how to create alt credentialing via instruction and experience collected from a variety of sources. This begs the question, what role will campus museums play in virtual instruction? Since museums overall are rushing to digitize collections and create ways for users to interface with their content via the Web, a college or university that relies heavily on on-line content could, theoretically, co-opt such resources from a wide variety of sources. How can the digital presence of a campus museum be tailored in such a way as to support the unique on-line brand of their parent organization?

While most agree there is a continuing role for the physical campus, this may take new forms. For example: Northeastern University is building a campus across from Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, and much of the instruction will be beamed in from the university’s home base in Boston. NYU is building degree-granting campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, and Yale is building a new campus in Singapore. If museums are a valued part of the social & education functions unique to a physical campus, will there be more pressure on campus museums to create satellites as well? With education increasingly unbundled and distributed, what is the role of museums in creating a sense of place?

Question 1: Abolishing Silos
Something bothers me about the way this question is framed, and to whom. The report itself notes that campus art museums battle the silo mentality that makes it difficult to create cross-disciplinary value. Why reinforce these barriers by limiting the conversation to art museums? We are, as a field, already too inclined to self-identify by our training and background. If one of the most valuable capacities of campus museums is their “capacity to do interdisciplinary work,” why not include other campus museums in the conversation from the start? I tried reading the report while mentally deleting “art” or “art historical” or “visual arts” throughout, and it seems to me it works pretty well. I’d be interested to know if people working in campus museums of anthropology, natural history or archaeology agree.

Question 2: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression
Participants in this report feel that that campus museums “have a greater capacity than their non-academic peers to be more experimental and innovative,” in part because they are protected by academic freedom and use metrics of success that go beyond attendance.

The fact that campus museums are not always firewalled from political pressure was brought home to me while I read the report by the controversy at the University of Wyoming over the deinstallation of the site-specific work “Carbon Sink: what goes around comes around,”  allegedly because of pressure from legislators and representatives from the coal, mining, gas and petroleum industries. The artist, Chris Drury, intended the work to provoke discussion about climate change—though perhaps not this exact discussion. Is such pressure from funders and influencers really more rare at a university museum than, for example, at the Smithsonian or a private nonprofit? And are campus museums, as a result, more innovative than their non-campus peers? I’d like to hear what you think.

Call for Comments
So, here’s your chance to weigh in. Read the report and let me know:
  • Do you think it asks the most important questions about the future of campus art museums?

  • On which points do you agree with the participants and where do you side with the “counterpoints” offered by the authors? Or do you have a third point of view to share?

  • What hasn’t this report asked yet, that we should bring into the follow-up conversation?
Weigh in here, in the blog comments or contact me if you are interested in writing a follow-up post.