Monday, July 26, 2010

Museums Now and Then

The way it was—now and then.


“Art didn’t change” in the most recent decade.

“It stayed exactly the same. Washington told Americans to spend, keep the economy pumped, and the art industry did its patriotic duty” (Depending on the Culture of Strangers, Holland Cotter, New York Times, December 31, 2009,

A significant amount of that spending went to bigger buildings—some completely new (like Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater), some remade through additions (like Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum). Many reasons have been offered, but most museums were inspired by financial and critical success of Frank-Gehry’s eye-catching building for the Guggenheim museum in Bilboa, Spain. It transformed a modest city in Basque country into an international cultural destination.

But maybe the rush to duplicate the success of Bilboa led to a culture glut, rather than beneficiaries of the Bilboa effect (In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better, Robin Pogrebin, New York Times, December 11, 2009, Visited December 12, 2009).

Sure, the buildings got bigger and museums could display objects otherwise doomed to storage.

But at a cost. Operating costs enlarged with the enlargement of facilities. Some museums adequately planned for the costs through increases to their endowments, others did not. Some overestimated the number of paying visitors, and planned and staffed accordingly. But the visitors didn’t show.

Few planned for an economic downturn, especially one that could eat up their endowments through stock market losses. Not surprisingly, museums have cut back—hours, programming and, of course, staff.

And many projects on the drawing boards have either been scaled back or indefinitely delayed.


Even with their woes, art museums today are still popular today. Many of the secrets of their success were pioneered by past Metropolitan Museum of Art Director, Tom Hoving, who passed away in early December (A Populist Museum Chief With a Sense of Wonder, by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, December 11, 2009,

He is credited for starting the blockbuster exhibit (a major temporary exhibition with wide popular appeal—and the classic King Tut exhibit at that), enlarging the gift shop (a service I personally take advantage of), making some shrewd purchases, and physically expanding the museum.

But he is remembered most for bringing the museum to the people—democratizing the experience so to speak. He was implementing the values underlying the recommendations in the American Museums Association’s 1984 report, Museums for a New Century, the decade before they were published.

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