What this is about...

I started this blog because I have a strong interest in strategic planning, increasing revenue while maintaining organisational integrity, and making museums engaging places that are accessible to the widest audience possible. It is my goal to start conversations or trains of thought that can help museum stakeholders improve their organisation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupy Museums

It has been a while since I posted anything, for many reasons. I have been motivated to write about Occupy Museums, but haven't found the time to do the research. I think it is incredibly important that with budget cuts at museums, they continue as places where knowledge, beauty, and enjoyment can be had by all. Occupy Museums reminds us that art isn't a priviledge for the wealthy, but a healthy outlet for all people. No matter what you think of the rest of the Occupy movement, I hope everyone who works for museums-staff, volunteers, or board members-supports the idea that museums should be open to all!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chicago's Newest Exhibit: Bridezillas

Chicago's Art Institute is one of the hundreds of museums that rents space to generate funds. Recently, they installed a mural by Pae White that covers the windows along the popular terrace that many brides hope to host receptions on. The brides are not taking this sitting down (and not just because its cocktail hour!).

I, for one, am a bit agog at the idea that you can rent an art museum and then make a complaint when it displays art. There are about 10 couples at the time of the article who are making a formal complaint about the work obscuring the windows on the terrace. Fine, I understand, you saw it one way and you would like it to stay that way. I've planned a wedding, I have no problem with the idea that you would like to get what you pay for. They are expensive, and an important opportunity to put forward a good impression with your new family and friends.  That said, if you are the kind of person that likes to manage every detail, maybe a museum isn't for you.

'"This isn't against the artist themselves; it is an amazing opportunity for them," Gonis said. "But in fairness, the institute needs to keep in mind the other individuals who have contracted the space."' So now the venue supposed to put its program of display on hold because the renters don't like the art in the art museum? I am very uncomfortable with what this means for museums. I hope (and assume) that the Art Institute will keep the mural up and stick to their guns about content and presentation. This isn't content censorship. This is about people who think that because they paid a bit of money, they should have some say in how the museum is run on a transactional basis. If AI caves, this sets a dangerous precedent!

Comments, as always, are welcome!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Quick Rundown

So I haven't been keeping up much. Lots of articles get read, like this one about the AAM conference's first ever community service project, reflecting the trend in museums' expanding definition as a community space, or "Deciding What Not to Do", which came to me in two forms: here and an article I read in the Economist or somewhere that basically covers the same ideas abut on a personal level. The truth is, I haven't been doing as much work with museums in the past couple of months and am starting to feel a bit unengaged. I feel like its a good time to get some fresh perspectives out, so keep an eye on this space for a guest blogger or two.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Huff about Clough

I am still following the controversy about the Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery censorship of A Fire in My Belly. It has been interesting to see how people are drawing parallels between this incident and the culture wars of 15 years ago. I have to admit that at first I wasn't very happy about the way the whole thing went down, but after reading a profile about G. Wayne Clough and his managerial style, I feel like I understand where he was coming from. A lot has been made of the fact that he pulled a piece that was essentially hidden--visitors had to choose to show the piece on a computer amongst a menu of other videos--and how that makes it worse. But I have thought about it, and feel like without knowing that he was scaring off major funders, this was probably his justification for it in the first place. If you go to the movies to see a PG-13 film, and there's a nickelodeon with possibly dubious content to the side, who is going to really miss it when you decide its not appropriate? Making a minor edit shouldn't mean much, right? Apparently the Andy Warhol Foundation, and several others, those with institutional memory reaching back to the 1990's, disagree.

Instead, I have come to focus my upset on the Smithsonian establishment, who recruited not from the arts (which would be fine, especially with so many science initiatives within the organisation), or from museums, or elsewhere in the government. Instead, Clough came to SI from Georgia Tech, a fairly well-known and well-regarded American university. It isn't that being the head of a university, with its myriad departments and priorities, is so different from being the head of the Smithsonian's 19 museums and various research arms. It's that recruiting someone with experience in museums/public policy/the arts would be familiar with the institutional personality and memory of the Smithsonian. It's the same reason I wouldn't expect the head of a school district to go run a retail company, or the head of a hospital to go run a bank. Many of the skills are transferable, but there are certain skills and mindsets, even acknowledging that these came sometimes become toxic, that make experience in one kind of organisation ineffective in another. Clough's predecessor was from banking. When Clough goes, whether it is next month or next year, I wouldn't bet on a public servant/museums/arts person replacing him. And I certainly don't think the Directors will heed the findings of the People for the American Way report that found five bullet points for museums seeking to respond to future flare-ups:
'"Don't Panic: Have a Plan and Follow It" (a piece of common sense that Clough has a history of ignoring); "Defend Core Principles" (of which freedom of expression should be key); "Understand and Expose Your Opponents" ("Exposing the extremist records, anti-freedom agendas, and general disregard for the truth demonstrated by right-wing culture warriors can undermine the impact of their attacks"); "Embrace Debate" ("The best response to irresponsible speech is more speech.... Short-circuiting debate by trying to avoid controversy prevents art and arts institutions from having this potentially transformative impact on public debate"); and, finally, "Demonstrate Accountability".'*
In the end, I'm not sure who's not getting it--Clough, or the SI board.

*The 5 points as quoted (including link to another time when Clough was soft on LGBT rights in the face of right wing bullying) and a review of some of the protests directed at Clough can be found here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Art, Literature, and Museum Experience Ethics

This blog post comparing P.K. Dick and William Leavitt provided an interesting (and art-targeted) additional point to a trip I took recently to Southwell Workhouse with my partner and some of his historian colleagues. We were led around by one of the academics who had advised the National Trust when they first acquired the property. Because we had our own tour guide, we forewent the usual audio guides and enjoyed a mixed history of the building. This led to quite the discussion on the presentation, the omissions, and the modifications made, and something like a case study in how museums tell mediated truths.

When one enters the first room on the audio guide tour, a narrator explains the divided entrances that sort men, women, and children. According to our subject experts, not only was this a fabrication at Southwell, it just wasn't done. To most people educated in the Western world, there is only one thing this particular set up can evoke: the Holocaust. Torn between understanding the need to make a point about the difference between workhouse life and the outside world, and making a respectful, educational, but accurate presentation of life in a Victorian institution, I ended up disappointed.

Walls were whitewashed so that no trace of graffiti or other signs of the building's former inhabitants are visible. The museum literature pointed out that in the Workhouse, there was nothing but time. Inmates, they claimed, cleaned every facet spic and span constantly, despite the presence of large amounts of Workhouse-era graffiti when the building came to the trust. There was no mention on maps nor models as to where the mentally unfit, whether the result of syphilitic dementia or a genetic defect, would have been contained (in a part of the House not open to the public, we found out). The courtyard still drains into the cellar, yet the building has dehumidifiers and the only problems with damp were almost certainly intentional and on the top floor.

The rooms are unfurnished because apparently they went unphotographed and no one is sure of the type of furnishings or their layout. Despite the fact that there are dehumidifiers at work in at least portions of the house, it is unheated to preserve the sense of chill.

These two sets of facts when combined created a troubling picture of the visitor experience at Southwell. With an understanding that our group did not receive the full experience the way the National Trust expected us to, I still had a hard time with the way the house was edited. Not including furniture in room displays to prevent inaccuracy portrays the exhibition as highly concerned with facts. On the other hand, whitewashing both the walls and the layout conceal certain truths that would make the experience more accurate. I understand there are logistical concerns, such as the fact that once the graffiti is preserved in situ as an exhibit, visitor movement would be severely restricted. I am not asking for this kind of full disclosure.

To go back to the blog entry, I am quite happy with the mechanical bird method of production--as long as visitors realise they are seeing mechanical birds. Maybe the National Trust (or any number of other museums) is a bit too conservative to embrace the latest thinking. A post-modern, post-structuralist approach that lets all the wires hang out would encourage visitors to explore the ideas behind why the exhibition is the way it is, while the house is maintained in its current state. Instead of leading visitors to believe that the Workhouse is the way it is because that's how it always was, there is a tremendous opportunity to discuss Victorian Ideals and how the museum (and by extension, the National Trust in this case study) represents them.

I will leave the slippery slope between informing and entertaining for another entry. If museums are presenting "The Truth", don't they have an ethical obligation to draw a visible line between fact and interpretation? Should museums make a commitment to telling the truth, or labelling interpretation, throughout the experience?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An Interesting Advertisement

Apparently LACMA will be placing this in 3D movie theatres across the US... What do you think?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Economist gets Arty

Everyone keeps talking about this. It's an article in The Economist about how business has taken a turn to being a bit art-obsessed. And I don't mean what's hanging in their lobbies.

The interesting part to me was talking about the fact that artists know how to tell stories and that is an important marketing tool to business. I naturally thought to myself "but museums also know how to tell stories!". I've written about museums expanding to function as community centres, and bulking up their bank accounts by going in more commercial directions. The thought of museum exhibition designers being loaned out or freelancing to help marketing agencies is an interesting one. An even more pressing issue, however, is internal cooperation.

One of the complaints I've heard from staff who work in admin is that they feel a bit disconnected from the actual work of the organisation. The more accountants, marketers, development workers and other professionals who don't work directly with exhibits and day-to-day operations can gain input, the better. If a curator can help the marketing staff tell a story, they should, just like accountants rely on budget justifications to know why departments spend what they do. It's so important with our shrinking pool of resources to work as a team. So maybe next time you have a staff meeting, try sitting next to someone from another department, or ask someone from another team to lunch. Or maybe something like this award-winning program for staff at an American regional museum.