Returning to Your Core / Radically Rethinking the Museum

In celebration of the NAEA conference a few weeks ago, we tweeted out two articles about art museums.  The first, “The Power of a Masterwork,” was written by Brian Ferriso, Director of the Portland Museum of Art (see the March/April 2013 edition of Museum also shared at http://www.portlandartmuseum.org/document.doc?id=93 ).  When I read this article for the first time, I found myself nodding along with the article and almost audibly exclaiming “Yes!” (despite being in the designated quiet car on my train) as I read the second to last paragraph in which Ferriso poignantly notes: “The need for resources and relevance will continue to influence and affect the central mission of the art museum.  Nonetheless, the success of Portland’s Masterworks Series reinforces the notion that the foundational mission to bring together viewers and great works of art.  Moving too far away from this core can indeed lead the art museum into territory that will ultimately make it irrelevant rather than relevant.”

Art at the Core - Claes Oldenburg's Apple Core
Art at the Core
Claes Oldenburg’s Apple Core

Ferriso speaks directly to a concern of mine—that museums (not just art museums) are pandering to certain audiences in an effort to stay relevant rather than respecting the unique value that only they can offer to society and embracing that uniqueness wholeheartedly.  While these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, sometimes museums think they are.  I have seen evidence of pandering firsthand in our evaluation work.  For instance, a museum client may ask us to find out what visitors want from a museum exhibition or program.  This request is often met with a shudder on our part, as we explain that, as part of our philosophy of evaluation, we seek information that will help museum’s bridge the gap between their intentions and where visitors are (in terms of perceptions, knowledge, or skills).  Therefore, Ferriso’s suggestion that museums who move away from their core (which is what I see happening when a museum indulges an audience without regard to the museum’s intentions) are making themselves irrelevant resonated deeply with me.

A few days later, I came across another enthralling read.  That article was about Chris Dercon, Director of the Tate (see “Tate Director Chris Dercon: ‘Everything Can Change’.” at http://www.artnews.com/2013/02/27/tate-director-chris-derco/).  From even a quick scan of the article, it is obvious that Dercon is a dynamic personality.  For instance, the article’s title touts Dercon’s idea that “everything can be changed” and describes him “radically rethink[ing] the role of the museum in the 21st century.”  Despite mention that the Tate director’s “risk-taking has not always paid off,” the article left me feeling invigorated by the idea that art museums can and should turn over a new leaf and change the way they do things.

Can these seemingly contrasting ideas—turning to the core versus radically rethinking the museum co-exist?  Is the idea of turning to your core a stodgy and outdated idea that is too conservative?  On the other hand, is the idea that museums must radically rethink their role too progressive and detached from the museum’s purpose?

I came to wonder whether these ideas were as dichotomous as they sound.  That is, when Dercon talks about radically rethinking the museum, it seems he may be rethinking the impact that the museum can have on its visitors, for as the article states, Dercon has a “conviction that art is a vital force for civic good and an integral element of democracy.”  Yet, this radical rethinking is centered around the idea of mixing up art presentations and provoking visitors through art, such as by “confront[ing] Germans with Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling sculpture of Adolf Hitler” at Haus der Kunst—the museum at which Dercon served as director (prior to the Tate), which happened to be built by Hitler in 1933.  Therefore, while the lexicon used to describe these two directorships may seem different, the fact of the matter is that experiences with art are undeniably at the core of their institutions, a seemingly simple idea that is quite laudable in this day and age.

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3 Responses
  1. A continually provocative topic: how to hold on to what is central to you while embracing change. Thanks for sharing. This article arrived in my e-mailbox immediately after an announcement of New York City Opera’s new production of Moses in Egypt: their first attempt at augmenting a classic production (1818) with new technological media-based interpretation. Will traditional audiences endorse it? Will new audiences come? It’s so interesting how all art forms are faced with the balancing act that your article addresses.


    1. Amanda

      Thanks Matt. I’m glad you find it as provocative a topic as we do. Also, thanks for sharing the video as it is great to see that this conversation is happening all over the museum and non-profit world.

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