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Musts for Museum Survival

by Gail Sachson 8 Feb 2011 4:08 PM

How can museums be relevant, keep up with the times and welcome and engage an Internet-connected, savvy audience? That’s been the question around town of late.


Guest Blogger Gail Sachson owns Ask Me About Art, offering tours, lectures and program planning. She is Vice-Chair of the Cultural Affairs Commission and a member of the Public Art Committee.

Museums worldwide are realizing that art needs an audience larger than the club of curators, connoisseurs and collectors most institutions have traditionally catered to. But just who is that new audience?

It is you and me and everyone else. Since admission fees, memberships and sponsorships are more and more necessary for a public (and private) museum’s survival, most museums are finding they have to offer something for everyone.

So the follow-up question is: How can museums be relevant, keep up with the times and welcome and engage an Internet-connected, savvy audience?

Nicholas Serota

Three events – revolving around just that topic – occurred  recently in Dallas. A year long study that assesses the Dallas art scene was published last week by the consulting arm of  Creative Time, a well-recognized New York-based public art presenter; Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of  London’s Tate Musuem, was invited to speak about the future of museums at the Nasher Sculpture Center; and Bonnie Pitman, Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, published Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums, a study she oversaw detailing the Dallas Museum of Art’s efforts to connect with new audiences.

The timing may be coincidental, but it is telling that museums worldwide are realizing the necessity to better connect with their changing audiences. Traditional programs, spaces, signage and installations have to be abandoned or tweaked.  Serota says museums must change “monologue to dialogue” and “hardware to software.”

At a small roundtable discussion, Serota offered many instances of  how the Tate is reaching out to a wider audience. Among his suggestions:

  • Artists must  have a voice or seat at the museum table. The Tate holds three trustee positions for artists, which are applied for and made by public appointment. Serota says, “an institution gains strength from having artists on their board.”
  • Museums must inspire artists to be ambitious and creative.
  • Museums  must inspire audiences to collect art and create an energized art scene.
  • Museums must be  relevant to younger people. They should spotlight artists who make non–traditional forms of art with non-traditional materials and create non-traditional spaces to show art.
  • Museums must reach out and connect globally with Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
  • Museums must focus in on non-traditional areas of collecting, such as installation art, photography, performance, film and architecture.
  • Museum must encourage debate and discussion.

On that last point, the floor is open.