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Three Major Dallas Conferences Start With The Art Museum Directors

by Jerome Weeks 2 Jun 2014 4:10 PM

Polish your shoes, get out your best jewelry. The Association of Art Museum Directors is in town, and the DMA hosted a public panel Sunday. So – what did we learn?

Photo: Jerome Weeks

Get used to the view (above). Large groups of important, business-suited people will be milling about downtown Dallas the next three weeks.  And one good reason Dallas is hosting three major national conferences this month was made plain Sunday evening, even before the start of the the scheduled panel, “Cities and Cultural Investment: A Snapshot,” at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The Association of Art Museum Directors’ annual meeting officially began Saturday, but the panel, hosted by the DMA’s Maxwell Anderson, is the only event open to the public. The buses had dropped off the visiting directors moments before, and as the crowd milled around and found seats in the Horchow Auditorium, a silver-haired  attendee — a stylishly short-cropped woman, with black glasses — turned to the man next to her and asked, “Is this a new building?”

She can be forgiven the question because anyone who’s recently come to the Arts District — after being away for even just a few years — is likely to be a taken aback or confused by all the new construction. Still, it’s not like the DMA wasn’t around when the AAMD was last in DFW — in 2003. This January actually marked the building’s thirtieth anniversary.

A re-affirmation of why the city might want to attract such high-profile tourists  — that is, to pump up its own profile — occurred with panelist John Rossant, founder of the New Cities Foundation, which is bringing its international conference to Dallas June 17 (our third meeting in a row, the US Conference of Mayors, arrives June 20). Rossant thanked Anderson for previously bringing him to Dallas because the visit ‘broke the stereotype’ he had of the city, which he found to be “dynamic economically.”  The New Cities Summit changes its location to a new country and continent every year (the first was in Paris in 2012, the latest in Sao Paulo, Brazil). So the fact that Dallas is hosting the first North American iteration — and that it likely won’t be coming back anywhere near here for years and years — is especially notable.

Of course, the other reason for such conferences is to learn something — about our own practices, what others are doing. Rossant’s appearance on the panel permitted something of a preview of the Summit’s topics. He sees the next one hundred years  as “a chance to get cities right” because the global urbanization that has been a fact of life the past century is ramping up. Half the world’s population currently lives in cities, which are already bursting; in a century, he said, that number will be 75 percent.

Rossant also predicted that in a few years, the wave of Asian tourists that’s already coming to museums in Europe will hit America as well. Add to them the “hundreds of new museums” that are being built in China, and we will see significant changes in audiences and the kinds of artworks available for auction, exchange and exhibition.

Anderson prompted Rossant and the other panelist, Zannie Voss, director of SMU’s National Center for Art Research, to consider the differences between American cultural investment and that seen in other lands. Rossant noted that the British and American set-up — donors, boards, public investment in non-profit cultural institutions — is actually somewhat rare, at least in the areas he’s frequented, i.e., the Middle East and Far East. There, it’s much more of a “top-down” set up, where cultural institutions spring into being and continue to function more or less by edict. So our cultural organizations and cultural districts tend to be a little more “organic” — expressions of collective civic desire and pride instead of, well, despotic whim or image-polishing.

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But Voss, who spends much of the year in France, noted that the French in general think of access to culture as a right — as distinct from a common-enough American attitude that culture is not an everyday experience accessible to anyone but an experience created by and reserved for the wealthy. The French, she says, feel they pay high enough taxes that culture is one of the basic services their government needs to deliver.

They believe they have a right to culture, she said, just as Americans feel they have a right to bear arms.

“That sounds like a local reference,” Anderson quipped.

Voss’ other metaphor got a laugh as well — when Anderson asked her about building big cultural projects in the US. Taking off from Rossant’s “top-down” description, the SMU arts management professor likened the establishment of some cultural districts to the ‘gift of a puppy.’ You might not have even wanted the puppy, and responsibility for it only starts with the gift. Who’s going to raise this thing?

In this instance, Anderson didn’t say “that sounds like a local reference,” but he might as well have, considering the ongoing issue of Dallas’ cutbacks to the upkeep of the city’s cultural facilities.

Regardless of the comic relief, attendees sat up when Voss started talking about the kinds of conclusions NCAR is drawing from its arts database. Even though NCAR has partnered with AAMD (on a study of gender inequality in museum directors’ pay), conference-goers were probably unfamiliar with NCAR’s other efforts. These include the current attempt to quantify the cultural ‘ecology’ in every American community as well as the drive to define what makes for a high-performing arts organization and a high-performing arts town.

The weakest part of the panel discussion came with Anderson’s repeated attempts to draw out his guests on the entire subject of digitalization, certainly one of the DMA director’s own causes (above, the ‘rewards’ page that DMA Friends can access). Beyond saying that mobile devices and the younger generation’s nonstop use of them represent a major aspect of our future when it comes to cultural delivery, Voss and Rossant did not offer much enlightenment. Voss did observe  that it’s not simply a mobile and digital experience such devices offer. It’s a self-curated one. Her students and similar “digital natives” — people who have lived their entire lives with access to the internet — have had relatively little interaction with traditional ‘gatekeepers.’ They regularly take it upon themselves to find what they want — and they expect it to be instantly available, all the time.

In some ways, Voss said, this mindset hurts the live performing arts — which offer a single show at a set time — while it benefits museums, whose offerings are on display most of the day and whose galleries give visitors different choices.