Museums Can Change—Will They?


New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was America’s first encyclopedic museum when it opened in 1870. For most of the ensuing 150 year history, art museums have been seen as cathedrals of culture performing an invaluable public mission of educating the public through exposure to civilization’s great works of art.

That defining mission has come under strong public criticism lately with public demands that museums be more diverse in their programming and staffing, more inclusive in their collections, more accessible to new audiences and the urban environment and less of an elite institution of art lovers, collectors and donors. Many museums are busy fashioning new identities and redefining what they offer in an effort to attract new audiences and stabilize their revenues.

They are adjusting to this new reality with more exhibitions by women and artists of color, like last year’s heralded Charles White exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The biggest recent sign that change has pierced the velvet curtain was last month’s news that the Museum of Modern Art will rehang its galleries, putting a greater emphasis on overlooked women and artists of color.

This issue of the New Art Examiner takes a look at museums in a time of radical change. The diverse collection of articles looks at what changes have been made and what remains to be done. In the latter category, we feature the results of recent Mellon Foundation surveys of museum staffing and four critical essays by writers from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Museum and Exhibition Studies program that speak to museums’ continued shortcomings.

We think that waiting for the major art museums, with their long programmatic lead times, to lead the change may not be realistic. That is why the issue shines a spotlight on the sector able to be more adventurous and nimble —university art museums.

You will find interviews with two new generation museum directors, Alison Gass of the Smart Museum of Art and Julie Rodrigues Widholm of the DePaul Art Museum. Also, artist Neil Goodman surveys four museum leaders—two in the Midwest and two on the West Coast—probing what principles they follow on a variety of museum issues.

Demands for greater diversity, inclusion and accessibility, to name just three areas, are significant and long overdue. But they will take years of organizational change and the overcoming of entrenched attitudes. An article that appeared in the journal, Democracy, in its Spring, 2015 issue, offered a faster, much more controversial solution.

The author asked how museums can do more and be better. Show more of their collection. As of 2015, all top-ranked museums exhibited only about five percent of their collection. The rest resides in storage and may never see the light of day.

For example, the Met in New York shows just 27 of its 41 Monets. And for works on paper, it displays only 2 of its 23 drawings by Fragonard. Why don’t the major museums recognize their unexhibited collections of duplicates and minor works as a financial resource?

The author, Michael O’Hare, suggests they might be redistributed to smaller institutions or even private collectors. The revenue raised by such a move would relieve the pressure on museums’ operating budgets and greatly expand their community outreach.

O’Hare then estimated the value of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, based on other cases where the collections were appraised. His estimate of the value of its 280,000 objects: between $26 and $43 billion. Were the Art Institute to deaccession just 1% of its holdings, it could offer free admission forever. And selling another 1% would pay for adding 30% more exhibition space, allowing more art to emerge from the basement.

Such a solution is currently forbidden. Yet, museum practices have been changed in light of changing circumstances. Selling unexhibited art would be in keeping with museums’ mission of educating the public. It would also greatly expand the number and demographic diversity of who could attend.

It is time for bold thinking rather than nibbling at the margins. As the title of O’Hare’s article asks, “Museums Can Change—Will They?”


Tom Mullaney, Managing Editor



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