Here’s the weekly jobs roundup for the week of July 15th!
Here’s the weekly jobs roundup for the week of July 15th!
Is it via attendance or admissions fees? The size of the collection or the amount of funding it receives? By almost any measure, the Philadelphia History Museum has not proved its worth, for it shut down indefinitely at the end of June.
The museum, which is designated in the city charter to be the repository for artifacts relevant to the Philadelphia’s history, closed last month after a significant reduction in funding from the city. Talks to partner with other institutions, most recently with Temple University, fell through. For at least the next year, the museum will be closed and the collection will be reviewed with an eye toward figuring out a new direction for the museum to take. It is unclear if that direction will include re-opening to the public.
The reduction in funding was the hiatus-blow for the organization, but thriving museums rarely experience cuts like this. Attendance was low, despite efforts to revitalize the museum, including a recent renovation in 2012. The museum had also collaborated last year to create a new curriculum for Philadelphia public schools that centered the life of free Black resident, Octavius V. Catto. Shot by two white men who were never convicted for their crime while urging citizens to vote on Election Day, the exhibit sought to tell an important story with relevance to today. This is a moment in America that begs for interesting and relevant retellings of history, and Catto’s story certainly fits the bill. But it is hard to demonstrate relevance if no one seeks it out.
This is not an admonishment to the people of Philadelphia for not supporting their museum. Nor is it a diagnosis of what went wrong, for this blog does not have insight into the marketing plan, visitorship goal, or budget needed to make the Philadelphia History Museum a world-class institution, or at least, a city-class one. Rather, it is a recognition that a lot of museums in the United States are missing the mark when it comes to attracting audiences and money, despite possessing compelling stories.
There are many reasons why this is happening, but in thinking about the Philadelphia History Museum, it is worth pointing out that Philadelphia’s population is less than 50% white. As we have discussed previously on this blog, museums are not neutral spaces. Museum audiences tend to skew heavily white and affluent and often potential local visitors are alienated from spaces that don’t strive to create content of and with the surrounding community. There are museums that have bucked this demographic trend. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA has tripled its non-white visitors in recent years, to the point that the museum’s visitors are starting to resemble the city’s racial makeup. They have done this with a mixture of initiatives that included highlighting artists of color within their collection, reaching out to local potential visitors in multiple languages, diversifying docents, and reassessing ticket prices. Other museums have also looked into their collections to find ways to create new relevance for existing content.
Hopefully the Philadelphia History Museum’s assessment will include considerations about community outreach, public programs, and exhibition content and interpretation, as well as the price of admission (at closing time, the adult admission was $10, in a city where the median income is only $41k/year, well below the national median).
The Philadelphia History Museum is the designated keeper of historical objects for the city of Philadelphia. Although it’s archive remains intact for now, it is not a library. Part of a museum’s mission is to take those objects and documents and interpret them for the public, helping the citizens of the city remember and understand their history. This requires support and support includes money. While it is perfectly acceptable and necessary to demand that museums present innovative exhibits and engage with audiences in current fashion, it is also necessary to provide the support that those museums need to be good and useful and interesting institutions. Art and history and culture require patronage, to see the work through periods of devaluation and maintain these common goods for all.
Our best museums are building collaborative experiences that decenter authority, tell important stories from their collections, and engage with local populations to create community spaces that are compelling, inclusive, representational – and thriving. Our best cities deserve nothing less.
Here’s the weekly jobs roundup for the week of June 25th!
I’ll admit it. Oil portraits are not my thing.
Yes, I am a museum studies student, and yes, I think there’s something to love about pretty much all museums. But if you take me to the Met or the MFA, I am not dragging you to the 18th and 19th century portrait galleries. In fact, we may skip them altogether.
For me, a history and museum studies student, context is key. I like understanding what’s going on in a piece of art, who the subject was, who the artist was, why the portrait was being made, what common symbols are present in the image. Frequently, those galleries are thin on details and the takeaway is simply, “Here are some wealthy people demonstrating their capital and standing by commissioning a portrait to become a family heirloom.” I’m not sure I need to spend my leisure time appreciating the vanity projects of colonial merchants no matter how talented the artist was. More simply, I don’t find much relevance in these galleries to my life or the world I live in, and I think that’s true for many museum-goers (or non-museum-goers, as the case may be).
The Worcester Art Museum, however, recently implemented a change to their Early American galleries that made me take notice. Under the direction of Elizabeth Athens, the former curator of American Art there, the museum installed additional labels for many of the works in these galleries that point out the subject’s economic relationship to slavery. These connections vary; some subjects owned enslaved people or belonged to a family that owned enslaved people. Some traded in goods that were entirely dependent on the institution of slavery for their production, such as sugar, rum, or tobacco. Regardless, these influential Northerners benefited and profited from the forced labor of people of color, something that is not always remembered in the South-centric education Americans receive about slavery and the Civil War.
In presenting these new labels, the Worcester Art Museum reminds us that these paintings represent real people who lived and had significant influence over their worlds…and that their existence was supported by and enriched with slave labor. Suddenly this gallery screams to life before me, provoking questions about New England’s complicity and profit in slave labor. It also invites comparison. As a white, middle class person in America, how do I profit from unfair and illegal labor practices? As well, the labels add context, but not representation: I can see myself represented in this gallery, but a person of color still cannot. New forms of art are required to accomplish that.
There is no question that these portraits are pieces of art, painted by talented artists. These labels do not suggest otherwise. They merely reframe the content of the work to reflect a larger story, one that prompts questions about inclusion, representation, power, and profit. All of this happens with a relatively low price tag, as well – research, label creation, and installation powerfully amend an existing exhibit. Museum professionals would do well to look to this example when evaluating their own exhibits to find ways to dispel notions of neutrality, increase representation, or provide multiple views on a topic.
The Berkshire Museum has gone ahead with the auction and private sale of choice pieces from its collection, including works by Norman Rockwell (whose works were intended for the people of Pittsfield, MA in perpetuity), Alexander Calder, and Frederic Church. They have not yet reached the $55 million cap permitted by the Massachusetts Attorney General, and so may return to the auction block with more pieces, but the majority of the transactions have been completed. In response, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has sanctioned the Berkshire Museum, requesting that the association’s 243 members refuse to lend works to the Berkshire Museum or collaborate with it on exhibitions. In a statement the AAMD stated, “Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public.”
Even as this sanction was issued, other voices in the art and museum world rallied to suggest that the current system is flawed. Artsy suggested that the American Association of Museums’ (AAM) policy which only allows collections to be deaccessioned and sold in order to fund the purchase of more art should be modified to permit more diverse uses. They argue that if the goal of museums is to secure collections for the public good, what good comes of large institutions locking away vast amounts of art that may never be displayed? They propose a modified deaccession policy that gives other institutions first opportunity to acquire works, and allows the proceeds from the sales to be used for other purposes beyond acquisitions.
The AAM’s deaccessioning policy intentionally restricts the use of proceeds from deaccessioned collections to prevent liquidation of assets held for the public good from being used to cover up financial mismanagement or other unethical uses. In a recent statement in response to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling on the Berkshire Museum case, the AAM reiterated their position, “We believe this is a critical issue of ethical conduct and best practice, one tied directly to the public trust. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make our cultural heritage available to the public. This hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole.”
The AAM and AAMD are certainly working on behalf of the public good, and it is in keeping with their roles as professional organizations to scrupulously maintain the ethics of the industry, but they may also need to assess their current position. Undoubtedly, institutions across the country with high storage costs and low display space are watching this saga unfold and contemplating if they might withstand the legal and professional scrutiny if it meant they could pursue that capital project, hire that new education staff, or add more robust programming to their schedule. Museums are well aware of their precarious positions in their communities as both trusted sources of information and lean competitors for tourism dollars. It may be time for a careful re-consideration of what constitutes the future of ethical use of funds raised from deaccessioning works. If the AAM and other professional organizations refuse to seriously consider the issue before institutions, it may be that other museums follow the Berkshire’s lead and ethical debates, court judgements, and sanctions hit the newspapers with a frequency that could alter the public’s faith in museums.
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