Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Tag: art museums

Fundraising Galas: Effective or Expensive?

As we enter another busy holiday season and close out 2022, many museums and non-profits are engaging in special fundraising projects to increase end-of-year giving. Among these development strategies is one that many museum professionals have come to know and even fear: the annual gala.

Fundraising galas, most popular during the between Memorial Day and Labor Day, are one of the most popular and commonly used high-yield development projects. A well-executed gala not only brings in significant income—it also attracts media and drives public interest in the museum or charity hosting the event. Many of these events, such as the notorious Met Gala, are synonymous with wealth and popularity, but are they effective in creating economic stability for the host institution? It’s a complicated issue over which development and museum professionals are divided.

One could describe them the same way Winston Churchill famously described democracy: the worst option, except for all the other options that have been tried before.

Taylor Dafoe, ArtNEwS

Galas clearly create economic opportunities for those participating. During gala season, event planning agencies, furniture rentals, event venues, caterers, and entertainers experience a significance increase in business. Many museums and non-profits lack the operating capacity to achieve an event of such scope with their in-house resources, so they seek out community partners to pull of these fundraisers. This creates fantastic opportunities for collaboration, but often stretches the financial limits of the fundraising institution.

Best fundraising tactics stipulate that the cost for executing a gala should not exceed 30% of the income generated by the event; however, this is a budgeting goal that is oftentimes unrealistic, especially for nascent and small organizations. Galas come at a staggering cost to plan—a study for ArtNet reveals that some museums’ gala budgets exceed the total income brought in by their yearly admission sales. This ratchets pressure for museum staff to plan and execute an event that will surpass the steep investment.

Not only is the stress of planning a successful event a considerable burden for museum staff—it also often precludes them from completing their typical professional duties. This is especially true for smaller organizations, as development departments often cease other projects in the months leading up to the gala in order to complete the rigorous planning process. As seasoned fundraising professionals note, this can considerably negatively impact a museum’s overall fundraising success by derailing other significant revenue-generating projects.

In addition to apprehensions regarding the fundraising efficacy of galas, some professionals note the ethical dilemmas of such projects. Academics Philip Hackney and Brian Middendorf reveal that galas can potentially contradict the intentions and missions of the non-profit institution. Because these celebrations often focus on grand gestures of decadence, they may not represent the non-profit’s philanthropic values. This may be especially relevant for nonprofits dedicated to serving an economically disadvantaged population. 

In light of these arguments against the traditional gala fundraising model, some alternatives may point towards a more sustainable future. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many museums to forgo their annual in-person galas. Some institutions opted to host virtual events. While these events typically worked towards a reduced fundraising goal, the virtual nature also decreased overhead costs. Some nonprofits like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital also produce “no-go” galas, sponsored events with no in-person party. As fundraising professionals recognize, annual galas are attractive because of their abilities to drive large donations; however, museums can work towards this goal with other major gift campaigns that may require less investment of limited resources.

Overall, galas are a recognizable form of fundraising that increases visibility in the public eye and introduces museums to potential repeat donors. Museums should exercise caution, however, before pursuing such an event. Fundraising professionals recommend museums consult their boards and operations staff to determine feasibility and goals for such an involved project.

SOURCES:

Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

Titian’s Women: An Italian Museum Experience at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, Italy

A photograph of the facade of the cathedral of Milan
View of the façade of the cathedral of Milan. This and all future photographs by author.

We emerged from the depths of the Milan metro, covering our eyes as the sun shone through the opening at the top of the stairwell. Armed with masks and an apocalyptic supply of water, we had come prepared to take on the masses in the winding subway tunnels and sweltering piazza. Even for seasoned visitors to this bustling Italian city, the sight of the cathedral emerging out of nowhere, taking up the entire view from the metro’s exit, is awe-inspiring. We quickly tore away from the sight of bright, white spires piercing into the cloudless blue sky, making a beeline to the Palazzo Reale on the south side of Piazza Duomo.

The purpose of our day trip to Milan was a visit to a blockbuster exhibition at the royal-palace-turned-museum: Tiziano e l’immagine della donna nel cinquecento veneziano (or, Titian and the Image of the Woman in 16th Century Venice). As a self-proclaimed student of art in the Italian Renaissance, focusing specifically on northern Italian city-states such as Venice and Ferrara, I was not about to miss the opportunity to see this exhibition. That morning I dragged my aunt and sister out of bed at 5:00 AM so we could catch a train to Milan. Was it worth it?

Born out the research of art historian Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, Director of the Picture Gallery at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, this exhibition purports to explore the representations of Venetian women in secular portraits. While Titian is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and widely studied artists from sixteenth century Italy, the role of women as subjects and models in his works still inspires varied and sometimes heated debates, relating especially to the abuse or exploitation of women in his mythological poesie. Created in collaboration with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the exhibition took place from February 23rd to June 5th, 2022. The Kunst put on its own version of the show, titled “Titian’s Vision of Women: Beauty, Love, and Poetry,” which ran from October 5th, 2021, to January 30th, 2022.

During my time at Tufts, I have grown increasingly interested in how museums and exhibitions of Italian Renaissance art can break free of the traditionalism that so often dominates them in order to become more accessible, engaging, and inclusive. Being born and raised in Italy to museophile parents, museums have always been a central part of my life. Once moving to the United States, I quickly became aware of the stark difference in how American and Italian institutions approach the display of their collections, especially surrounding the art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy. As such, I was pleasantly surprised when the Italian exhibition I was so excited to see this summer engaged with their works in a refreshingly new manner.

a small, gold and blue Renaissance dress seen from the back, facing Titian's portrait of Isabella d'Este
Front: Roberto Capucci. Homage to Isabella d’Este, 1994. Private collection.
Background: Titian, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, 1534-6. Oil on canvas, 102.4 x 64.7 cm. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Shortly before this visit, I had brought my younger sister to a few other Italian museums, where we had traipsed through a much more traditional museum experience. I had suffered through large, mostly empty rooms with seemingly never-ending wall texts that made it difficult for anyone, including an art history student genuinely interested in the subject, to remain actively engaged. I could see my sister grow ever more restless, and I couldn’t blame her. At the Milan Titian exhibition, however, I watched as she hopped from work to work, taking time to absorb each one and read the wall text, occasionally approaching my aunt or I to ask questions. I, too, found it easier to focus on the exhibition even as we reached the final rooms and my feet began to ache. Beyond the fascinating subject, the curators used multiple strategies to bring together different mediums and draw visitors’ attention to different aspects of the works on display. A dress titled “Homage to Isabella d’Este” was placed facing her famous portrait, emphasizing the richness of the fabric and jewels. The way the painted subject and dress were angled placed them in conversation with each other, asking viewers to consider them in conjunction. A different room instead placed a table in the center, filled with pages from Cesare Vecellio’s De gli habiti antichi et moderni… The Venetian women depicted here ranged wildly in status and wealth, depicting a wide variety of costumes. The pizzochere (lay, religious women), noblewomen, orfanelle, and fantesche (female domestic servants) reveal the styles of women we might otherwise not see in the portraits of upper-class women represented throughout the exhibition. Yet another room allows visitors to connect he paintings adorning the walls to contemporary literature, including Moderata Fonte’s Il merito delle donne (The Worth of Women). By including Fonte and other female authors, highlighting them by allotting a single, separate wall text to their works, the exhibition corrects an unfortunately common misconception that women did not contribute to the literary culture of the Renaissance. This is all explored further in a beautiful exhibit catalogue that includes stunning details and high-quality reproductions set against important essays that expand the field’s understanding of women in Titian’s oeuvre.

Loose-leaf pages from a book on the dresses of Venetian women
Cesare Vecellio. Twenty-three Engravings of Italian Women from De gli habiti antichi, et moderni…, 1590. Woodcut, 16.7 x 12.5 cm. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

As much as I enjoyed the show and catalogue, there were still several instances where I thought the exhibition could have benefitted from a more accessible and innovative approach. This can be seen especially when comparing the exhibition pages for the Palazzo Reale exhibition and its counterpart at the Kunst. Including only a quick description and basic information on the organizers and museum hours, the Palazzo Reale does not provide much information for prospective visitors or for those wishing to revisit the show after their visit. When clicking on the Kunst’s page, we can immediately see a much more interactive and informative website, beautifully designed. Clickable text is paired with videos and sign-language translations, and various images from the show are reproduced digitally alongside short text descriptions. The page is also divided into several sections, including “The Mirror as an Instrument of Complex Visual Connections and a Means of Self-Awareness,” “United Forever: In Love for Five Centuries and Still Together,” “Sex Object and Goddess: Men Writing about Women,” and “Women Writers, Poets and Poet-Courtesans Ensure that Both They and Women in General Have a Voice.” As can be seen here, the Kunst exhibition appears to deal much more directly with issues of the use of women’s bodies in the male-dominated art industry in Renaissance Venice than the Milan sister show, at least for casual viewers who do not attentively read the exhibition catalogue.

In spite of these issues, I still thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. I was glad to see my sister engage with this show with so much more excitment than in our previous museum visits. The conversation around the representation of women in Titian’s works is always a fascinating one, and this show proved that there are many fruitful studies to come in this field. I can say with certainty that the 5 AM alarm was worth it.

 

Acknowledging Slavery in Early American Art at the Worcester Art Museum

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.

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