Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Challenges for museums

Menachem Wecker, From illicit art to fresh blood: four of the biggest challenges facing museums today, The Art Newspaper, 3 June 2016

Rioting in Baltimore was top of mind at last year’s annual American Alliance of Museums (AAM) meeting in Atlanta, where discussions centred on the role museums ought to play in social justice. “It drove a lot of conversation in the meeting, as opposed to being just out there for marketing purposes,” says Laura Lott, the president of AAM.

Convinced the discussions had merely scratched the surface, AAM staff organised the 2016 annual conference in Washington, DC last week (26-29 May) around the theme of power, influence and responsibility.

“There might be slippage, in terms of being nimble enough to respond to the latest trends and questions about how we communicate, about who is on our staff and our boards, but fundamentally there is a strength in the role that people understand museums to have,” says Anthony Hirschel, the former director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art.

Nearly 6,000 museum professionals from 50 countries gathered to discuss pressing issues in the field, from the US government’s import ban on ivory to changing visitor demographics. Here are four of the most burning questions they asked—and sought to answer—about the future of museums.

1. What does it take to be a director?

A generational shift is taking place across the world’s leading museums. Over the past year, more than 50 institutions, including some of the world’s largest, from the British Museum in London to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, have hired new top administrators.

Gail Anderson, a museum consultant, began a panel featuring six recently appointed directors with a disclaimer. “You will note that our panel is not very diverse,” she said, eying the four women and two men, all white, who led institutions ranging from the Hershey’s chocolate museum to the Penn Museum. “We recommend that there be a panel next year more accurately representing diverse individuals aspiring to move up.”

Though hand wringing over diversity has gone on for years, Lott has observed a “different sense of urgency” around the issue recently. She attributes this, in part, to a joint study of art museum demographics by AAM, Association of Art Museum Directors and Mellon Foundation released last year. Although gender gaps have narrowed considerably over the past decade, the survey found just 28% of museum staff members are minorities, and that their roles rarely offer a direct pathway to leadership positions.

“Directors move around a lot, but there is very little new blood that comes in to the director field,” said Rex Garniewicz, the director of the Coast Discovery Museum in South Carolina. “That’s one of the reasons actually for doing this panel—to get some of the talent that’s in the museum field to be willing to take that step up.”

2. What is museums’ role in gentrification?

The Brooklyn Museum came under fire last autumn for hosting a summit for real estate executives. The backlash illustrated growing tension between urban museums and their constituencies over how to tackle gentrification. What role should museums play in artists’ fight to keep affordable housing and work spaces in increasingly expensive cities like New York and San Francisco?

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