The Museum, Inside and Out

Last December, the Economist magazine reported that museums were attracting hordes of visitors. No longer seen as old, dusty, and boring, successful ones are now “pits of popular debate and places where children go for sleepovers.” The article states that, in 2012, American museums received 850 million visitors, more than all big-league sporting events and theme parks combined.

Yet every museum professional understands the profound challenges faced by museums today: weakening financial support; attacks on museums as “elitist”; a shrinking middle class (stalwart supporters of museums); and a younger generation that seems to have little interest in traditional museum models. There is also the issue of technology: how to keep current and how best to use it.

At a recent Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) semiannual meeting, held this spring in Dallas and Fort Worth, the topics of conversation included developing a business model that suits the times; making museums free and increasing membership and philanthropy through the resulting good will; the shifting roles of museum professionals; the need to alter philanthropic practices (difficulties in finding support for basic operations, for example); attracting the millennial generation; and diversity in the work force.

European museums are grappling with the same issues, as I learned at a conference I recently attended in Normandy, France, titled Le Musée, Demain (The Museum Tomorrow). For them, full government support is no longer guaranteed, but they lack our philanthropic infrastructure: patrons, foundations, volunteers, and development expertise. The shifting cultural priorities of the digital age affect them as much as they do us. Using Carnegie Museum of Art as an example, I gave my European colleagues as clear a picture as I could of the situation for many US museums today, and suggestions for where the future could lie. While life may be a bit more difficult for those of us in “second cities” than those in major centers like New York or Chicago, the possibilities for reinvention are exciting. The threats that we face force us to experiment and become nimble, paths that can lead to models for change.

I spoke about three innovative projects that we’ve undertaken at CMOA over the last two years, including:

  • Oh Snap! Your Take on Our Photographswhere a cross-departmental, cross-hierarchical team picked 13 recently acquired images from our photography collection and invited the public to respond to them with images of their own. Submissions were printed out and hung in the galleries next to the works that inspired them, and participants received free admission to the museum during the show.
  • The 2013 Carnegie Internationalwith its profound interweaving of international contemporary art and the history and communities of Pittsburgh.
  • And the Hillman Photography Initiative, which launched in April. Tracing the lifecycle of photographs in today’s world, it is a largely Web-based project that serves as a living laboratory for examining the future of a medium undergoing profound change.

These projects have been successful, but they offer their own challenges, particularly how to balance online and onsite participation. Web-based initiatives and work in Pittsburgh communities shift focus from our building, where our unique value resides. Yet as experience is increasingly mediated by the digital world, actual artworks are bound to take on growing significance. We need to be inside and outside the building simultaneously.

Visitors in Oh Snap!
Visitors in Oh Snap!

With that in mind, I invite you to participate in the Hillman Photography Initiative. Help create “A People’s History of Pittsburgh” by bringing your photographs of the city, its communities, and its people to our upcoming scanning days July 5, 12, and 19; attend our ongoing program of artist talks; and view the “Invisible Photograph,” a documentary series hosted online and featured in onsite events such as the screening July 10 before the 2-Minute Film Festival. These are some of our efforts to link virtual and actual realms.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.