In a 1999 New York Times report on museum attendance for the previous decade, increases of 20% were reported in the U.S., Europe and Australia. Based on a survey by The Art Newspaper, blockbuster exhibits by the likes of Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin and Winslow Homer’s private collection drew thousands of eyes and millions of dollars to some of the most established museums in the world. Shows featuring the ever-popular Impressionists (both French and American) appeared to be a can’t-miss formula for art institutions, both large and small. One spokesperson interviewed for the piece proclaimed that, The museum plays an incredible role in American cities: it’s a focal point, a place for entertainment, for shopping [my italics].”
So what has happened in the last ten years? Is this just an American phenomenon, based on a youthful, video culture and a public education system strapped for an arts curriculum? Why is museum attendance down by 5-15% in recent years?
Some would argue that 9/11 instilled a fear of open and very-public venues (particularly those with exhibitions that might seem to carry a charged political or social message). Another is the state of the economy, but rates of attendance were dropping prior to the down-turn in the global financial markets. Some would argue that increased ticket costs are to blame, having risen to match increased costs of staff and building maintenance; but even free museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. report decreased attendance.
With more and more families electing to vacation closer to home, why wouldn’t museums be at the receiving end of the tourist dollar largess? The answer may be found in the changing demographics of the population and the dollars (or yen, euros or pesos) they have to spend. As an example, I sat at the back of the room at a recent presentation at The Yale Museum of Art (another free museum) for a presentation on Picasso’s relationship with the writers of his time. Except for a handful of eager, bright-eyed undergrads, with notebooks in hand, the crowd appeared, from my vantage point, to be largely gray-haired and/or balding. Dismissing, for the moment the esoteric nature of the topic, I believe what I was seeing was at the root of the problem with museum attendance in this new century: the next generation is largely missing from the roles of the committed!
For the majority of the population, aged 25-45 (and certainly for the real youth of the country—aged 12-25), there is no real sense of the past and the role it can play in our future. Books have been replaced with cell phones and laptops; home libraries with flat screen TVs and video games and personal contact with all its content-rich materials (art, literature and theater) by MySpace and Google and Tweets.
“Antique dealers report a similar drop in sales for the under-45 set.”
How many times have you spotted a minivan on the highway, video screen cartoons or movies glaring for the benefit of backseat travelers (and for the peace-of-mind of their front seat parents, I assume), while the big, bright, interesting world that we once studied as it whizzed by the car window has all but disappeared for these children and their expanding minds?
Antique dealers report a similar drop in sales for the under-45 set (artifacts of the past have less meaning when the historical context of their creation is missing). Many experiential museums, where history and architecture comes to life through a first-person experience of the time and place are struggling to survive (the exceptions would be Disney World, with its ready-made events interaction and Williamsburg, where commerce and history are so effectively co-mingled (coincidentally, you don’t have to wait to get to the gift shop to spend money in either of these destinations)
In response to this growing trend, some museums have attempted to reinvent themselves with bold and beautiful additions to their existing buildings (The Chicago Art Institute, MOMA, The Guggenheim’s Frank Gehry structure in Bilbao, Spain and Yale’s restored wing, by architect Louis Kahn, for example). In these cases, art and architecture work together (or not!) to draw the eye and hopefully, boost attendance. Others, with less money to spend on brick and mortar are mounting shows with a decidedly non-artistic message: the successful Treasures of the Titanic show and the once-controversial Human Body Show have toured the world and called attention to the museum as an institution that can flex its message to accommodate diverse tastes and interests.
There is more hope on the horizon. The Brooklyn Museum is one good example of an art institution that sees its role and responsibility to its surrounding community to assume an active, outreach role, with dozens of events each month. Categories as varied as modern dance in the lobby, film festivals, children’s art classes, jazz concerts, to overnight stays for the more adventurous (think: “Night at the Museum”) are regular features of this and other active institutions, which see aggressive community outreach as the antidote to ailing attendance.
“Institutions are also finding new ways to solicit and commit harder-to-find funding to more-targeted new [art] acquisitions.”
Institutions are also finding new ways to solicit and commit harder-to-find funding to more-targeted new acquisitions. At a recent opening for an emerging artist, I was asked to cast my vote for which piece from the show the museum should acquire (American Idol and Dancing with the Stars meets the New Britain Museum!). Strategies like these work because they promote involvement and introduce an entire segment of the population to the museum as a place to go and have fun—a place to begin to believe that their opinion and non-monetary contribution may help shape what the museum can become. That’s a basic public relations lesson that much of the business world learned eons ago.
In this new era, where an economic crisis has leveled the playing field for many, museums are no exception. Once the hushed ivory-tower bastions of good, but inaccessible, taste for the few, museums have had to get creative and reach out to the many. This can only have a positive impact on the place our museums occupy in our cultural landscape and will serve to introduce a whole new generation to the idea that art and the historical context in which it was created can have direct and immediate meaning in their lives.
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