Among all the victims of the pandemic, museums have been particularly hard hit, their finances collapsing and major layoffs already implemented or pending. In the UK, Tate has announced the cut of 120 jobs “to survive the crisis”, while cuts continue to US museums.
But the pandemic is just the latest blow in what has been a dramatic series of shocks for museums, calling into question their role in society, their governance and even their very existence. These shocks have ranged from the ethics of sponsorship, accusations of racial injustice and lack of diversity, issues of decolonization to turmoil over the very definition of a museum.
US cultural strategist András Szántó has chosen Covid lockdown to examine these issues. This summer, he interviewed 28 museum executives from 14 countries. He asked them what the role of museums should be – now and in the future – what models they envision, how they deal with the issues they face, what needs to change and what needs to be preserved. The result is a book, The future of the museum: 28 dialogues.
Szántó’s choice of interviewees was, he says, deliberately geared towards younger voices, and although all are museum leaders, the way they got there is sometimes surprising. Most have taken the classical art / curatorial history route, but one was previously a competitive boxer (Adam Levine of the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio), another studied nanotechnology (Anton Belov of Garage , Moscow) and another worked for a luxury goods company before running a museum (Sonia Lawson from Lomé Palace, Togo).
The institutions they run are also diverse; they range from the huge Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the venerable Royal Academy in London, to museums that don’t yet exist – the long-delayed Hong Kong M +, the shapely Lucas Museum of Narrative Art spaceship, built in Los Angeles. – or the “museum without ceiling”, the High Line in New York.
So what should a museum be? “They should be artist-led and audience-oriented,” replies Rhana Devenport of the Art Gallery of South Australia; “A site to bring people together around art and artists”, – Koyo Kouoh from the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town; “Democratic spaces for learning, debating and advancing social change” – Anne Pasternak, Brooklyn Museum; “A platform for engagement with art” – Max Hollein, New York’s Met.
A dialogue with Axel Rüger of the Royal Academy specifically addresses the question of the museum as a business. Rüger came to London after running the private Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Only 13% of his income comes from government subsidies – the rest is self-produced, but, as he notes: “Van Gogh is a global rock star. If you can’t make money with Van Gogh, you should try another business. He continues: “Museums are subject to economic realities that are not so different from commercial enterprises.. There is an urgent need to [museums] to become more professional. “
In Amsterdam he started a successful business venture, the Meet Vincent Van Gogh experience, an immersive, video-based traveling show that appeals to a younger audience – albeit it thrills traditionalists.
Interestingly, when Szántó asked other directors what models they were looking for, the answers were usually not from other museums. Pixar, German automakers and Red Bull were mentioned by Belev of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow: “I’m always trying to learn how things work outside of the museum realm. . . In marketing, I looked at how Red Bull. . . built their brand, ”he says.
Levine quoted Netflix: “People love serialized content; Imagine if museums found a way to have each program build on the last, and if we found a way to distribute it through digital media in a way that was worthy of a frenzy. Eugene Tan of the Singapore Art Museum offers crowdfunding and imagines museums with shareholders.
Utopian of course, but the interviewees had many visions of the future museum. What is certain is that the old model, as an artefact storehouse, is pivoting to a different and more active role in many issues of today. Museums in the future will be more fluid, open, inclusive, experiential and engaged with their community. A museum will become: “a town square”, in the words of María Mercedes González of the Museo de Arte Moderno in Medellín, Colombia. And, therefore, as Thomas Campbell of the San Francisco Art Museums says, “We have to let go of the mentality of colonialism and exploitation.”
“The future of the museum: 28 dialogues” by András Szántó is published in Europe by Hatje Cantz and will be available worldwide from January 2021