PRINT December 2012

The Year in Museums

Maxwell L. Anderson

View of “Transmission LA: AV Club,” 2012, The Geffen Contemporary at MoCA, Los Angeles, April 19, 2012. Photo: Matt Sayles/AP.

FOLLOWING THE ECONOMIC APOCALYPSE OF 2008, art museum leaders set about peddling permanent-collection shows, taking pay cuts, and abjuring business-class travel. Boards of trustees concurred that these economizing measures, both material and symbolic, were necessary. With a rebounding economy, however, 2012 has seen fiscal caution progressively evaporate. Museum directors and CEOs normally plan in three-year increments, based on the horizon line of negotiating loans for prospective exhibitions, so an annual look back may miss a trend in the making. But one fact emerges with respect to this past year: As the recession’s stranglehold loosens, more boards, directors, and curators are considering plans that only twelve months earlier would have seemed inappropriate, profligate, or even reckless.

The rapidity of this reversal highlights the fact that the operating philosophy typical of art museums is bipolar, veering between paralyzing restrictions and unhinged exuberance. Indeed, the potential middle ground of imaginative restraint is anathema to most museum people, so the creativity bottled up over the four years since Lehman Brothers capsized is fairly exploding in many quarters. And the difference between the two extremes has more to do with missionary zeal than with economic reality: A persuasive board leader or director can tilt the balance.

This past year, as influential museum leaders across the country led the charge back toward prerecession levels of enthusiasm and ambition, they revealed, perhaps unintentionally, the lack of economic strategy guiding most major museums. Those outside the museum world might imagine that when emerging from the recessionary cocoon, institutions would tread carefully in expanding programming and launching capital projects. But they would be mistaken. Art museums could even be called faith-based organizations, dependent more on civic and personal pride than on rational financial and operational models. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why expansions are justified for audience building when ticket revenue represents less than 4 percent of art-museum budgets nationally. Or why six figures are often invested in exhibition catalogues that sell to fewer than 3 percent of museumgoers.

The reward system for museum directors is at the root of the problem. Board members who are also businesspeople would never accept sheer foot traffic at their commercial concerns as an adequate metric of success. Sales per square foot or revenue per customer would be a more reliable indicator. But art museums’ complex culture—a unique hybrid of academic credentials and glamorous pretensions—induces many trustees to check their analytic acumen at the boardroom door. Instead of demanding evidence of the impact of acquisitions, museum efficiencies, contributions to lifelong learning, or the average length of visits, most are sated on hearing that the budget is balanced and a record number of people showed up—even if they only came to dine or shop at enterprises that contribute next to nothing to the bottom line. Crowded openings are what capture our imagination. Never mind that those attending the first night come for free, often indulge in cocktails but not the exhibition, and sometimes don’t return. As long as museums appear busy, they must be relevant.

The fundamental problem may be not only that so many museums are run badly from an economic standpoint but that they don’t function effectively from a cultural perspective either. The ultimate proof of museums’ utility is surely to be found in the extent to which they care for our cultural heritage past and present and advance research, understanding, and awareness of the value of aesthetic endeavor. Evidence of achievement in such categories remains elusive because our boards don’t demand that kind of evaluation and because the measurement of operating results is far easier and more familiar. The percentage of operating support from endowment and the extent of major gifts, annual giving, and grant revenue are the key indexes of a solid revenue base (at least once you step off the charmed island of Manhattan, where millions of affluent tourists are prepared to part with apparently unlimited cash in exchange for museum access).

The new poster child for buzz as the currency that matters—rather than powerful-memory making, collection building, or ethical comportment—is the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which led the pack of museums in 2012 in exuberance, though without much support from colleagues and critics. The flair LA MoCA has shown for spectacle is undeniable, as is the shakiness of spectacle as a sustainable enterprise. The museum’s bad-boy status is a function of both internal upheaval and external antipathy. Beginning with the internal, director Jeffrey Deitch’s evident discomfort with Paul Schimmel’s authoritative independence led to deteriorating relations, to the point of the veteran curator’s ouster. Deitch seems to have watched the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s ascendance as a Hollywood-attracting institution under director Michael Govan and decided to make a play for the same constituency. What he failed to consider was that LACMA’s larger professional équipe ensured substance in exhibition development, collecting, and programming regardless of who joined the board, whereas LA MoCA, with its smaller ranks, could not absorb a sudden change of course without damaging its professional reputation.

From the outside, the museum and critical establishments were instantly dismayed by Deitch’s appointment. There was no suspension of disbelief over the first months of his tenure, and the newly minted director’s missteps in arrogating the museum’s identity to his own, without regard for its substantial accomplishments before his arrival, attracted only more animus. His quick moves to jettison scheduled fare for such projects as the “Art in the Streets” exhibition were greeted with a chorus of jeers. His unabashed embrace of celebrity culture seemed only to reflect a lack of understanding of museum culture at its roots, which has more to do with the advocacy of good ideas than the pursuit of glory.

The LA MoCA board, as is so often the case, relished a 180-degree turn from the solidity of Jeremy Strick’s tenure to the evanescent excitement of Deitch’s promise. The volatility of museums may often be attributed to the seesawing of search-committee preferences as much as to the instability of the core institutions themselves. Increased foot traffic is the claim of relevance today at LA MoCA, which fails not only as an economic test but as a mission-driven one. The fact that Deitch at least favors graffiti over Chihuly offers little comfort to the disgruntled supporters of the museum, including the artists who resigned from the board. They and others are witnessing with dismay the crumbling of a top-flight contemporary art museum and the emergence of a glossy but unsteady successor institution with an uncertain fate as megapatron Eli Broad sorts out what shape his allegiances will take next.

Other museums have certainly made room for celebrity culture and populist fare too. Yet they can afford to do so if their remit is larger and their curatorial authority undiminished. Unluckily for LA MoCA, the narrowness of its exhibition program, once its great strength, and the loss of its top curator have combined to make it an outlier with greatly reduced prospects for independent survival.

The trends so publicly on view at MoCA resonate nationwide. On the leadership front, the directors’ game of musical chairs is evergreen year to year. The American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Dallas Museum of Art, the George Eastman House, the Getty, MFA Houston, the Huntington Library, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography, the ICA Philadelphia, the Jewish Museum, SF MoMA, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Williams College Museum of Art saw departures or arrivals this past year. The brief flurry of appointing curators to directorships without passing Go abated, but that trend will likely continue, if at a slower pace. Headhunters continue to offer out-of-the-box ideas but are more inclined to come forward with professional veterans whose talents and quirks are known.

New buildings are much in evidence, with the Aspen Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the Kimbell, the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, the Parrish Art Museum, the Miami Art Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Tampa Museum of Art, and the Whitney—among others—in advanced planning or in the ground. But the post-Bilbao expansion fever, analogous to the tulip craze in seventeenth-century Holland, has in some instances yielded enlarged facilities with shrinking audience numbers— and escalating energy, program, and staffing costs. Since 2008, “Grow or die” has lost its luster as a mantra: Museums are looking for the next big thing as audiences level off, funding becomes harder to find, and—even with a tepid economy—expenses mount.

Marquee art acquisitions remain the province of museums that can make the case for relevance to donors. Transformative gifts and bequests still represent the vast majority of acquisitions, while a narrow spectrum of media outlets fluff museum purchases that lubricate the art market. Numerous private collectors have settled into semiprivate museums, while a much larger number of civic-minded trustees and patrons quietly plan for or effectuate the transfer of art and assets to public institutions. Examples include the 280 western works donated to the Tacoma Art Museum by Erivan and Helga Haub, 405 Picasso prints donated to the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan by the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation, and countless other gifts of single consequential artworks.

The Josephine F. and Walter B. Ford Great Hall, Detroit Institute of Arts, 2003.

The Detroit Institute of Arts provided an encouraging example of museums’ continued relevance to local communities when it succeeded in obtaining a “millage” to rescue one of the world’s best collections from receivership. This is a form of property tax but that is relatively painless for homeowners individually, but generates millions of dollars annually and has long supported the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, among others. Director Graham Beal’s public-funding proposition was so sensible and so powerful that it defied the conventional wisdom that government is fleeing museums through the back door. Anomalous though it may turn out to be, it was a rebuke both to opponents of public funding of the arts and to the European fad of privatizing art museums (which has had predictably dire results).

The basis of Detroit’s successful campaign was a grassroots effort to show how much the museum served the city and its surrounding areas. Museums continue to promote extrinsic goals, such as the multiplier effect of large-scale exhibitions (the assumption that ancillary spending in hotels and restaurants is triggered by shows), the provision of specialized programs for the disabled, and even safer streets through after-school programs. While such goals are laudable, however, the impulse to be all things to all people creates internal competition for resources. Funding of the bedrock, often unsexy, work of art museums—research, collections care, publishing, conservation—is under pressure as never before.

While modest exhibitions drawn from permanent collections are still on calendars, the parsimony that spawned them is, predictably, wearing thin. In their place, we see the ineluctable resurgence of major shows, whether monographic, thematic, or simply of the “Treasures from the . . .” variety. From MoMA’s Cindy Sherman exhibition to the Lucian Freud homage at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Roy Lichtenstein exhibition, the massive tribute exhibition is back in vogue. As surely as the donning of hair shirts follows a crash does the flaunting of institutional muscle follow a bounce. The year 2013 presages more of the same. With apologies to Hippocrates, art is long, memory short.

Maxwell L. Anderson is the Eugene McDermott director of the Dallas Museum of Art.