Art Museums in Transformation (Fall 2004 Trust Magazine article)

Art Museums in Transformation (Fall 2004 Trust Magazine article)

A new and imaginative 21st-century museum environment is taking shape. All over the country, art museums are becoming less event-driven and more focused on enlarging their audiences and providing them deeper, richer services—and on becoming places where all people, not simply those who are knowledgeable about art, gather to learn, discuss and debate, share experiences, socialize and be entertained.

This transformation is part of a movement to expand the vision of museums' purposes and possibilities and connect them with their communities. Museums no longer simply present objects; they actively engage their audiences with the collections and the institutions themselves. The story of how a diverse group of 11 art museums underwent this transformation is the substance of the book New Forums: Art Museums and Communities, published by the American Association of Museums, which describes the results of the Trusts-supported Program for Art Museums and Communities.

This project, administered by the Bay Area Discovery Museum, gave 11 museums (see page 19) up to four years of funding between 1995 and 2002 so that they could pursue stronger connections to their communities through art and artists. They aimed for sustained engagement with their visitors, rather than short-term interest in specific exhibitions, and created infrastructures for successful visitor experiences.

The Program for Art Museums and Communities arose from the core principles of Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, the 1992 report by the American Association of Museums that emphasized the importance of working with collections and the public. Excellence and Equity encouraged support for public service in all facets of the museum—from mission to programs to services—and emphasized the need to involve board, staff and volunteers. The concept was a simple one, but the implementation required the convergence of a complex set of circumstances, including board and staff leadership to create change, resources to implement change and time to assess its effectiveness.

The museums created programs that strengthened partnerships, heightened community visibility and extended service to a broader audience. Over time they found that, to be a reliable, accessible bridge between people and art, they had to change how visitors experience art in a museum setting; they had to guide that experience and then sustain it.

Each of the participating museums is a product of its context—size, location, mission, audience and founder's vision. Though the routes they took were different, all sought to learn more about that context. And all were committed to becoming institutions where learning, flexibility and change are integral and valued parts of the organizational culture. Ultimately, they transformed their individual philosophies and practices and, in the process, revitalized their dual dedication to their collections and the public.

A Visitor-Centered Focus

To engage audiences successfully, museums must do more than set goals and develop programs. They must communicate clearly that the museum is accessible, reliable and responsive to visitors, who must feel as welcome (in the words of one curator) “as a precious commodity, as precious as a work of art, as precious as an artistic experience.”

Some participating institutions identified specific target audiences—for instance, families, students and educators, teens or seniors—and conducted extensive research to learn about these audiences' perceptions and motivations. They learned that teens, for instance, would be attracted by small-scale programs that emphasize quality, depth and the life-changing potential of art. To reach across generations, they learned to think about experienced-based learning formats. To reach families, they had to look hard at a museum environment that is typically designed for adults.

From this research, many of the museums developed strategic plans that made visitor focus a priority. The museums also had to open their collections to various approaches and interpretations—“making the opportunities for engagement clear,” as one curator put it. In teens, for instance, works of art might evoke sometimes-emotional dialogues. Other audiences might be interested in cross-cultural exhibitions or programs that bridge the historical and the contemporary.

Balancing potentially competing interests was not always easy. Artists doing their work right in the museum while the visitors watched, for example, may be more concerned with the creative process, while the museum may be more interested in engaging the public in that process.

Because the program began in 1995, only a few of the museums were initially wired technologically. The first advances were bilingual handheld audio guides to the collections and tapes or videos of artists' first-person commentaries on their work. Today, interactive technology in different formats is a resource in all of the museums, with artists participating by allowing their voices and images to be reproduced in electronic media as well as in print.

Many of the Web sites reflect the visitor-focus approach. At the Rhode Island School of Design, the Museum of Art's Art ConText contains documentary videos of artists-in-residence. The Whitney Museum's Youth2Youth site was designed by teens for teens, with “talk back” features, bulletin boards, biographies of program participants and news of museum events. The Seattle Art Museum has an online (and in-person) Teacher Resource Center for the professional development for educators. The Denver Art Museum's WackyKids site, designed for 8- to 10-year-olds, promotes creative hands-on learning with art activities that can be printed out. The Art Institute of Chicago's Web site has a “Kids & Families” section.

Creative Cultures and Organizational Change

Instead of acting solely as service providers, the art museums now work with the community for the benefit of the public. Their own organizational patterns have changed as a result, generally led by boards that provided the vision, leadership and resources. Some museums updated their organizational structures and created new staff positions—often community liaisons—that were incorporated into their missions and future plans. Taking advantage of its unique constituency, for instance, the university-based Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive created an academic liaison and a faculty advisory committee.

Some museums gave staff the authority to implement change and began to hold staff meetings focused on visitor service in order to encourage greater flexibility, honesty and receptiveness to diverse points of view across the museum. The Denver Art Museum formed interdepartmental teams of marketing, curatorial and education staff to develop and implement new family programs. The Carnegie Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego used cross-institutional exhibition-planning teams that helped move thinking away from simply the installation and interpretation of objects and toward the types of experiences they wanted to offer visitors.

Like research and development in a business setting, the museums' willingness to experiment encouraged greater creativity, as ideas were generated, tested, refined, evaluated and learned from. Evaluation tools included visitor surveys, focus groups, quantitative analysis and what the Denver Art Museum calls “structured listening.” The long-term funding helped the evolution toward better ideas and successful implementation, and the overall experience proved that a learning environment reinforces what works well and supports ongoing change.

Most of the museums incorporated the research results into their mission statements, departmental and institutional plans, budgets and core programs. Some initiatives led to the development of endowments; other initiatives have permanent physical spaces for visitor-focused activities. The museums also shared the conclusions with other institutions in the project museums and with the museum field at large.

Relationships based on mutual interest, parallel goals, clear expectations and collaborative decision-making have the best chance at success, but there are no set formulas. Each of the participating museums had previously established some form of community relationship, so partnerships were not a new concept. The challenge was to capture the potential of those partnerships by deepening and expanding the relationships between visitors and the museum.

Many of the museums initially described their project goals in terms of partnerships with schools, universities, libraries, and other community organizations. Over time, those partnerships became not ends in themselves, but important ways of making the museum a more welcoming and accessible place and enhancing the quality of the visitor experience.

Moving Forward

Simple, consistent actions—rather than dramatic steps or major upheavals—transformed the museums in the project. Each institution had a working environment that supported change. More important, museum leadership at the board, director and staff levels was willing to take risks and eager to share experiences, successful and otherwise, with colleagues.

Here is a short list of results:

  • Revised mission statements reflect the importance of visitors and communities. Strategic plans incorporate goals and strategies for excellence in both the artistic program and audience engagement.    
  • Permanent spaces and resources—including new resources in the galleries and on the Web, such as gallery activities, print and audio guides to the collection and interactive materials and special family centers—make it comfortable and rewarding to engage with the collection.    
  • New staff positions and organizational structures introduce new perspectives and increase the museum's capacity for satisfying visitors.    
  • Staff training and communication stress meeting visitors' needs and build team environments within the institutions to support the shared goals of providing programs and services to the visitors.    
  • New programs and program formats, including artist residencies, reflect visitor-centered goals.    
  • Community alliances help reach neighbors and people who do not traditionally visit the museums.    
  • New audiences, especially families and teens, help shape program formats, museum spaces, and staff attitudes toward visitors.     
  • Technology aids efforts at communication, information-sharing and public access.    
  • Funding from new endowments or from annual operating budgets is sustaining the programs started as Trusts-supported initiatives.     
  • In planning for expansion, the visitor experience is of strategic importance.

Ongoing success is possible because the museums incorporated their community-focused work into their core missions and programs. They understand the importance of allocating enough time to integrate the consequences of change into structures, processes and facilities. And they know that a museum's community relationships are not about delivering a product, but about human interactions and experiences with works of art that have real and lasting value.

Participating Museums, Focus and Web Site

  • Art Institute of Chicago (family visitors programs).    
  • Carnegie Museum of Art (community involvement).    
  • Denver Art Museum (family learning and programs with a neighboring public library).    
  • Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (artist residencies and school partnerships).    
  • Minneapolis Institute of Arts (customer-oriented focus).    
  • Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (equal emphasis on art and community, especially its San Diego-Tijuana border neighbors).    
  • Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (public library workshops where artists created works in full public view).    
  • Seattle Art Museum (new educational resources for students and teachers in local schools).    
  • University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (programs for transient university students, and resources for enabling faculty to use artists-in-residence, exhibitions, and collections as teaching resources).    
  • Walker Art Center (interdisciplinary artist residencies in partnership with community organizations).    
  • Whitney Museum of American Art (intergenerational programs involving teens).

Bonnie Pitman and Ellen Hirzy collaborated on New Forums: Art Museums and Communities; this piece is a shortened form of a chapter from the book. Pitman, the deputy director of the Dallas Museum of Art, served as project director of the Program for Art Museums and Communities, to which Hirzy was a consultant. 

Hirzy, an independent editor and writer based in Washington, D.C., was the principal writer of Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, which was produced by an American Association of Museums committee that Pitman chaired. 

New Forums is available through the association's web site at

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