Monthly Archives: April 2011

Coloring in the Lines?

Professional racial disparity exists; museums are no different.  As with many members of racial minorities, being different is not particularly uncommon for me.  But as a minority, I can’t help but weigh in on the issue of race and museums.

Race and most often socio-economic challenges have a certain type of currency in museums. Museum administration for its most part is still a bastion for those of privilege.  Instead, with service generally firmly implanted into the ethos and language of their mission, museums often see relating to minorities as an important part of their charge.  But to what end?

Currency is actual part of it. Often grantors are looking for programs that served the underserved or underrepresented.  For museums, this means outreach is often a way to gain funds for staffing that can be used in multiple ways beyond the auspices of the grant.

Certainly altruism is also an element in this behavior.  Some who went into museum work drank the kool-aid of the power of art or culture to ameliorate the circumstances of the disenfranchised.  This is a kool-aid that I certainly have drank and passed out to summer interns year after year.  Museums are often situated, coffers full of their riches, on the edge of poor urban districts.  It would be not only be selfish but cruel for museums to turn their backs (and their doors) away from these patrons.  Art is not a panacea for all the ills of our urban poor, as I have learned often in my working life, but if you don’t ask museums to fix everything in one fell swoop, you can help a little—just a little.

The issue lies in how this type of outreach is planned and why.  Who decides which groups garner such largess from the ever-strapped museum staff?  What is the ideal relationship of the museum to these groups?  I have carefully tiptoed around the word community.  This is a word that often takes on impressively paternalistic implications.  Community-outreach is meant to seem inclusive but often really implies that these groups are a different and completely separate community than the standard museum one.

In general, this separate but equal attitude is due to the do-gooders in power.  I use this term, do-gooder, in the absolute best and worst sense of the word.  Most museum professionals who plan outreach opportunities see them as ways to do good works and to offer service where it is needed.  However, these plans are generally predicated on the differences between the outreach audiences and regular museum-goers—it is like planning a party for someone you don’t know.

Often museums get to know racial groups in order to understand how to present an exhibition in a culturally sensitive manner.  Basically, they are hoping to keep from offending anyone.  Over my years, I have seen these advisory committees come and go.  Often one special interest group is cultivated and then dropped for the next one. I remember once being in a meeting about diversity when I was told my type of diversity (Asian) was already dealt with in an exhibition last year.

Or else, group members are cultivated to participate long term.  They are asked to remain part of the museum community in part to speak for their race.  I appreciate this may sound dismissive of positive efforts on the part of the museum.  And, I certainly prefer having some voice rather than none.  But, what does it mean when one is asked by a white curator to speak for all Native Americans? Doesn’t it strike you as dehumanizing?

What is the solution? Obviously offering paid internships might be one solution.   Museum work is something that doesn’t draw minorities in hoards.  If your parents struggled to leave their war torn country, and then work eight jobs to put you through college, you might not consider the penury of museum work as a promising career option.  Then there is the issue of exposure.  Most Asians families might not consider the summer trips to the Prado as edifying as say trips to visit their home countries.  Urban high schools with science, math or medicine are often more popular than schools with arts in the title. A more viable solution would be working with minority professionals in other fields to help with planning and implementing such projects.  These individuals understand nuances of the community, because they actually call that group their community.

Meeting Needs…

from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A thoughtful person asked me today if all museums worked this way.  By this way, she meant with long stretches of meetings marked by legislative decision-making, interspersed with back-door conversations, and then short forays into actual work.

Museums are a bit like universities in that they are presided over and populated by academics, often people who love the discursive rather than the constructive.  Education, however, is the mission in both fields.  But unlike our professorial colleagues, the wards for museum professionals are not just those being educated but also some other THING.  That thing could be art, interactive exhibits, knitting needles, or even just a concept such as play. 

The trickiness of museum life might be predicated on that duality.  If museums were just educational institutions, then the work of museum professional would be simple—teach as best as you can.  But, instead, we are charged with taking care of something, say art, getting more of that precious resource, exhibiting those resources, raising revenue at the coffee shop and in the parking lot, and then also teaching.  This multiplicity of goals is the issue with decision-making in museums.  Everyone holds one element of the mission in hand.  And, they all come together motivated by a different aspect of the museum’s mission.  Some meetings feel more like tug of war with everyone pushing their agenda.

How can museum professionals work in ways that channel their mission-driven natures but remain productive?  Process is a word that gets thrown around in answer to that question.  For museum staffers, most of us trained in a field completely unrelated to management, developing a functional structure for accomplishing our goals becomes the focus.  Often, museum staffmembers think that creating a structure of regular meetings where work occurs in concert and on display  is the best ‘process.’  What actually occurs is that the manager decides that this should occur, the footsoldiers create any sundry assortment of flowcharts and spreadsheets.  After countless hours spent arranging the meetings, the group gathers and at least one person decides to parade his ego like an aging peacock,  another person decides the whole idea of meeting is counter to work in the first place, or another person has her computer to work on a completely different assignment.  (I must confess I am generally the latter.)

I find that there is a pretty clear dichotomy in the worksplace–the meeters and the nonmeeters.  I have in my different employed incarnations fallen into both camps.  Often, the meeters are characterized by a desire for communal consensus, shared ownership, and kumbaya.  These are also people who feel that meetings are themselves a measure of productivity and accomplishment.  The other camp, the nonmeeters believe in the power of the work of one individual alone and reading  in quiet cubicles.  Alright, so these caricatures a little hard drawn.  But, the point is that on one hand the meeting culture has strong positives in terms of shared ownership but it also seriously decreases individual successes and responsibility. This though goes back to the game of tug of war.  First you have everyone fighting for a different side of the mission, then you have some quality resentment about the existence of the meeting itself.  This does not make for optimized productivity. 

So, what are the solutions?  The decrease and consolidation of meetings could be one move towards increased productivity. To truly decrease the meetings, one would have to increase that which is accomplished in the meetings.  This is where another problem lies.  You might think this is where a good agenda comes into play, but really, how many meetings have you been in where the agenda is completely disregarded.  I would say it is in part about who decides what occurs in a meeting.  When the person on high decides that a meeting should occur, but gives no thought to why or how, I promise you that event will be a fiasco.  Also, if the meeting is planned with the goal of shared experience solely without a clear action point to occur within the meeting, then that too will be a sorry affair.  Instead a really good meeting is short, action-oriented, planned by the person who needs the goal accomplished, and then over. 

When I was very young, we played a sort of game where we grasped a parachute, held our arms aloft, ran underneath, and tacked down the cloth under our bottoms.  The first couple times there was always one girl or another who got lost at one of the four steps.  But, by the third time, we would be happily installed under the miraculous rainbow colored fort.  The success was that the teacher communicated her goals, modeled the program, expected us to behave appropriately, and then let us luxuriate in the success of having followed the program.

This is not so different for a good meeting.  Good meetings need clear goals, process and end products.  I would actually say the issue is often at the core about management (like my preschool teacher).  If productivity, civility and sensibility, all at the service to the mission, are not communicated from the top, museum professionals cannot accomplish their goals in a way that allows them to enjoy their chance to luxuriate in their successes, parachute or not.

The Art in Museums

Given 75 million dollars, and an abiding belief in the role of museums in the common good, what sort of institution would you create?  The You Museum of Art? The You Museum of Culture? The Klatch of  Stuff? 

Recently, I was sitting at a table in the midst of a wonderful debate about the merits of adding Art to the name of a  cultural organization and the inevitable drawbacks.  The word “art” carries a certain je ne sais quoi that makes donors swoon and prance.  After all, art has the ultimate cache—it costs a lot and proves you know why the price tag is so high.  Art is at once a commodity and signifier of intelligence. One just seems fashionable for wearing the best of Issey Miyaki’s spring line. One seems brilliant for owning a Pae White, because the act of owning appears tied to the act of understanding.  In other words, to consume is also to get it. 

Those who work in public art museums know the secret to this whole thing.  There doesn’t have to be anything to get.  It can be as simple as paint on an old wood board.  Appreciation can just be about liking the surface. Or it can be as complex as explaining all of humanity, faith, God and heaven on said board.  Appreciation can then be about understanding gold ground altarpieces in the context of the liturgy of Gothic Siena prior to the Black Death.

When visitors ask about value, they certainly mean cost.  The art market sets the price, but the value can be completely disengaged from the debate.  The viewer can choose this value.  One person’s penny print can be another person’s Ukiyo-e masterpiece 200 hundred odd years later.   In a consumer capitalist society, this nuance is hard.  Add the complexity of the ever-quickening paceof mass media, when a song lasts for a minute and an advertisement for a second in our ever fracturing common understanding.  It is hard to see yourself standing on the long slow road of art history just a blimp between the Lascaux Caves and something I couldn’t begin to fathom 3000 years from now.  When you think about it in that way, it doesn’t matter how much that Damian Hirst cost yesterday or even within our lifetime. 

Art can be a scary term connoting cliquishness as much as culture.  The term also offers unabated belief in the truth that humans make things that are valuable to society, forever, for their material essence. That actual object, not its apish digital simalcra, is special.  I would rather tackle these fears about art, and then help people understand that they got it all along. 

So, back to my brand spanking new museum.  I would proudly hang the biggest banner I could afford, and despite the rising cost of steel, I could still get a pretty big banner with all that imaginary money.  I would yell this is a museum of ART.