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A Life Lesson for Art Museums

Image: iSAW Company / Unsplash

There’s an old adage that everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten. One thing we were taught was to share. But how well did we learn it? For art museums, their future likely will be determined by their ability to share: their platforms, their authority, and, perhaps most tangibly, their collections.

In business school, I learned that leverage—and specifically financial leverage—was a driving theme of contemporary economic opportunity. While financial leverage continues to rule (and sometimes wreck) economies to this day, the bigger lesson was that, much like sharing, you can multiply your returns through a focused deployment of only a subset of your overall assets.

Leverage starts with overcoming the conceptual challenge of ceding control today over something you own outright in expectation of greater benefits down the road. In commerce, for example, an entrepreneur can use their equipment (an essential resource) as collateral for a loan that will fuel growth and financial return. In the museum world, there’s enormous potential stored in the museum’s permanent art collection – not as a financial asset, but as a lever for amplifying impact. Unfortunately, museums too often consider their collections to be exclusive, resulting in much of them never seeing the light of day. For most museums, the collection is sequestered in storage, “protected” from frequent or novel uses.

Fortunately, there are now three forces (at least!) prodding us to revive sharing as model behavior.

1. Museums can’t acquire enough art. Art is expensive and often unavailable for museum acquisition. Not only do market prices put works out of reach, collectors and other private players often have better access to the most desirable works. And, quite simply, there’s a finite supply of works by any artist, be they blue chip, emerging or newly “recognized,” living or dead.

2. Museums aspire to tell inclusive stories. Contemporary scholarship and cultural storytelling demand expansive access to relevant, multi-perspective source material, not just the material traditionally anointed as “museum quality”. Even the most encyclopedic museum (always a misnomer) lacks that breadth. This is especially true for art by artists who have been actively excluded from the mainstream canon.

3. Museums can lower logistical hurdles to sharing. Along with the cardinal sin of jealously guarding their own treasures, museums face barriers of liability and cost, asynchronous technology, and donor restrictions. In other words, (1) transactional friction (e.g., loan forms and terms; insurance and shipping costs; carbon emissions); (2) customized collection management software that is not compatible across institutions; and (3) the well-intentioned, but limiting conditions imposed on some gifts of art. Evolving best practices, the sharing of cost and liability, improved technology, and an expanding definition of collection ownership are flattening these hurdles.

Coinciding with these conditions is the emergence of institutional humility. Art museums are accepting that they are no longer exclusively ordained to control the narratives around cultural production, but rather must collaboratively engage the communities they aspire to be a part of.

Thus, the push for multi-perspective and collaborative work such as group curation, audience written interpretation, and programming that gives equal time to voices not beholden to the academy, but rather to their own experiences and acquired wisdom.

From theory to practice: a California example.

University of California, Irvine’s newly forming Institute and Museum of California Art (IMCA) is pursuing collection sharing as a core aspect of its operation and mission. This initiative is based on an appreciation of the essential requirement for exploring the vast breadth of California Art: having as much of it available and accessible as possible. IMCA humbly acknowledges that no one collection, not even its own founding art trove, provides that range. It is endeavoring, therefore, to develop a technological, logistical, and collaborative platform for sharing across academic, municipal, and private museum collections. This will radically shift how scholars can approach their work, as well as how museums can engage with their peers and the public.

IMCA is building porosity and generosity into its founding documents and collection strategy. Over the next year, IMCA and select peer institutions will convene conversations to produce the initial requirements for such a sharing platform. Over time, more users and collections will join the structure, multiplying the range, relevance, and access to the shared content.

This fresh approach to collection sharing is influenced by a long history of museum collaborations. Three other examples include: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Autry Museum of the American West’s 2017 agreement to make their collections mutually available to each other; the Tate in London and the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco’s partnership since 1997 with the New Art Trust to co-acquire time-based media art; and the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium in Massachusetts 25 year long integration of members’ collections in a shared database. Key to the utility of each of those arrangements, however, is the vitality of the specific relationships among the participants. As long as the individuals are in alignment, exchange happens. Furthermore, none is either seeking or well-suited to adding more partners. The IMCA model, on the other hand, will propose an operational approach that welcomes participants who might not know each other well and who might not otherwise even consider themselves as institutional peers. Furthermore, IMCA intends to be open with its learnings, enabling other sorts of sharing consortia to borrow and expand upon this model.

The first step, as noted above, is for our institutions to embrace sharing what we have in order to make all of us better. And what we have is art.

About the author – Tom Shapiro

Tom Shapiro of Cultural Strategy Partners specializes in strategic planning for art museums, with a sub-specialty in campus-based museums. Since 2007 CuSP has helped museums and cultural non-profits better serve the needs of their communities and the ever-evolving perspectives of cultural history. Shapiro currently partners with the IMCA at UC Irvine, among others. TShapiro@CulturalStrategyPartners.com

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