For Art Museums to Survive, They Must Serve Minority Audiences Better

February 08, 2017 by DAVID MORRIS | FEATURED ARTICLES, VISUAL ARTS
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Art museums are failing to serve minority audiences – and if they want to survive, that has to change.

According to a recent assessment by the National Endowment for the Arts, overall attendance for art museums and galleries has fallen by 15% over the last 20 years. That can be blamed on increased digital competition, on stale marketing or perhaps on declining interest in fine art overall.

But analysis by the James Irvine Foundation concluded that arts institutions also suffered from a growing “relevance gap” between institutions and the communities they serve – communities whose demographics are changing fast. The Association of American Museums found in a 2010 study that while 34% of the U.S. population belonged to a racial or ethnic minority, only 9% of museum visitors did. Moreover, younger white audiences have an ever-growing curiosity about global art and culture, and even their declining attendance might be attributable in part to museums’ failure to serve their broader mindset.

By 2030, nearly half of the U.S. population will belong to a minority group. How, as the world shifts around them, can museums better serve all Americans, and ensure their continued relevance?

First, they can work to understand the obstacles that are limiting their appeal now – obstacles that are incredibly deeply rooted. Broader socioeconomic factors can make it more challenging for some populations to find the time and resources to visit museums. Even something as seemingly neutral as the location of a museum impacts who it serves: In St. Petersburg, for instance, the Museum of Fine Arts is part of a cluster of downtown cultural destinations, much closer to wealthier, whiter parts of town than to the predominantly black South Side.

Another historical truth, hard to see for most white visitors but palpable for many others, is museums’ longstanding tendency to treat Western and non-Western art very differently. While even religious paintings from 15th century Europe are viewed as the innovative work of creative individuals, objects from Africa or Latin America are frequently displayed as anthropological artifacts, stripped of their creators’ names (often, this is even true of non-Western art created in the 19th and 20th centuries). Those pieces are also less likely to be framed as part of a culture’s dynamic internal evolution, than as static symbols that represent an entire society.

Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, put it bluntly, writing that “the vast majority of American museums are institutions of white privilege. They tell histories of white male conquest. They present masterpieces by white male artists and innovations by white male scientists.”

That may sound extreme to some, but as we’ve already seen, the data on minority attendance backs it up.

So what concrete steps can museums take to improve their relevance for all Americans? Many have taken the step of offering free access at select days or times. In St. Pete, the Dali and the MFA both participate in an annual Free Museum Day sponsored by the Smithsonian, and offer discounted admission on Thursday night. In many museums, those evening discounts attract both more diverse and younger audiences.

Curators also have many opportunities to subvert the more troubling traditions of art programming. One mind-expanding example is the Brooklyn Museum’s recent Disguise: Masks and Global African Art. The show put traditional African ritual masks into conversation with a much broader swathe of art, most of it contemporary.  Rather than focusing on masking as an African ‘tradition,’ the show explored broader questions of role-playing and disguise, and their implications for relationships, power, and community, and treated the African mask as part of the broader artistic investigation of those issues.

Perhaps the most prominent effort in the nation to expand minority attendance is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Multicultural Audience Development Initiative. That effort has expanded diverse representation in the museum’s decision-making processes and collaborated with various specialty museums on programming. It also includes active outreach to many college and even high school groups, who can sometimes be spotted wandering the Met on scavenger hunts.

One opportunity specific to Pinellas County is presented by St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District, which has blossomed in recent years in the former Dome Industrial Park. It’s poised to extend the footprint of serious arts programming in St. Pete into an area where it will be accessible to a much wider population, but will have to navigate the risk of being seen as a force of gentrification and displacement. Those managing the WAD’s development do well to connect with nearby communities.

Finally, of course, communities must support institutions that specifically serve certain segments of the population, which can both provide a friendly on-ramp to the museum experience, and highlight elements of the universal human experience that might not be as visible to those running mainline arts institutions. In Pinellas, of course, we have the excellent and ambitious Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum and the Florida Holocaust Museum.

But from personal experience (and as a white man), I have to highlight the amazing work of Macon’s Tubman Museum, which fearlessly transcends its mission as a ‘black museum’ to become a sterling home for both fascinating historical displays and adventurous contemporary art. Last year’s Timothy Hedden exhibit in particular was a feast for the spirit, and all the evidence we should need that our art world is richer when the doors are open – and enticing – to all.

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