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Eight ways museums could make the most of the coronavirus crisis

Failure to seize this opportunity to make changes would be a graver error than any breach of etiquette

Visitors to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City keeping their distance in pre-pandemic times Photo: Mark McDonald; courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The challenges facing the cultural sector as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic are so serious and multifaceted that we are still trying to map the landscape, never mind cross it. So it may seem in questionable taste to start hunting for opportunities. But if museums emerge from this crisis with their old structures and behaviours intact—if they fail to seize this sudden fluidity to make changes—this would be a graver error than any breach of etiquette. Here, then, for consideration are eight such opportunities that a number of senior figures in American art museums recently identified in a series of interviews, in approximately ascending order of ambition.

Adopt new metrics of success

Museum leaders have long complained that using visitor figures as a key performance indicator distorts and trivialises. Yet it is still the statistic most frequently cited by and about museums (with this publication’s annual survey, Art’s Most Popular, a closely read report card). The pandemic has created a situation in which the health and safety of visitors and staff are at odds with record-breaking attendance, and the future of international travel is uncertain. The debate has already been fought and won: broader metrics focusing on the quality of the visitor experience are readily available. Intellectual rigour is now conveniently aligned with institutional self-interest. 


Be more strategic about exhibitions…

Forward planning of temporary exhibitions has ground to a halt. Travel itineraries have been suspended, contractual obligations abandoned with surprisingly little acrimony and plans for exhibition development put on hold. This gives museums the breathing space—and impetus—for a more strategic approach to exhibitions. What does this mean in practice? First, ensuring that plans are driven more by institutional goals than curatorial interests (though one would hope there was plenty of overlap). Second, that exhibition ideas are more thoroughly reviewed as they progress, like the greenlighting process in film development. Third, that permanent collections figure more prominently in the selection of themes and objects. Fourth, that the sheer volume is turned down.

… and education programmes

There are good reasons why museum education can tend towards the anarchic. Funders often have an agenda that exercises a strong gravitational pull—programming may have to follow the money. It is also easier to say “yes” than “no” to enthusiastic, poorly remunerated staff with their own agendas, especially when programmes are low on the PR radar and formal evaluation is intermittent. And while museums have sought to compensate for the withdrawal of public funding for arts education, there remains a vast mismatch between the ocean of unmet needs and anything any museum can do to fill them. The result can be a smorgasbord of micro-initiatives. At a time when resources are constrained and many funders are relaxing restrictive grant conditions, focused programmes with clear, measurable goals will have a stronger rationale.

Engage your neighbourhood

The positioning of cultural institutions as “community anchors” alongside educational and health institutions has gained currency over the past decade, as the arts have embraced a role in place-making. This comes with a whole set of agendas for deep engagement in local economic and social development. Museums generally are somewhat behind the performing arts, and art museums perhaps more so. Engaging deeply with the community in the few square miles around the museum would appear to be not only aligned with the zeitgeist but, now, a rational strategy in a period in which cultural tourism is likely to be in retreat.


Deepen local partnerships

Right now, there is an unprecedented level of collegiality between cultural organisations in given localities. The need to figure out the logistical complexities of reopening, the wide variation in local circumstances and the strong instinct to huddle, given the sheer weirdness of the situation, have all pushed in the same direction. This offers opportunities for partnership beyond co-ordinated reopening—to revisit the sort of back-office sharing that was explored in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and then largely dropped. But also for more profound partnerships in areas such as education and public programming, where local and regional cultural coalitions can take on agendas that are beyond the reach of single institutions. 


Nurture the virtual community

Constraints on physical travel have led to a stampede of online initiatives to retain contact with audiences. The positive side is that museums with great content are building virtual communities that extend well beyond their physical visitors faster than they could have imagined pre-pandemic. These are new audiences with which they will want to develop enduring online relationships. However, we are also drowning in online content of variable quality unsupported by anything approaching sustainable business models. This is the moment when the significance of virtual audiences for the fulfilment of museums’ missions can be more fully and permanently recognised, and institutional priorities realigned to reflect that reality. 


Recalibrate the organisational culture

Museums are conservative institutions with conservative cultures, appropriately so. Their primary obligation is the stewardship of the objects in their care, and as non-profits, they have governance structures that prioritise fiduciary responsibility over entrepreneurial risk-taking. But this can also make them sclerotic, siloed and hidebound. Strategic planning tends to emphasise the planning bit rather than the strategy bit, measuring progress against very concrete goals (such as capital campaign targets, new wings and endowed positions). But in the present chaotic environment, museums have had to abandon these milestones. Mission and values have become a better guide to action than strategic plans. In a time of rapid and almost certainly ongoing change, museums may want to prolong the nimbler, more pragmatic and less perfectionist modus operandi that has been forced upon them.

Harness art to reimagine society

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, museums have an opportunity to make a contribution to civic discourse that plays to their intrinsic strengths. It is obvious that many of our political and civic institutions have failed in the promotion of the interests of humanity and the planet. We are entering a period where questioning the status quo ante and its values and priorities is of existential importance. Artists and art museums—looking back to humanity’s highest aspirations and forward in the imaginative processes that are at the core of artistic expression—can surely play a leading role in the framing of that broader debate. In this chaos, there is a mandate.

  • This article draws from conversations in early May 2020 with Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Brian Kennedy, director of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; Joe Martin Lin-Hill, deputy director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Xavier Salomon, chief curator of the Frick Collection, New York; and Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
  • Adrian Ellis is a director of AEA Consulting and chairman of the Global Cultural Districts Network