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Do Innovation, and Diversity, Sometimes Look Like Failure?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

The New York Times reports that the Brooklyn Museum is struggling to meet its attendance goals, using director Arnold Lehman’s strategy of building local audience rather than competing with other NY museums for tourists.

The article cites a 23% drop in the museum’s attendance from 2008 to 2009, falling to about 340,000 (about a third of its high point, decades ago). This, the article points out, was in a year when attendance at other NY cultural institutions overall were pretty stable. (Though the NYT uses the average attendance for this figure—I wonder how much variation at individual institutions that masks.)

A quarter of attendees to the Brooklyn Museum come for free First Saturdays—food, drink, dancing, gallery talks, films—and the museum admits it doesn’t track how many FS attendees convert to regular museum visitors. (As a recent post from Slover-Linett Strategies points out, maybe its unrealistic to expect to convert them at all.)

The museum gets slammed by the usual mix of miffed trustees and art world cognoscenti who sniff at the occasional populist exhibits, like Star Wars, the museum has hosted. Many of the same folks gasped in horror when the museum experiments with “serious” exhibits, like the 2008 exhibit on Takashi Murakami that bent museum-y conventions by having a real live Louis Vuitton shop in the exhibit.

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But but but. Lehman points out that the museum’s audience “has become younger and more diverse.” A 2008 survey found visitors had an average age of 35, a large portion (40 percent) came from Brooklyn, and more than 40 percent identified themselves as people of color. Considering the challenges that museums overall face in reaching younger, more diverse audiences, that sounds pretty good. And the museum is trying all sorts of exciting things, like Click! a crowd-curated exhibit that Nina Simon called “a substantive research contribution by the museum to the social technology field at large.” (Besides being darn fun.)

Here’s what I thought about, reading this article on the Metro this morning:

  • Why do folks seem to assume that revelers at First Saturdays “only” come for the food, drink and music? Even if you documented they don’t visit at other times, why is enjoying the museum, and the art, less valid in a party atmosphere than in one of quiet contemplation? What makes the latter the “right” way to experience a museum?

  • If a museum’s attendance, and budget, fluctuate year to year, why is that interpreted as “failure?” Innovation is good, right? Or so the pundits, myself included (do I get to call myself a pundit?) keep saying. And a hallmark of innovation is that some experiments won’t work. The article says that the museum is financially on an even keel right now. As long as you budget for risk, why get all bent out of whack when (inevitably) some ideas fall short? If a major institution is willing to take major chances (and not just noodle around at the edges of change) why don’t we all stand up and applaud?

  • And, finally, why do we always assume more (more space, more fancy architecture, more visitors) is better? Even Lehman, after noting how pleased he is at the diverse audience the museum has built, is quoted as saying “though I admit to you, I’d like to see 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 more people.”

I wish we spent more time, as a field, discussing the next generation of questions raised by stories like this one about the Brooklyn Museum. If a museum decides its priority is to serve a diverse local audience, how can it adjust its size, and budget, to realistic projections of the resulting numbers of visitors? If a museum is going to experiment, big time, on a regular basis, how do you build a budget, and a staff, that can weather the resulting fluctuations in a healthy way? If a museum invests in providing an “alternate” museum experience, like Brooklyn’s first Saturdays, what is the desire outcome, and how do you measure it? It is converting people to “regular” visitors. Is it measuring their enjoyment of being in the museum, among the art? Or is it some specific learning objective you want them to absorb along with the booze? I’ve said it before, you have to decide what your priority is (diversity, numbers, transcendent joy) and you get what you measure.

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  1. Great post. I admit I was a bit perplexed by the first part of the NY Times article, which states that the BM expected to triple attendance by focusing on local audiences. It seems that they are on a "failing" path in that regard – but not with regard to other goals around audience development. Why did local equate to bigger numbers in 2004? Numbers do matter if they were the yardstick the institution was using – especially since that drove what kinds of metrics were collected and collectible.

    It seems to me that the Brooklyn Museum is in an ideal situation to do some more innovating–this time around measurement. Questions about SROI, value of museums to non-traditional audiences, role of museum in a local community–these are questions they are uniquely suited to address.

    And as a sidenote, I found Max Anderson's quote to be incredibly odd and I hope it was taken out of context. The idea that there are "collectors who matter" (and by implication, plebes who don't) is symptomatic of an elitist attitude that I'd hoped we were past as a field.

  2. I find the Brooklyn Museum's approach highly effective. Based on their active social networking and unique community engagement, I was compelled to join 1stFans AND purchase a Valerie Hagarty print from 20×200 in support of that program and I have never stepped foot inside the museum.

    To echo Ms. Simon, I also found Mr. Anderson's quote odd, as he has consistently been at the forefront of the push for museum innovation, transparency, technology and creative audience development. I would hate to think such an influential member of the field has succumbed to such a pretentious notion.

  3. Unfortunately, I didn't get a minute to sit down and read your blog until just after I had finished posting to mine on this same subject.

    Upon reading the original article on Tuesday, I was puzzled by the NYT's tacit acknowledgment of the Brooklyn Museum's success in gaining diversity amongst its visitors, while admonishing them for the programming that led directly to that achievement.

    I also was disappointed in the elitist tone taken by Max Anderson when discussing the First Saturday visitors, and hope that he is not so dismissive when referring to his own museum's guests.

    I pasted in a link below, if you wish to read my observations on the need for museums to make a greater effort toward engaging new and reluctant audiences if they are to remain relevant and sustainable in the future.

    Thanks so much for keeping a constant finger on the pulse of the future.

  4. Really liked your take on the thinking here (I'm going to set aside some issues I took with the article since Jennifer raised them). Yes, what does innovation look like? It's got open arms for failure written all over it for sure.

    For me this comes down to what is the Brooklyn Museums' identity?

    I think that in order to make innovation work in an institutional setting, it's got to be part of the core values or mission. It also helps empower all staff, board, etc. if it is simple, and easy to remember. It then gets conveyed in all layers to the public. A more traditional analogy of innovation as a core value would be a place like the Exploratorium. They are about creating a culture of learning through the vehicle of exhibits:

    “The Exploratorium’s mission is to create a culture of learning through the creation of innovative environments, programs and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them.”

    For me this begs the question of what would an art museum look like that's core value might be @ experimenting with engagement? Are those 2 things or 1?

    I find the Mission at the BM is laudable, but complex:

    "The mission of the Brooklyn Museum is to act as a bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures, as embodied in its collections, and the unique experience of each visitor. Dedicated to the primacy of the visitor experience, committed to excellence in every aspect of its collections and programs, and drawing on both new and traditional tools of communication, interpretation, and presentation, the Museum aims to serve its diverse public as a dynamic, innovative, and welcoming center for learning through the visual arts."

    Seems to me that they have been successful in the area of reaching their diverse public. However, is their goal to use art to foster an individual's point of view? Is it it about "we're innovators because we're going to innovate on HOW we communicate"? I have a hard time wrapping my brain around what their identity is or who they are. I think getting clear at the top could go a long way.

  5. Nice post with great details. IICIE has launched the Certified Business Innovation Manager (CBIM) Certification. This certification is aimed at providing a global standard for Innovation training and ensuring that a specific set of methodologies are implemented in any Innovation eco-system. This certification will cover the basics of innovation, different tools and techniques employed during the process, highlight major success stories of innovation and describe how innovation frameworks can be developed at an organization.

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