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Making the Most of What We Have: Museums & Collaboration

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
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Yesterday, at the orientation for Museums AdvocacyDay, deputy director Cora Marrett of the National Science Foundation predicted that, in a future of increased resource constraints, museums will need to collaborate on competitive funding proposals as a matter of course. I suspect this will be true across the board, not just in the sciences.
How apt, then that today’s guest post is by Charlotte N. Eyerman, director of FRAME, North America. I’ve asked her to share FRAME’s model for collaboration in the arts.
“Collaboration,” “engagement,” “community,” and “technology” are key terms of the day for museums. They are not merely buzzwords that animate professional conferences and dominate staff meetings (though they do); rather, they are guiding principles that inform our missions and our day-to-day work. Still, organizations have particular needs, goals, and priorities and may define these terms, as universal as they may seem, in vastly different ways. How we understand these anchoring terms and implement projects around them takes a tremendous investment in communication–formal, informal, written, electronic, verbal, in-person, virtual—to internal and external audiences.
I’m the director of the North American half of a Franco-American museum consortium. Having been in the role for just over a year, I love the organization, what it stands for, what it has achieved, and will do in the future. I’d like to share with you a bit about the history of this organization, and share some thoughts on what we have learned, through FRAME, about collaboration that you might consider as you assess potential partnerships.
FRAME is a relatively young organization, founded in 1999 by Elizabeth Rohatyn, our Co-President and Board Chair, when her husband, Mr. Felix G. Rohatyn, served as Ambassador of the United States to France (1997-2000). As “Madame l’Ambassadrice,” she was committed to promoting Franco-American cooperation, and the art museum context presented an ideal opportunity. The Rohatyns traveled throughout France during the Ambassador’s tenure and discovered many great cities in France outside Paris with outstanding art museums. Mrs. Rohatyn’s inspired and innovative idea was to promote cultural exchange, recognizing the primacy of museums in the fabric of each “FRAME” city. We started with 9 museums in each country and now have 13 in France, 13 in North America (12 US, 1 Canada). FRAME thrives.
For FRAME, collaboration is a way to link community, engagement, and technology with a primary commitment to communicating the importance of art. FRAME provides a model for museum cooperation by providing opportunities for museum directors, curators, educators, as well as exhibitions, development, and communications staff to exchange ideas, develop exhibitions and projects, and to broaden the reach of their collections and programs beyond their local communities onto the national and international stage.
Each fall we bring together about 60 colleagues from all 26 FRAME museums across a broad range of disciplines. We also gather in a smaller groups a few times a year to discuss exhibitions and educational programs. We maintain dialogues throughout the year using good old-fashioned tools like the phone and e-mail, and new-fangled ones like Skype. We juggle time zones and translate back and forth between French and English to advance our initiatives and to share them within our network and indeed with the broader community.
The FRAME consortium has grown and evolved over time, always with a commitment to our core mission to promote Franco-American cultural exchange and cooperation. The member museums are quite diverse but all share collections of European art as a unifying commonality, and all are in cities outside the more familiar “cultural capitals” of Paris or New York. The cities in the FRAME network vary in scale and population, with museums that house important collections. Our consortium balances the diversity of the member institutions with shared commitments to innovative exhibitions, educational programs, and professional exchange primarily within the network, though increasingly FRAME projects are shared with other museums and provide a model for collaboration. Our focus is on communicating and collaborating, with the in-person encounters at the Annual Meeting as a crucial tool to hatching new ideas and building on existing relationships.
With the extraordinary touring exhibition The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Dukes of Burgundy, FRAME launched the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a non-FRAME museum), and after venues at six FRAME museums across the U.S., it will travel to Bruges, Belgium, Berlin, Germany, and Paris, France before returning home to Dijon. This is an example of FRAME’s commitment to sharing its work within and beyond the consortium to bring this “once in a lifetime” exhibition the broadest possible audience.  
As other museums and organizations contemplate creating consortia, the key is:
·         have a clear mission
·         criteria for membership
·         clear expectations for participation
FRAME continually examines the questions of “what we do” and “how we do it” as we face changing cultural and economic conditions. Our mantra is our mission, which is built on a foundation of collegiality and cooperation. Change is inevitable and with flexibility, good will, and a strong sense of purpose and shared values, we are proud of the model that FRAME offers.
FRAME (French Regional American Museum Exchange, is a 501c3 non-profit organization), is a consortium of 26 art museums in France and North America that promotes cultural exchange in the context of museum collaborations. FRAME fosters partnerships among its member museums to develop innovative exhibitions, educational and public programs, and professional exchanges among museum staff, and maintains a bi-lingual website to reach global audiences.

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  1. I'm glad to see you using technology to further your mission. The Mourners tour could not have happened without this collaboration but I also appreciate the effort and expense you put in to build the online presence. The web is a natural tool for multiple institutions to build collaborative exhibitions. Perhaps FRAME could be the organizer for a definitive site documenting French Painting collections around the world.

  2. Thank you, John. FRAME is a 21st-century organization and we are inspired by the examples of tech leaders in museums. One thing we emphasize is that the FRAME consortium consists of institutional members: museums whose collections collectively span every culture and time period. Our focus is on Franco-North American collaboration & cooperation but our projects engage art and ideas beyond the history of French (or European art). FRAME exhibitions & educational projects are collection-driven and we have done & will do more with Modern and Contemporary, American art, etc. Our new website allows visitors to click on links to every FRAME museum's own website to explore those holdings & activities. FRAME provides a portal, literally & virtually to these 26 museums. And we'd like our organization and our projects to serve as a model that we share broadly.

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