Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Future of Museums

Bookmark from Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, an AIDS-support organization in New York.

What is the future of museums? What about non-profits in general, from health care and social services to micro-loans for veterans? How will museums stack up against social organizations as the economy continues to reform itself? These are urgent questions--now where to find the answers?

I was recently accepted into the Nonprofit Services Center's Women's Leadership Academy for Executive Directors. I got notice just a week before the Academy started--evidently I'm the first arts person to participate and finding an underwriter was tough. (An aside: the Arts and Education Council will henceforth sponsor an arts leader--a great boost for our team!) Through the Women's Academy I have met a woman who started her non-profit using running to build confidence in girls and a woman who organizes small business loans for returning veterans. The group presents an impressive array of talents and passions dedicated to making the region better.

Despite the diversity of the non-profits in this year's Academy, our problems are very similar, but it's clear that we in the arts need to speak differently.

We've tried touting the uplifting, unquantifiable benefits of culture for social growth as our defense. We've tracked numbers to demonstrate our value as an education / entertainment outlet. We've generated economic impact numbers to show our contributions to society's health. What else can the arts do to defend themselves in this economy?

Director's Forum panel "Investing in Consultant: The Value of an Objective Perspective", left to right: Kevin Grogan, The Morris Museum; Lisbeth Mark, Jeanne Collins & Associates; Susan Kreeger, Real HR Solutions; Shirley Ferguson Jenks, Jenks Group; Richard W. Franklin, Exhibits Coalition.

In addition to the conversations I've been having at the Nonprofit Services Center meetings, this past week I attended a Director's Forum run by the Art Museum Partnership, based in New York. The title of the program was "Survival Strategies for the Recession-Weary Leader."

While I'm not sure the conference stuck closely to the overarching topic, and we didn't share new fund-raising secrets, I did learn some interesting / shocking things:

1. The Association of Art Museum Directors estimates that 75% of current museum directors will retire within 10 years. As a result AAMD is instituting its own training programs.

AAMD has been behind the eight ball on this; museum directors and curators from smaller organizations have turned recently to the management programs at Columbia University and the Getty to gain expertise and mentoring. I suspect the AAMD's program may cut into these existing programs as a way to keep itself relevant to the field.

2. AAMD is (finally) opening up its membership beyond 200, which made it exclusive and exclusionary, to allow organizations with budgets lower than today's floor of about $2.5 million.

What this said to me: It sounds like the AAMD recognizes a need to move into the 21st marketplace and diversify to younger leaders, women and minorities, and to consider how this next generation (myself included) will change the field. It's exciting that this group is shaking itself up to address the pressing needs seen and felt across the field. AAMD walks a fine line between support and advocacy, but they need to take a more active leadership role on behalf of all of us.

3. Many museum boards hire a search firm to replace directors, and you are only considered for such posts if you are in the head-hunter's Rolodex (this from Becky Klein of Phillips Oppenheim.) What a shock: what of America's famed meritocracy? This was the most chilling fact.

In light of the AAMD's recognition of a crisis of succession it seems that head hunters need to broaden their own practice and allow for new candidates to break into the hallowed halls of museum practice. Perhaps this explains how conservative and homogeneous large museums have become--because the candidate pool is so small?

Sign on side of van in Chelsea area.

I saw this sign while touring galleries in Chelsea with some St. Louis friends after my conference was over, and somehow the discrepancy between "perfection" and scratched signage suggests the dilemma non-profits have in today's world.

How to meet a set of standards--both your own and the community's--when funds are fleeting and fickle?
How can smaller arts organizations present world-class quality when they are barely heard above the cacophony of the marketplace? What, indeed, will we look like in 10 years when 75% of today's museum leaders retire? All compelling questions, I look forward to helping sort this out.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Justice for the Margins

Yoshitomo Nara show at the Institute of Visual Arts (inova), Milwaukee, 2006. photo courtesy inova.

A friend brought this recent article in the New York Post to my attention--it's as if someone has been tracking me, like some caribou in the Arctic Circle.

New York Post "Urban Renewal", September 13, 2010

I have written about the different places I have lived over the past two decades: Seattle, Milwaukee, Phoenix and now St. Louis. (This excludes the big cities of New York and Los Angeles, but ignoring them makes the following point even more pointed.)

These housing acrobatics seem counter-intuitive to pursuing a "straight" path on a career ladder, but life isn't straight, is it?

Ragna Robertsdottir at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007. photo courtesy SMoCA.

What these cities brought me were unparalleled opportunities for professional and personal growth. How else could I have visited Belgium, Canada, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom over the past fifteen years? Displacement is an important part of shaking up your world view.

Rebecca Belmore and Osvaldo Yero mold for work on the US / Mexico border. photo courtesy F.A.R. (Future Arts Research) @ ASU.

I'm thinking about displacement because of an event last night. I was part of a celebration of the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Ferring Art and Art History Travel Program (named for Alison and John Ferring, two of the city's best philanthropists), held at William Shearburn Gallery in the Central West End.

The event, founded by Dr. Susan Cahan formerly of UMSL, gives 10 or so students free trips to art centers around the country. Susan left in 2009 to work at Yale, and I have taken over the program in her absence. Last March I took the group to New York. I worked them to the bone for four full days--that was my goal!

At Shearburn Gallery last night, three of the 12 students talked about their experiences in NY and how it challenged them and changed them.

Ahmet Ogut work produced in PHX and part of my up-coming show with Ogut at Laumeier Sculpture Park. photo courtesy the artist, Amsterdam.

It was a pleasure to hear, again, the impact the trip had on the students. I thought about the first time I set foot in New York--I emerged from the subway to see a collapsed crane strapped against the side of a skyscraper (the trigger to my dislike of cranes on buildings). I know the Ferring trip could play the same life-changing role.

Since good art is everywhere, what is important for an arts career is knowing what is happening elsewhere. Sure, you can just be interested just in what's happening on your block, but I'm more interested in the expansive mind, not the small one. Think small and big!

I am gearing up to organize the 2011 Ferring trip, we'll likely go to New York again because of the density of the experience. And for those students who have never been on a plane or out of St. Louis, watch out, a growth spurt is coming!

This is the great part about teaching--the change is immediately apparent. Yet part of the goal for the students when they return is to figure out how to contribute to making St. Louis vibrant by seeing the energy of other places.

Again, travel is a great teacher in the appreciation of self and others.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Muscular Abstraction

Donald Judd Untitled, 1984. Photo: Mike Venso, courtesy Laumeier Sculpture Park

Much of the collection at Laumeier Sculpture Park is minimal, geometric, abstract. This is a function of the era of our founding, of course, and likely the taste of many of the patrons who contributed works or paid for purchases.

Yet muscular abstraction is also a function of the history of our place. St. Louis was not just a gateway to the west, it was a hard-working, hard-polluting, hard metal kind of town, where steamboats and cross-country travelers could gird up for their trip out west. Our landscape is still scattered with lead mines (and salt mines) that helped fuel travel throughout the booming 19th century.

Richard Serra, Twain, 1982. Photo from St. Louis Art Map

The much-maligned Twain, by Richard Serra, in downtown St. Louis, caused an uproar. The process of putting art in the public realm took the biggest hit, but the conversation around art took another. What is it about the work that created so much hatred? Is it because Serra's hard-edged work undermined the fluffy city-building happening around it? Is it because Serra's work made the bad architecture downtown seem that much worse? Is it because Serra reminded people of its now-disappeared working-class roots?

Flood gates, Sainte Genevieve, Missouri. Photo by the author

The best piece of muscular public sculpture I've seen recently is this flood door, near the ferry landing at Sainte Genevieve, Missouri. The enormous doors hardly seem sufficient to keep out the kind of deluge that has happened here over time--Ste. Genevieve had to move from its original position at the water's edge in the late 18th century--but I'm sure they've worked out the technology.

This piece of public art is a reminder of the area's lifeline, but it is hidden away from the tourists to this hard-scrabble town and its examples of French Colonial architecture.

Sculpture is best when it reminds us of what and who we are. The Judd, above, reminds me of the primitive boxes of so much human habitation over time; the Serra, the complex forms that humans can make in the city.

The flood doors remind me simply that Mother Nature is the basis for everything we can and will ever do.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Aesthetics of Ink

Bavarian floaty pen. photo courtesy the author.

Many years ago my friend Diane showed me a part of her floaty pen collection. I was charmed--a collection that is affordable, portable and storable by the average person!

I began collecting floaty pens for her when I traveled, and have become an afficionado of the genre. I've mentioned this to other people who began bringing them to me, so now that I've got a mini-collection (20 against Diane's 200+), I buy two wherever I go.

During one trip to Denmark for an IKT conference several years ago, Diane charged me with buying up to $100 worth of pens at one of the two big floaty pen factories in Europe (the other is in Italy), but I never got out of Copenhagen for the a shopping spree. Too bad. When you start looking at the pens you can tell which are better made. It's all part of the aesthetic.

There are several styles of floaty pens, the predominate one being a tourist kchothke like the one from Bavaria, above. This includes Dutch on bicycles, Finns ski jumping, bluebirds underneath the St. Louis arch. I get it, but it's not that interesting.

Some pens evidence a sense of humor, but these are harder to find. The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas (which recently closed) had a floaty pen of hands moving across the keyboard. I would have liked one of Liberace dressed in some frou frou feather coat with air blowing it up to reveal--what? In any case, I now judge an institution or organizations' sense of humor, or lack thereof, based on their floaty pen.

Mustachioed Mt. Rushmore.

A floaty pen with a sense of humor includes the Mt. Rushmore mustache pen, above, although this is not the "official" pen of the historic site. It seems there is a new breed of entrepreneur who is producing these pens and having a good time doing it!

The best pen I've ever seen is one in Diane's collection. A cow moves slowly into a barn, placed at the mid-point of the glass capsule of the floaty pen, and comes out a hamburger on the other side. Now that's aesthetic transformation! Droll commentary on industrial farming? All-in-all, this is the one pen that sets the design standards for them all.

Kevin thinks my adopted floaty-pen obsession is a scam--for whom, me or Diane? We both are getting them for free. In either case we both get to imagine other places and experiences through the pens that make the way back into our lives. This, ultimately, is why people collect anything at all.