Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Measuring the Success of a Museum's Vision

From the New York Times:
When it opened a new glass entrance in 2004 meant to beckon the masses, the Brooklyn Museum said it hoped to triple attendance in 10 years by concentrating on a local audience. It had stopped worrying about competing with Manhattan museums or about its image — despite its world-class collections — as a poor man’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Instead, the museum invited the neighborhood to view its McKim, Mead & White Beaux-Arts building as a community resource and openly celebrated popular culture with shows like its recent photographic history of rock ’n’ roll.

But six years in, the effort to build an audience is not working. Attendance in 2009 dropped 23 percent from the year before, to about 340,000, though other New York cultural institutions remained stable.
There's a wealth of data and opinion offered in Robin Pogrebin's article (titled "Brooklyn Museum’s Populism Hasn’t Lured Crowds)," but by the end of it, I still wasn't sure what I thought were the most important measures in determining whether a museum's vision is succeeding. Complicating the matter for me are three factors that I assume need to be considered in conjunction with attendance tallies: the economy, the shifting demographics of the area, and the percentage of populist efforts.

Of course, from the article's title, you'd think the last factor isn't so important, but not only does Pogrebin note that MoMA's recent exhibition on the work of director Tim Burton "drew 811,000 visitors, its third-largest audience ever for an exhibition," among the Brooklyn Museum's most populist recent exhibitions, “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present,” also "drew large crowds" according to the piece. [I've offered my opinion of such shows here before, so I'll press on.]

Taking every factor into account, it would seem that the title of the article should read simply "Brooklyn Museum Hasn't Lured Crowds," which leads me back to the other two factors I assume would be important to consider: the economy and the shifting demographics of the area. Those would seem to be perhaps more relevant here, no? Perhaps the answer is no for the first one. Reports far and wide suggest people are flocking to some museums like never before.

So what does determine whether a museum's vision is successful?
Experts say many factors lure visitors to museums, including location and marketing, not just the quality of an institution’s collections or the nature of its exhibitions. And Brooklyn is far from the only museum that has suffered a sudden attendance drop....
Ah yes, location and marketing. Brooklyn would seem to have a location disadvantage with New York's other major museums, but I think it's the other factor that really holds the key here if you compare museums within Manhattan. According to the annual review in The Art Newspaper (pdf file), of the top 30 museum exhibitions in the world, the top 10 that took place in New York were:
  1. Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, Museum of Modern Art
  2. Pipilotti Rist: Pour Your Body Out, Museum of Modern Art
  3. James Ensor, Museum of Modern Art
  4. Ron Arad: No Discipline, Museum of Modern Art
  5. Martin Kippenberger: Problem Perspective, Museum of Modern Art
  6. Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, Museum of Modern Art
  7. Van Gogh and the Colours of the Night, Museum of Modern Art
  8. Vermeer’s Masterpiece The Milkmaid, Metropolitan Museum of Art
  9. Frank Lloyd Wright: from Within Outward, Guggenheim Museum
  10. Aernout Mik, Museum of Modern Art
Eight of them were at MoMA. And this despite the fact that total attendance was higher at the Met than at MoMA, suggesting that it's the success of MoMA's marketing of specific exhibitions that's giving them the big crowds for specific shows. Moreover, looking at those MoMA shows, it's possible to conclude that populist offerings were part of their key to success (Van Gogh and Miro might fall into that category at this point), but Kippenberger, Dumas, and Mik are hard to classify that way as far as the general public is concerned (note: the Burton show will be part of next year's analysis).

As for the demographics of the area factor, here I think perhaps the Brooklyn Museum director, Arnold Lehman, is making a very bold (and possibly more provident) investment:
Mr. Lehman says he takes pride in the fact that even though the Brooklyn Museum’s audience hasn’t grown, it has become younger and more diverse. A 2008 museum survey showed that roughly half of the attendees were first-time visitors. The average age was 35, a large portion of the visitors (40 percent) came from Brooklyn, and more than 40 percent identified themselves as people of color.
Making a younger and more diverse crowd feel welcome might pay off big in the long run, in my opinion, but not everyone agrees:
“The core constituency of collectors who matter, and people who are members of an art museum, want to be taught and stretched and learn,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, a former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art who now runs the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “You may get people in the door for a motorcycle show or a ‘Star Wars’ show, but they don’t return, and there is no residual value from their visits.”
Personally, I think location is probably the number one challenge for the Brooklyn Museum and that unless they could mount blockbuster after blockbuster, there's not much else they can do to improve attendance. I say that based on my visitations to museums in other cities (where I'm too pressed for time usually to visit the out-of-the-way institutions, and so I don't...unless it's clearly a must-see show). I'm willing to bet a very high percentage of MoMA's or the Met's visitors are from out of town, that they're on insanely busy schedules, and that the trip to Brooklyn means not doing several other things they want to fit in while in New York.

Having said that, perhaps the best way to measure the Brooklyn Museum's success isn't by comparing it to other museums or even against its own ambitious attendance goals (such efforts seem so corporate to me, I can't help but think they confuse a curatorial program), but against its mission statement:
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.
Being dedicated to "primacy of the visitor experience" is a seriously lofty goal, in my opinion (and something MoMA can't hold a candle to Brooklyn in, given its outrageous crowds and awkward building), so long as the programming is comparable. Charlie Finch's recent tribute to Sigmar Polke suggests that perhaps that's where the Brooklyn Museum needs to refocus:
When I think of the Brooklyn Museum the way it used to be, I think of a place that nobody visited, with a strange wing of Egyptian art and huge airy vaults and skylights that were a spiritual oasis for a lone visitor on a weekday afternoon. And I think of Sigmar Polke's solo show at the museum in 1991.

[...]I remember the day I went, that I was all alone in the gallery and that Polke's work surrounded me like a twilight full of ghosts.

Low attendance isn't the worst thing in the world.

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15 Comments:

Anonymous Gam said...

I wonder how the gate count is affected by the opening hours. Brooklynn's hours read like bankers hours, whereas at least the MOMA is open late on Fridays.

I why don't more art museums try to capture the "entertainment" value of an evening out instead of simply hosting mostly matinee shows if you will?

6/15/2010 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

No comments, maybe that's part of the problem.

6/15/2010 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"out-of-the-way institutions." Hmm, time for a brainstorming session.

a. I looked at their website to see where they are but when I clicked on a subway map link I got the MTA spaghetti version. Yes all the information is there but it is presented for the MTA not the Brooklyn Museum. There are a lot of possibilities here to make Brooklyn Museum feel closer, especially for a younger demographic.

b. Their website is better than MoMA's but on first glance nothing grabbed my attention enough to make the subway ride.

6/15/2010 03:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Cole said...

Seems to me that the Brooklyn Museum lacks imagination in their marketing and curatorial depts. I frequent museums but the last time I went to the Brooklyn Museum was for the Basquiat Show (that was five years ago). And I live in Brooklyn. I do recall reading about the Rock n Roll photo show and I remember thinking, Who cares? (I'm sure some people did, just not me.) The demographic in Brooklyn has changed dramatically in the last decade. People in Brooklyn are more concerned with real estate and their children than they are with fine art. Brooklyn has essentially devolved into a suburb. That said, they may want to give greater, if not exclusive, consideration to that 35-and -under demographic and squeeze it for all it's worth. It might be their last hope. That, and they may want to consider a presence in Manhattan (sort of like MOMA and PS1), not to mention free transportation for tourists. It's a great museum, but there's really nothing there that can realistically compete with The Met or MOMA. They might also want to ponder adding a really good restaurant/cafeteria, a la the Tate Modern and MOMA. They need to install shows that make people want to Exit Through the Gift Shop. (Incidentally, their gift shop is wanting).
Also, the outreach from the Brooklyn Museum to Brooklyn artists has been near non-existent. They could have (SHOULD have) capitalized on the boom in art in Brooklyn, featuring the work of lesser-known artists. They had a show with a Brooklyn theme not too long ago, but too little too late. They should have been doing it in 1999.

6/15/2010 05:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live a 15 minute walk away from the Brooklyn Museum and unfortunately have only gone 3 times in the last 2 years. To rationalize why a Manhattanite or tourist would trek out to the museum might best be answered with a quote by Paul Newman: why fool around with hamburger when you have steak at home?

I think the museum needs to capitalize on the fact that Brooklyn is the core of the New York art world (as someone in the article was quoted as saying (and I like to think it's true)). Which is not to say they should ignore their impressive holdings, but the museum feels completely removed from the bustling art community of Bushwick and the burgeoning gallery scene in Dumbo. They'd be smart to become a platform for fresh contemporary art, showing work that PS1 and The Whitney overlook, and playing the same role for the art world that the Jewish Museum did in the 1960s.

Ryan

6/15/2010 05:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I'm a tourist, and I visit the BMA at least once a year (since the Sensation event). There's just always something there I can't miss. Yes, the MTA to get there can be confusing. I have a very poor knowledge of Brooklyn, but when I take the MTA to get to BMA, I often feel like I'm the only city-art type, while everyone else is blasé returning from work. If it's going to make me feel so eccentric to visit this museum, I think next time I'm taking a Manhattan helicopter ride, and I'll ask "sir, can you drop me at the BMA?".

Cedric C

6/16/2010 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger mikesorgatz said...

I run the site www.artinbrooklyn.com (pardon the self-promo) and have to agree that the BMA should reach out to their natural allies, local artists. There's a hugely talented group of artists currently at work here and it seems bizarre that they're somewhat ignored by this institution. A biennial or triennial event featuring local work would be pretty amazing.

6/16/2010 10:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Larry said...

#2 or 3 to the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum stop and you're right there. Easy parking too in their lot if you're driving down Flatbush. And some of their so-called blockbuster shows, like Murakami from 2-3 years ago, were jammed with people.

My problem with the Brooklyn is that it doesn't seem to know what it is. The Met is a huge encyclopedia of art; the Frick is a small choice collection of European painting; the Whitney is hit-or-miss, but at least it's all American hit-or-miss. The Brooklyn is a different museum on every floor. Egyptian on the 3rd, Rodin on the 5th, African-Asian on the ground floor, New York City period rooms on the 4th. There seems to be no unifying vision to the collection. (The same can be said of the Guggenheim, which seems to be a different museum with every show, but at least the Gugg is not such a huge and sprawling space.)

6/16/2010 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

I agree with the above stated points about getting the Brooklyn Museum more engaged with the local artist community. I try to drop in at the BMA every couple of months, not so much to catch the latest exhibits, but to visit old favorites. I've written about the disaster re-hanging the permanent collect was, and I think Lehman's attempt to get the locals in the door has proven to be a mistake. I'd like to see a "Brooklyn Biennial", something like the "Working in Brooklyn" shows they've done in the past, but with a fresh curitorial crew each time.

I'd also like to see a small gallery dedicated to showing historically important local artists, not only from Brooklyn, but the Greater Metro area who the other big museums won't show, kinda like P.S.1 does to great success. Other than that, if they could somehow redistrict the neighborhood to induce more restaurants and clubs to move there, like they did on Smith Street, that could increase foot traffic.

My last suggestion: FREE BEER.

6/16/2010 12:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

My suggestion:

1. Have focused shows in a small gallery by local artists. Have local curators curate these shows, one or two shows a month that are either small solo or focused dialogue shows between the work.

2. Have a yearly, biennial or triennial show of local artists.
With an open call

3. Run a program like AIM (Artist in the Marketplace) at the Bronx museum.

4. Studio programs that link the museum to artists studios around the city. Have museum curators visit the studios and give artists special tours and access to the museum, as an example- paid or free visits of different departments like art restoration and art installation.

6/16/2010 12:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Brief addendum to my previous list:

In #1 I meant a small gallery withing the museum. the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago) has a program called 12x12 (the size of the room I guess, though I never measured it). It is underwritten by UBS; sponsored galleries is another consideration though I think there should be a strong separation between sponsor and curatorial decisions.

6/16/2010 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the comment above about hours of access. Brooklyn Museum is not the only place that has this problem, but as a museum making an effort to engage non-traditional audiences (at least, non-traditional for art museums) it's ironic that you have to wealthy enough not to work in order to visit on a non-weekend day.

The Brooklyn Museum could really take the lead by pioneering an approach that allows for access when people have time to give. Coming from Manhattan is a virtual impossibility on a weekday, given current hours. On the weekend? Too much other competition.

6/16/2010 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

What to do with BAM may be one of the most interesting in the NY art scene. I have to admit that I rarely go there, even though it's just a subway ride away.

Along the lines of Bernard's suggestions...
Instead of something like a biennial, how about allocating s chunk of space and have a continuing series of mini "biennial type" exhibitions, maybe something like 6 a year. More tightly curated and with fewer (3-5) artists. This would give validation and exposure to a number of artists and curators each year, and do it in a more intimate way. I think BAM needs to change the way visitors think about the museum, shifting away from the once a year visits to once a month.

It seems to me that a fundamental part of their problem is perception which is an indication of inadequate marketing.

6/16/2010 04:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Why is everyone craving for a second Greater New York?? Argh, enough with encouraging the locals, already! The Whitney does that.

The BMA is far = It needs ambitious stuff to attract a tourist like me.


Cedric C

(ah allright, just do your Greater New York part 2, then that'll just make one place less to visit for me)

6/17/2010 07:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Elvis said...

Shows trying to get lots of people in, such such as the rock and roll show are different from BMA vanity type projects. I recall a collector dude paying-up to show a flashy painter and the Bravo solo exhibition, to me, lacks a certain gravitas.

6/17/2010 05:29:00 PM  

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