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Gather, Steward, and Converse

The ubiquitous mission statement mantra “collect, preserve and interpret” is holding us back from thinking freshly about new institutional responsibilities.

The conventional language of art museums impedes our ability to adopt new practices that we very much need. I propose that we retire the ubiquitous mission statement mantra “collect, preserve and interpret”. Not only does ‘collect, preserve, and interpret’ have the leather-bound aroma of a bygone era espousing command and control, and the imparting of wisdom to huddled masses. It is also holding us back from thinking freshly about new institutional responsibilities. I propose a new trio of responsibilities that define the mission of an art museum: Gather, steward, and converse.

Gather

There is a major difference between collecting and gathering. When collecting was defined as being given a dowager’s collection, buying an unprovenanced antiquity in Geneva, or paying an artist for a painting, collecting was intuitively at the core of a museum’s functions. But outright donations of the intact estates of obliging collectors are in dwindling supply. We have, I hope, stopped buying and accepting gifts of unprovenanced antiquities. And artists working today are more likely to be selling evanescent performances or installations in unstable media than selling paintings. The prices of old and modern masters and contemporary art have shot through the roof and show no signs of abating. Other factors to be considered include a new consciousness of the sensitivities around acquiring sacred objects, the physical impossibility of permanently committing to massive installations, and the potential of infinite editions of digitally based artworks. All of these have made collecting as we once understood it into a quaint expression that implies an unappealing contest: whoever owns the most art when he dies wins. So let’s gather instead. Let’s pursue gifts and bequests, make joint purchases, embark on long-term loans, make time-limited commissions, buy what makes sense, and devote our time and expertise to gathering people, expertise, objects, and experiences.

Steward

Preserve is a less nimble word than steward, which was an intransitive verb by the early 17th century. To steward, or manage, is to take a more conciliatory position, and to yield to new realities. The practice of archaeology involves not only scientific advancement but also controlled destruction. Historic ‘preservation’ of a house or setting is actually an infinite series of Solomonian choices about incremental adaptation and change, not really preservation. Retouching lined canvases that have withstood centuries of clumsy ‘restorations’ or would-be improvements is a form of triage. Refrigerating C-Prints simply staves off the inevitable for a while longer. None of these is synonymous with preservation.

Since art made today cannot, in many instances, be preserved, but can only be emulated, we should be stewards of an artist’s intention, if not her or his eventually obsolescent physical gesture. And as resources shrink and expenses increase, we should be more effective stewards of all resources—be they financial, human, artistic, or environmental.

Converse

Art museums have for decades described their role as interpreter of cultural inheritance. In our new socially networked world, interpretation is no longer a one- or two-way street. Transparency changes the museum dynamic from registrarial fortress to public square. Interactivity allows for questioning, augmentation, and dispute of official interpretations by scholars and informed observers. Art museums host conversations among experts and enthusiasts, rather than privileged glimpses into the working methods of curators. Works of art themselves ‘converse’ through loans and exhibitions. Teachers, students, and museum staff and volunteers exchange ideas about the objects in our care and the experiences to be had in our facilities and on our websites. Visitor comments and market research initiate conversations that permeate the former comfort zone of institutional remove. Blogging by museum staff and by others about museums opens up new engagement, exchange, and conversation.

Gather, Steward and Converse

I maintain that we will become more nimble, responsive, and accountable if we retire ‘collect, preserve and interpret’, and embrace ‘gather, steward, and converse’. A new attitude of openness to debate is exactly what our increasingly commercialized and ethically compromised field demands to find a new path to improved institutional performance. It’s overdue that we stop masquerading as inviolate treasure houses that can charge their way to solvency, and instead devise entrepreneurial activities alongside a strong rationale for private and public generosity—by changing our language, and changing ourselves.

The writer is director and chief executive of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This article is excerpted from a paper given at the June 2010 Annual Meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors in Indianapolis.

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