An analysis of the mission statements of leading US art museums exposes collective search for purpose

The words chosen by directors reflect a desire to quash ambiguity and carve out their space in the contemporary art landscape


Quick. What do the following terms have in common? Beauty. Values. Discussion. Contemplation.

The answer: none of them figures prominently among the institutional imperatives of US art museums—at least in light of their mission statements.

In fact, if you scanned 60 mission statements of prominent museums that exhibit contemporary art, you would find that each of the words above appears exactly once. Other words found missing from 59 of 60 mission statements: advocate, progressive, ambitious, ethical, intelligence, strategic, video.

Why spend time counting up words in mission statements? The inspiration for the exercise is an Art Basel Conversation taking place tomorrow morning about evolving museum missions. Exploring the subject will be the directors of four trailblazing institutions: Margarita Aguilar of the El Museo del Barrio in New York, Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Madeleine Grynsztejn of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Beatrix Ruf of the Kunsthalle Zurich.

Each of them will bring their perspective on what it means to set a direction for museums in today’s shape-shifting cultural ecology. Yet as I prepared to moderate the conversation, I realised how large and slippery our topic was. Anchoring was needed.

Rhetorical landscape

Composing a mission statement isn’t as easy as it sounds. Should a mission describe what a museum is doing, or what it should be doing? Is it about tangible goals to which institutions are held accountable, or Platonic ideals to which they merely aspire? Should a museum’s mission offer an inventory of assets and activities, or will it work best as a crystallisation of core principles? How will it reflect a museum’s take on cultural progress, audience demographics, funding sources and technological opportunity?

According to a 2005 primer by the Association of American Art Museums, “a mission statement should state what the museum does, for whom, and why”. If only it were that simple. In reality, mission statements comprise a surprisingly diverse rhetorical landscape, from the Akron Art Museum’s refreshingly short, “To enrich lives through modern art”, to the Museum of Modern Art’s 420-word magnum opus, with its six bulleted sub-clauses.

Short or long, however, what lurks behind the carefully scripted sentences is a swirling cauldron of organisational politics.

As anyone who has been involved in a mission-crafting exercise knows, museum executives and boards often have a hard time articulating a crisp and compelling rationale for their institutions. Even highly experienced directors can freeze up when asked to summarise succinctly what their organisation stands for.

The task is rendered more difficult by the pressures of groupthink, the need to acknowledge the pet projects of key stakeholders, and the habitual institutional reflex to give a nod to every internal and external constituency. Over time, after many revisions and tweaks, mission statements can take on a gnarled, overwrought aspect, resulting in a haze of bureaucratic double-speak.

Word cloud

In any event, what no one can doubt is that missions are about language. They encapsulate in finite words what museums—phenomenally complex and hard-to-run organisations—do in their daily work and over a long period. The most often cited words in mission statements, therefore, should provide an inkling of how museums think about themselves.

That collective museum id is reflected in the illustration to this article. Created with a web programme called Wordle, the chart includes the 77 most frequently used words from the 60 analysed mission statements. Their size corresponds to the frequency of their use. To tease out the underlying patterns, I called in some help in the person of Adam Levine, a computer whiz and a recent PhD Rhodes Scholar in art history at Oxford.

We processed 5,302 words of text. So-called “vision statements” were excluded. Extraneous words were removed and multiple variations of the same words were “stemmed” to their roots (for example, arts was merged into art), leaving a total of 562 words. Here, then, are impressions about the prevailing museum mindset, based on the word cloud.

The biggest surprises had to do with what is not in the top tier. Next to words mentioned earlier, only two institutions cite awareness, design, digital, discovery, document, excite, film, multidisciplinarity, question and spirit.

No more than three mention the words illuminate and original.

Just as striking is the eclecticism of the mission rhetoric. Words describing core functions—collect, educate, exhibit, preserve–do stand out, understandably. However, only the word art appears more than 60 times—that is, at least once per mission statement. No other word comes close. Statistically speaking, the words are more likely to be different than similar. The fractured rhetorical landscape may reflect a fragile consensus about the purposes of art museums.

Authority and openness

Things get more interesting when you look at clusters. The relatively low incidence of words like essential, excellence, exceptional and outstanding—all found in just 5% of the statements—implies an abhorrence of exclusivity. The word special is invoked once in every ten statements. The terms ideal, vital, quality, significance and state-of-the art are in the top tier, but among the least popular.

If mission statements are something of a US phenomenon, they also belie US attitudes. In the US, museums welcome visitors in a benign democratic embrace. Their missions are correspondingly scrubbed of intimations of hierarchy. Instead, terms telegraphing openness—audience, communities, engage, public, welcome—abound.

At the same time, museums are keen to reinforce their cultural authority. When describing their contributions, they reach for active verbs such as educate, create and interpret, which, by extension, assume a somewhat passive audience. The museum dispenses knowledge from a stance of superior pedagogical responsibility. The public is invited to learn, experience and absorb, but not to determine what the institution does.

Moreover, the statements tend to express museums’ individual agendas, not a big-tent ideal. Each institution puts forward its own distinct value proposition. Words depicting the museum as a community asset, the proverbial public square invoked in much current discourse on art institutions—environment, social, access, hub, place, live—do bubble up into the top tier. But the variation among the missions still leaves the impression that museums, as a group, do not clearly converge around a shared set of goals.

Instead of consistency, the missions offer a feast of symbolically freighted phraseology. What will tomorrow’s linguistic anthropologists make of words such as define, for example—used in its adjectival form in five mission statements, as in, “the defining modern art museum”? Will they conclude that the institution succeeded in defining a form of creativity? What kind of art was it, they might wonder, that demanded such ceaseless definition? And how will they square the imperative to define and redefine with the result that the words experiment and re-evaluate appear as minor blips on the cognitive map of museum missions? Only time will tell.

Fuzzy language

Do any museums, or types of museums, have similar mission statements? Yes and no. On the one hand, size does matter—sometimes. Larger museums, balancing more constituencies, tend to write longer mission statements (MoMA’s 420 words are trailed by the National Gallery’s 403, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s 292). On the other hand, the most universal collecting and exhibiting mandates do not necessarily command the longest mission statements. Some heralded encyclopedic museums get by with quite short ones—the Detroit Institute of Arts (11), the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (23), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (37).

One pattern that does seem to cut across categories is the vogue for anodyne formulations that set no tangible goals and forestall accountability. Museums all too often strive, engage and foster. Variations on this theme abound: advance, seek, aim, offer, sustain, affirm, focus, honor, consider, invite, and so on.

To the dismay of foundation and government officials, there is little in this vocabulary to lend itself to measurable outcomes. Lack of specificity, in fact, may be the one trait that mission statements have in common.

A more generous interpretation could be that the mission statements reflect a philosophical crossroads where museums now find themselves.

Not that long ago, in 1999, the museum administrator and scholar Stephen Weil, a staunch advocate of making museums hospitable, titled an influential essay, “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: the Ongoing Transformation of the American Art Museum”. He argued that “in the emerging museum, responsiveness to the community must be understood not as a surrender, but, quite literally, as a fulfillment”. Yet even Weil might have been surprised to find serve, audience and communities among the top 20 words in today’s museum mission statements.

Slowly but surely, it seems museums are handing over some authority to their audiences. The fuzzy, all-over-the-place rhetoric may be masking this transition. It’s possible that museums are trading in one set of self-definitions, involving absolutes and excellence, for another, stressing audience orientation, inclusiveness and interactivity.

So which is it? A fractured landscape, or a transitional moment? You decide.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sixty museums in search of a purpose'