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From illicit art to fresh blood: four of the biggest challenges facing museums today

Museum professionals gathered in Washington, DC, to survey the state of the field at the annual AAM conference

Rioting in Baltimore was top of mind at last year’s annual American Alliance of Museums (AAM) meeting in Atlanta, where discussions centred on the role museums ought to play in social justice. “It drove a lot of conversation in the meeting, as opposed to being just out there for marketing purposes,” says Laura Lott, the president of AAM.

Convinced the discussions had merely scratched the surface, AAM staff organised the 2016 annual conference in Washington, DC last week (26-29 May) around the theme of power, influence and responsibility.

“There might be slippage, in terms of being nimble enough to respond to the latest trends and questions about how we communicate, about who is on our staff and our boards, but fundamentally there is a strength in the role that people understand museums to have,” says Anthony Hirschel, the former director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art.

Nearly 6,000 museum professionals from 50 countries gathered to discuss pressing issues in the field, from the US government’s import ban on ivory to changing visitor demographics. Here are four of the most burning questions they asked—and sought to answer—about the future of museums.

1. What does it take to be a director? A generational shift is taking place across the world’s leading museums. Over the past year, more than 50 institutions, including some of the world’s largest, from the British Museum in London to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, have hired new top administrators.

Gail Anderson, a museum consultant, began a panel featuring six recently appointed directors with a disclaimer. “You will note that our panel is not very diverse,” she said, eying the four women and two men, all white, who led institutions ranging from the Hershey’s chocolate museum to the Penn Museum. “We recommend that there be a panel next year more accurately representing diverse individuals aspiring to move up.”

Though hand wringing over diversity has gone on for years, Lott has observed a “different sense of urgency” around the issue recently. She attributes this, in part, to a joint study of art museum demographics by AAM, Association of Art Museum Directors and Mellon Foundation released last year. Although gender gaps have narrowed considerably over the past decade, the survey found just 28% of museum staff members are minorities, and that their roles rarely offer a direct pathway to leadership positions.

“Directors move around a lot, but there is very little new blood that comes in to the director field,” said Rex Garniewicz, the director of the Coast Discovery Museum in South Carolina. “That’s one of the reasons actually for doing this panel—to get some of the talent that’s in the museum field to be willing to take that step up.”

2. What is museums’ role in gentrification? The Brooklyn Museum came under fire last autumn for hosting a summit for real estate executives. The backlash illustrated growing tension between urban museums and their constituencies over how to tackle gentrification. What role should museums play in artists’ fight to keep affordable housing and work spaces in increasingly expensive cities like New York and San Francisco?

Stephanie Wilchfort, the president of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, said institutions have a responsibility to be “a part of the conversation… Museums can be a force of change when they look at their own employment practices and policies.”

Carlos Tortolero, the founder of Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, has seen the process of gentrification transform the historically Mexican and working class neighbourhood of Pilsen, where the museum opened in 1987. As if by magic, garbage cans arrived, the parks were cleaned up and the streets were repaved.

“The sanitation [workers] told me that this is the first time in 129 years they had checked the sewers underground. Why? White people are coming,” Tortolero said. Even if Pilsen loses its entire Mexican presence, however, he remains committed to keeping his museum as “an anchor for our community”. Museums cannot avoid their role in the changes around them, he added. “It’s important for museums to understand that historically they have been a problem.”

3. How should museums deal with illicit objects? Police and customs officials cannot prevent international illicit traffic in cultural objects like they fight drug smuggling. “For drugs, if you find white powder you pretty much know you can seize it,” said France Desmarais, director of programmes and partnerships at the International Council of Museums (Icom). “If you find a vase, you have no idea where it comes from. Is it legal? Is it authentic? Is it a replica?”

The challenges surrounding trading and lending cultural property came up in two panels, “Museums at Risk: The Vision of Icom for US and Global Museums” and “The Elephant in the Room: What Can We Do With Our Ivory?”

Carlene Stephens, a curator at the National Museum of American History, encountered a “big ivory dilemma” when she sought to acquire a marine chronometer used for celestial navigation aboard the Beagle, the boat on which Charles Darwin sailed, from a London auction house. Because there was a small amount of ivory on the box, the proposed acquisition ran afoul of the Obama administration’s tightened restrictions on the ivory trade.

“I couldn’t believe this,” she said. “We should have it. It’s the Smithsonian’s mission, among other things, to add these incredible pieces to the collection.” After letting the piece go, she raised the issue with colleagues. “In true Smithsonian fashion, because I spoke up, I got put on a committee,” she said. She ended up speaking about the problem at a Smithsonian staff forum last year.

Josh Knerly, a partner at the law firm Hahn Loeser, said the Smithsonian’s case is not an isolated incident. “There is a real concern about the ability of American art museums to be able to continue to show the creativity of the human spirit, which may have been expressed in ivory, and which should be able to continue to be found in American art museums for the betterment of the public,” he said.

4. How can institutions survive amid a dip in public arts funding? As public funding for culture falls internationally, the US museum model is increasingly of interest to international arts professionals. As a result, around 10 to 15% of AAM conference attendees now hail from abroad, Lott says. Most live in Canada or Mexico, but there are regular contingents from Korea, China and the Middle East, in addition to Europe.

“The reason that I think more and more international museums should be coming to this is because the American model is the private-donor model, and the rest of the world is being forced to do more and more of that,” said Aaron Kohn, the director of the Museum of African Design in Johannesburg, at the conference.  

Evan Beard, a national art services executive at US Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management, said that European directors are taking a number of cues from their US counterparts to promote private giving. They are adding wealthy donors and local corporate leaders to diversify their boards (“a departure from dukes and duchesses”), reporting the impact of gifts to donors and lobbying local governments (via cultural coalitions) for US-style tax incentives. Many international museums are also developing a US donor base via ‘Friends of’ programmes.

Beard said: “Museums recognise austerity measures will likely preclude the level of state-backed cultural spending of years past, so they are certainly looking to America for answers.”