FIVE MEMOS FOR A NEW MUSEUM
Originally printed in February 2010 in the now defunct Quodlibetica, “Five Memos for a New Museum” by Minnesota Museum of American Art Executive Director Kristin Makholm, sheds light on Makholm’s first months at the helm of the museum and her hopes for its future.
Written by: Kristin Makholm, February 1, 2010
Reprinted with permission from: Quodlibetica, Constellation 06
The art museum was in trouble. It required drastic measures. First, it shuttered its doors, then dismissed its staff, put its collection in storage, vacated the premises, and changed its address to a post office box. Would it continue to exist? Who would take up the challenge to resurrect it? Did it deserve to be saved? And if so, how do you resuscitate an art museum that has no building, no staff, dwindling support and almost no money?
What could appear at first as a perfect storm of unfortunate events – actually bringing a beloved museum to its knees – happened to the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMAA) in Saint Paul in 2009. Economic conditions played a large part, but there were other things – indifference, missteps, bad luck – that contributed to the museum’s downfall over the many years it was in existence.
This is not to say the museum did not have its share of great successes and devoted followers. Incorporated back in 1927 as the Saint Paul School of Art – back when it was a peripatetic assembly of artists’ studios in downtown Saint Paul – the MMAA had many inspiring exhibitions and provocative events as it morphed from an arts school and ceramics guild – with roots back to the 1880s – to gallery and art center, to museum with an esteemed collection, to big-budget exhibition venue, and finally, to homegrown arts supporter and new music presenter.
And yet this good museum always seemed to be struggling, first with donors, then with location, always with money, but finally with an eroded sense of mission. It always seemed to exist in the shadows of its sibling institutions across the river – the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center, which somehow captured the minds and pocketbooks of Twin Cities culturati early on and never let go.
I took on the directorship of this listing ship in July 2009, not because I’m a glutton for punishment or a deluded naïf, but because I honestly feel this museum has a place in this rich cultural world we call the Twin Cities, Minnesota, the Midwest, wherever one chooses to circumscribe our boundaries. I think there are people, families, artists, kids, makers of all sorts, who are not being served in the current arts landscape and that there is an important niche to fill. This niche has something to do with bringing art back to the audiences that crave it, people who don’t necessarily need ”masterpieces” to get a charge out of some great artistic experience. It’s about bringing art back into the lives and imaginations of all the people in our community in new, provocative, exciting, intriguing ways.
I haven’t found a road map for doing this. At present, I’m using common sense to help the museum regain momentum – exhibitions from our really interesting permanent collection taken out “on the road,” forming partnerships with other organizations that do have space and staff and funding, applying for grants for everything from a new database to hiring someone to keep the books in order, talking to lots and lots of people.
But it’s the big questions that occupy me, the long-range plans that will clinch a successful run into a new era. And here’s where I find even fewer models to guide me and my tenacious board of trustees. So many plans from past administrations have failed, paths were abandoned, good intentions stalled. It’s important to research the past, learn from it, talk to those involved; but one ultimately has to look towards the future of this institution, something that has yet to be written, yet to be tried.
In the lack of a well-defined road map, I fall back on a strategy employed by the Italian writer Italo Calvino for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Memos. More than a list or set of notes, memos are ideas you post to yourself, guidestars that light a path into new territory, or offer up new possibilities or approaches. For Calvino it was the example of literature that provided inspiration for the next millennium. For me, it’s a set of ideas that effervesced simply from listening to people, reading books recommended to me by arts and business colleagues, and undertaking quite a bit of web searching. These ideas help me imagine our museum of the future. If they will help me and our board of trustees succeed in relighting the way to a new, thriving museum, well, that has yet to be seen. There is great opportunity and great hope.
In homage to Calvino, I begin at his beginning. Lightness. It’s a good place to start because it suggests an avenue away from what the museum has been, should be or must be, and frees the imagination to soar into new territory. As Calvino put it, lightness means “to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic, and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”
Redirecting the course of a flailing art museum requires lightness, the ability to stand back and look at the whole thing with new eyes without preconceived notions of what museums do. This is hard, especially if you come, as I do, from the curatorial ranks of serious art museums where traditions stand firm. Commitment to maintaining the status quo runs deep amongst curators, as does mistrust of those notions that fly in the face of the primacy of the object and the authority of the curator-scholar. Embracing the democratic imperatives of education and the openness of community engagement, and giving freer rein to how and where the collection exists are all things that serious art museums have a hard time letting go of. It’s hard for them to give up control as to how and in what contexts the art “speaks.”
As a curator now in charge of an impressive, largely uncharted art collection, it’s imperative for me to lighten up and open the conversation to new perspectives, voices, and interpretations. We’re entering an era in which passive art experiences are much less popular than they might have been in the past, so how do we bridge that divide between curatorial rigor and audience engagement? That is where lightness comes into play. It’s about keeping up with the vitality of the times, as Calvino puts it, being relevant, nimble and open to all things possible.
In my first seven months on the job, the question most consistently posed to me has been “Have you found a new building?” Museum as physical destination – as if the museum does not truly exist without a building. The second most-popular question has concerned the collection: “Where are your great Paul Manship sculptures? The remarkable George Morrison paintings? We want to see the collection. Get it out – in the skyways, the airport, anywhere – just let us see our favorite artworks.” This is “museum” understood as a collection of physical objects, inspiring, stirring, marvelous works of art that, in their own right, are worth the pilgrimage.
Museum as Place. Museum as Collection. Both are extremely important aspects of the museum of today. And yet, to my mind, they are not the most important parts. Without something called Vision – or as some people define it, Mission – the dual supports of place and collection collapse under the weight of irrelevance and emptiness. Indeed, it is how and why you put certain remarkable artworks in a particular building, in a certain location, in front of a certain audience that is the essence of a rich and signature cultural experience. What do we want to signal in terms of our communal connection to our artists, our artistic heritage, our selves? What is important to us today in how we engage with the arts, how they inspire ever-changing audiences, participants, and creative thinkers and makers? What are the needs of the community? What do people really want?
If we can tackle those questions first, then the choices about what to exhibit, how to present that work, and where it will be hopefully will come into clearer focus. Maybe we find that a virtual space on the Internet, after all, can satisfy and engage this new museological experience. Maybe it calls for an arts complex that encourages partnerships and programming across disciplines. Or maybe we need to take our collection on the road, a quasi-travelling show. However we choose to cast our lot, we know at least that we need to put the horse squarely before the cart in this important process of preparation, inquiry and renewal.
Being attentive to the surfeit of stories and situations in which people engage with arts and culture has never been easier. Weblogs, e-journals, [social media] sites, all make an enormous volley of articles and news stories more-or-less manageable, especially if you’ve found some of those insatiable bloggers who curate the information for you.
Take these diverse threads: Paris’s Pompidou Center sends its collection out on the road in a big-top circus tent; a YouTube video of a spontaneous dance in the train station in Antwerp goes viral; a new art program appears atop taxicabs in New York City; an organization funds artists’ projects through grassroots potluck suppers; two art museum directors wager loans of artwork on the outcome of the Super Bowl. Add to that recent books such as The Art of the Turnaround, Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, or a slew of titles on “adaptive leadership,” and you have what one could consider a truly remarkable groundswell of new ideas and initiatives that are literally shaking the foundations of traditional arts practice in a new era.
If you pay attention to what you’re hearing, and are open to nuggets of insight in almost everything, certain themes begin to emerge and cohere: a democratization of artistic experience, increased accessibility to everyone- not just the physically disabled, a growing amateur practice, a loosening of the elitist stronghold on the arts. It’s our job – as new museum professionals – to really listen, pay attention to and act on this vibrant, exciting, refreshing spirit of the times.
In her contribution to Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey’s provocative book Engaging Art (Routledge, 2008), Lynne Conner takes a look at audience behavior – both past and present – to bolster up her theory that people nowadays want and need to take a more active role in the consumption of local art experiences. Conner posits the idea of an open work, or openness, to reengage the arts with the hearts and minds of audiences, many of whom would rather go to a Major League Baseball game than to their local art museum. Through experiences that allow audiences to co-author meaning, to participate in a dialogue, or to share their own expertise, museums can redemocratize the arts in a way that is relevant to all.
Of course, just take a look at the websites and programming of many innovative museums and you will already see this in practice. The relaxing of curatorial constructs, the hiring of local experts in a variety of disciplines for arts education, pecha kucha and other inventive lecture and dialogue formats, even the rise of “do-it-yourself” culture have all influenced this new openness of idea, conversation and engagement.
Conner comes to the conclusion that what is needed is almost something akin to an “institutional realignment,” “a systems-wide shake-up,” that will ultimately create the kind of openness that will reinvigorate audience experience in 21st century arts and culture. Being open to more interactive tools in galleries and exhibition programs; reengaging disenfranchised audiences, be they local artists and makers or those for whom sports, movies and television are their main cultural repast; or designing an entirely new educational program around kids and adults for whom making art is key to appreciating art. All of these suggest new paths in the search for making the art museum relevant again for contemporary audiences.
It is beneficial to think of openness when one is thrust into the position of “institutional realignment,” as is the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Openness to artists and makers of all types, openness to new curatorial constructs, openness to new alliances and collaborations, openness to change.
Thinking and planning are all necessary and important activities, but it is “doing” that ultimately defines where a museum ends up. Action is the culmination of all four of my prior memos, the exhortation to get moving on organizing exhibitions, on forming partnerships, on actively following through with the good ideas that percolate to the surface in countless conversations with advisers and supporters. Even without a building or staff, there is much we can do and are already doing to advance the vision of the institution: engaging new partners to schedule and travel significant exhibitions from the permanent collection, mounting installations of new work, organizing exhibitions in libraries and art centers throughout the state, initiating educational outreach programs into the public schools.
The urgency we all feel to get the museum back on its feet- urgency from board members, from donors and supporters, from the public and city officials, even from myself – needs to be tempered by a healthy dose of patience, as good works need time to gestate, partnerships need room to develop, and ideas need space and time to grow and mature. It means striking a balance between urgency and patience that is certainly the challenge of any leader trying to revive an institution that has experienced such crisis. And yet the opportunity for growth, renewal and reinvestment in the arts in our culture is clear. A new museum, indeed. Might as well call it a new future.
About the now defunct Quodlibetica publication:
Quodlibetica originated from the desire to write about art and visual culture in ways not confined by academic conventions or journalistic hype. Part journal, part blog, Quodlibetica fosters critical conversations about visual arts in a forum that is accessible, engaging and committed to quality writing. Based on the Latin quodlibet, which has entered the English language as (1) a statement proposed for disputation, (2) the actual discussion, and (3) the whimsical combination of familiar elements, Quodlibetica is a space to argue eloquently and whimsically about art, find out what’s happening in the Twin Cities art scene, and engage with writers, artists and critics who like to think. Quodlibetica Managing Editors: Christina Schmid and Collier White.