Connecticut College News
The State of American Museums: A Roundtable Discussion - by Nora Swenson ´1204/13/2009
Wednesday, April 8 from 4 to 6 PM, Connecticut College´s museum studies program celebrated its tenth anniversary by hosting a roundtable discussion in which three panelists hailing from various backgrounds shared their views and predictions for the future of museums in the United States. Students at Connecticut College pursuing the Museum Studies Certificate Program, as well as students majoring, minoring, or simply enrolled in art history classes were strongly encouraged to attend the discussion. Issues discussed in the seminar included how the present economic crisis may change current museum-going trends in the United States, the ethics involved with the selling off of certain collections by museums facing financial crisis, and the future of college students pursuing the museum studies field, and the careers they will come across in their future. The three panelists asked to speak included Carl Nold, president and CEO of Historic New England and recent American Association of Museums elected chair, Jock Reynolds, Henry J. Heinz II director of the Yale University Art Gallery, and Agnes Gund, Connecticut College alum of the class of 1960 and president emerita at the Museum of Modern Art. The symposium, moderated by Christopher B. Steiner, professor of art history and founding director of museum studies at Connecticut College, initiated with Steiner telling of the "vital role" museums have played in American history. Steiner noted that while a discussion regarding the collapse of museums may have seemed unnecessary a year ago, given the circumstances faced at present, the discussion was now more pertinent than ever. A year ago, the conversation would have targeted issues such as many Americans´ perception that museums are pretentious and unwelcoming to anyone less than elite or well educated. Repatriation, or returning works of art to the countries they were originally crafted in, would have remained other significant topics spoken of at the event. Yet since a great deal has occurred affecting the economy since early 2008, the conversation took on a much different tone. Carl Nold voiced his views of the current state of America´s museums, opening with the affirmation that museums are not in "dire straits," as many may assume. Rather, many positive things have occurred regarding American museums if, rather than focusing on the past few months, one traces back 25 years or so. Nold then offered some surprising statistics. For example, nearly 2/3 of Americans visit a museum every year. This statistic includes art museums, historical museums, science museums, and even historical landmarks. Furthermore, an impressive fact mentioned was that there are over 17,000 museums in the United States, while there exist are only 11,000 Starbucks. Data from 2006 informs us that there were over 851 million adult American visits to a museum - an amount that is double the number of visits to sport events and amusement parks combined that same year. The city of Boston, even in the harsh times of 2008, saw a 1.6 percent increase in the number of visits to its museums. And even Connecticut, being the third smallest state, still has over 450 active museums. Nold embellished on the idea that museums are a "vital aspect of education." More than ever, the American Association of Museums would like to convey that museums should no longer be seen as merely the "building atop the hill," or other grandiose perceptions. Rather, much work is being done to improve the overall quality of preservation and restoration of works across the country, as well as enhancing globalization efforts through partitioning collections around the world. Some unfortunate aspects Nold drew attention to included the fact that over 65 percent of museums in the United States have little to no way of rescuing damaged works, and up to 80 percent of museums do not have any specified care workers responsible for restoring artifacts. As many as 190 million pieces of work are likely in need of preservation at the moment, yet will not be helped due to lack of funding and prioritization of other issues currently being faced. Agnes Gund, Connecticut College alum ´60, after reminiscing over her own wonderful experience as a student several decades ago, spoke of what she felt to be the most important issue faced by present day museums. First, Gund mentioned the growing number of private museums currently being built from personal donations and attributors, rather than asking money of the larger public. This could be good, in that private donors are more likely to be dedicated to the building and maintaining of museums and will actively support and sustain them. Yet, at the same time, public funding can raise awareness of museum existence, and promote higher levels of attendance and overall use. Gund said, "We´ve got to cooperate more." An issue that is inhibiting the furthered success of museums has been that often they are competing over visitor attendance. Rather, it would be best to "not see each other as competitive," and for example, have the Modern Museum of Art in New York work towards coordinating events and fundraising with New York´s public libraries. A notable decrease in the number of corporate dinners hosted at the Modern Museum of Art, for example, indicates a drop in the well-being of museums. Whereas only several years ago, as many as 10 corporate dinners were hosted each month to help promote the museum, now often only one per month will occur. Panelist Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, offered a slightly different outlook on the status of museums. He opened by stating that life is based on having a "visual appreciation of the world." Almost anything truly done for enjoyment involves some form of art, whether viewing paintings, listening to music, or reading books. As Reynolds works closely with Yale University students, he shared having an understanding with undergraduate students pursuing careers in the near future, empathizing with Connecticut College students attending the lecture who might be looking into museum studies based jobs. The recent auctioning off of collections at Brandeis and Fiske Universities was discussed, and Reynolds expressed his deep concern. He mentioned that, first and foremost, it is "the institutions that support the collections, not the collections that support the institutions." Though it is understandable why Brandeis sold over 6,000 artifacts from its Rose Art Museum to withstand financial challenges, it is nonetheless a shame to see that other reparations were not implemented instead. To this, Reynolds noted that Yale University´s program has taken the initiative of sharing its own abundant art collection with colleges like Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Williams and Oberlin to avoid museum closure and boost entrance for other schools. Towards the closing, the panelists received questions from audience members. One woman was concerned that all three of the panelists worked for larger museums, and therefore might be giving distorted views of the current economic situation that would otherwise tremendously impact smaller museums. The recent stimulus suggesting to "lump art museums" with casinos, deeming them unnecessary and enabling the senate to endow them with less funding was questioned. And once again, the panelists shed light of the role they think graduating students will play in the world of American museums. Perhaps Carl Nold best advised students in stating, "I went into the field of museum studies to have something new and exciting to look forward to everyday, and I tell you, I haven´t been disappointed yet."