American art museums exist in a persistent state of “earnest befuddlement,” as they respond to a changing world outside their doors. Since the 1960s, as museums have turned increasingly toward popular exhibitions, the museum community has worried about how to achieve a balance between scholarship and entertainment. Recent controversies have focused on the ubiquitous use of “new media” and artistic spectacle to engage younger and less-experienced museum visitors. The polite conflict between museum professionals who believe in providing opportunities for quiet contemplation of great works of art, and those who advocate for getting more people in the door by almost any means, will to all appearances never be resolved. Museum people will always argue among themselves.
Their arguments come down to a few troubling questions: Should art museums serve elite aficionados or a broader public? And, if they are to serve a broader public, how can they do so, and to what purpose?
In the early years of the 20th century, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was among the first institutions in the Americas to seriously question what a museum is and what it might be. The questions were raised by the Secretary of the MFA, Benjamin Gilman, who began his work there in 1893, sixteen years before the MFA opened on Huntington Avenue. Gilman was committed to the idea that art should be accessible to “all sorts and conditions of men [sic].” And he acted on that conviction. During his tenure, the MFA did away with admission fees and, under his direction, the museum developed free educational initiatives for teachers, students, and adult visitors. The MFA’s educational programs became a model for other American art museums, and many of those now century-old programs continue in more or less modified form at the MFA and elsewhere.
But they’re not enough. And museums can’t solve those troubling questions by themselves anyway.
In announcing the 2016 Museums Advocacy Day, American Alliance of Museums President and CEO Laura L. Lott remarked, “It’s important for lawmakers to know how much museums contribute to our communities and to our nation, in terms of economic activity, PreK-12 education and cultural enrichment.” All true but, again, not enough.
Studies cited by the Center for the Future of Museums have shown that acquisition of higher education is the strongest factor in determining whether a person visits a museum. While extended hours and discounted admission fees encourage people who are already inclined to visit museums to do so, the barriers to entry for people who do not go to museums at all are almost insurmountable unless those same people can somehow gain access to higher education.
Exposure to cultures (plural)—art historical cultures, popular cultures, design cultures, scientific cultures, media cultures, cultures from every ethnicity and heritage—is essential to understanding, or even caring about, how one’s own singular perspective might or might not relate to perspectives experienced by other people. Higher education and museums together can provide the broadest possible opportunities for those exposures to happen.
Isn’t it time that we took the first steps toward making sure they do? Isn’t it time that museums recognize that a college-educated public is their future? And isn’t it time that they, and we—a public interested in a future characterized by tolerance and empathy—create new opportunities outside of, and as alternatives to, the broken higher education system that we now accept?