Last summer, I wrote a whitepaper for a colleague who works as a senior administrator of an art museum that’s situated on the campus of a medium-sized private university. Since then, the paper has been distributed to several other universities. It’s downloadable here. The summer before last, I was invited to attend an intensive week at Northwestern University, where the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) set out to train a group of about 30 of us to lead academic museums and galleries.
So the problems that many academic museum and galleries are facing are of great interest to me. The widely told tale about Brandeis University making a move to close the on-campus Rose Art Museum and sell its collection is but one of many instances in which academic museums and galleries have been forced to justify their existence to a financially stressed parent institution. In many cases, that justification is hard to make. It’s been shown again and again that arguing for the arts as a public good has very little effect, and in many cases the numbers of students engaged by academic museums is less than impressive. Furthermore, the financial pressure on many academic museums and galleries is compounded by pressure to serve ever-broader segments of the faculty and the student body.
The argument I pose in my whitepaper is that academic museums and galleries can become more deeply embedded in the lives of students across all academic disciplines, including the sciences and engineering, by focusing on bringing great, new art to their students. Maybe it’s a nerdy argument, but maybe not.
Walter Lewin, a beloved and much viewed MIT physics professor (as of today, the promotional video about his lectures has been viewed 873,779 times), was famous around the campus for his great lectures, but he was also known to the artists at the Institute for his enthusiastic interest in the arts. He not only helped some of the artists solve technical problems, he also encouraged his physics students to make a place for art in their lives. Lewin would put postcards showing works of art outside his office and, so I’ve heard, give extra credit to anyone who could identify them.
There are lively people like Walter Lewin in every field of study and on every campus. For academic museums (and maybe for all museums), the trick is to find them and hang on.
If a campus art museum is only visited by students who have to write art history papers, if the bioengineering majors and the physicists aren’t stepping across the threshold, then something is wrong. The remedy is for leaders of academic museums and galleries to reach across disciplines, to make new friends, to lead