A portrait of the visual arts

A Portrait of the Visual ArtsRAND has a new report out on the structure and dynamics of the visual arts — a sister work to their 2001 exploration of the performing arts and their 2002 treatise on the media arts. All three are available for purchase or free download from the RAND web site.

Like the previous works, A Portrait of the Visual Arts takes a sociologist/economist view of the world, gathering and summarizing related studies from the field, and then extrapolating the key trends, future issues, and possible policy implications. Not the most engaging reading, perhaps, but full of thoughtful perspectives on why the world is the way it is — at least the world related to the most elite and credentialed visual arts.

Most entertaining is the chapter on visual arts organizations and the many tensions that drive them to distraction. Says one section on the challenge of managing these organizations:

As a result of pressures to increase revenues, to hold the line on costs, to expand the number and diversity of audiences, to find sponsorship for major exhibitions, to develop new programs and services to meet the demand for greater public involvement, to develop new marketing and public relations initiatives, and to manage expanding staffs, the scale and complexity of managing museums has increased exponentially. In the words of Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ”the burden of maintaining this enormous machine is crushing.”

Faced with these complex pressures, says the report, museums have begun to seek ”new types of directors,” described in an extended quote by the European Museum Forum’s Kenneth Hudson:

They are well-educated, but not primarily scholars. They are not much given to carrying out research or writing books and learned articles. They are essentially communicators and organizers whose main interest lies in making their collections and exhibitions attractive and interesting to the general public and in widening that public and studying its needs and wishes. . . . They have a well developed political and public-relations sense and they realize that their museum has to be regarded as a business to be run in an efficient manner.

Sounds like a familiar concern.


  1. says

    One of the most interesting points in the report, I thought, was that all the efforts to expand the audience have failed, including the focus on blockbuster shows and non-traditional shows (mortorcyles, Star Wars, etc.) In fact, the report says the only real way to expand the audience is to get more people exposed to art at an early age, which has no immediate payoff for institutions and they have limited control of impacting that factor. The “new model” director doesn’t seem equipped to fix this, either.

  2. FA says

    The shift from a scholar to a “communicator”? The latter term covers up what is in fact a significant shift over the decade, a dumbing down to managment and fundraising as the reason for existing at all. Whether one argues with the institution as conservative or outmoded etc. a leading position was founded and operating in relation to the actual mission of the institution, and their varied publics – including the first one which is NOT mass, but specific, target audiences. The movement to managment has been over decades in the U.S. – the fundraiser was always first in line of importance. The p.r. person developed importance in relation to that, and soon locked arms together. The old-notion of a programming or intellectually based, scholar-director found themselves being “advised” by boards, by virtue of the new combination fundraiser/p.r. and of course, in the interest of gaining “the public” interest… Enter the new form, the managment specialist, who is a “communicator” (how much more CEO speak could there be) who is unable to actually formulate any proof of scholarship or differentiation between the kind of institution they are in, but knows how to manage as interface between the sudden new interest in larger and larger publics, press, and fundraising… long story short, suddenly the business of the museum is the musuem, the store, the new sister-ventures in other countries, the blockbuster ticket prices, the travel-trips with members, and so on ad infinitum.
    Look no further to the education system to see a trend change, from in the 80s there was a demand for cultural studies to enter into the university and art academies, to since a decade the “curatorial sciences”….