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AAMD Examines the Value of Art Museums to Society (What About the Art?)

Janet Landay, executive director of AAMD

Even more besides-the-point than defending the worth of art museums on the basis of economic-impact arguments (how much financial activity they generate in their communities) is defending them as social service agencies. But that seems to be the thrust of a new initiative just announced by the Association of Art Museum Directors.

In his Wall Street Journal Cultural Conversation with me, published last January, Michael Conforti, AAMD’s president (and director of the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA), said that one of the chief goals of his presidency would be helping the American public to appreciate “the importance of art museums to society.”

It appears that AAMD is beginning to put that plan into practice. But instead of emphasizing the cultural and intellectual value of museums (which seemed to be Conforti’s thrust when we spoke), AAMD now seems more interested in focusing on what it calls “the non-traditional programs offered by museums that frequently go unnoticed.”

Over the summer, AAMD gathered more than 150 case studies of how museums “improve the lives of people in their communities”—not by displaying and elucidating great art, but through such auxiliary activities as:

—Cultivating and donating food crops
—Improving medical students’ diagnostic skills
—Altering teenagers’ attitudes about smoking

These are worthwhile programs. I’ve got nothing against museums’ working for the greater good. But shouldn’t their main promotional thrust be towards defining and defending the value of their central mission?

In a letter posted on AAMD’s website last week, executive director Janet Landay listed six of the many projects that have been compiled (including the three noted above). She then stated:

The ultimate goal of this initiative is to develop a series of community impact reports—incorporating stories, data, and maps—to demonstrate a compelling aspect of the significant contributions art museums make in communities throughout the country. When the project is completed, AAMD will post the reports on our website, part of our ongoing effort to lead the public discussion about the value of art museums in society.

We can only hope the reports make clear that the chief value of art museums to society is preserving, displaying, studying and elucidating ART.

As Philippe de Montebello said at the January 2008 press conference announcing his plan (now reality) to retire from the directorship of the Metropolitan Museum:

We are not a “museum art.” We are an “art museum.” Art is first.

I have no doubt that most, if not all, museum professionals around the country believe this. What I don’t get is why they feel a need to downplay the art in public pronouncements about why museums matter.

an ArtsJournal blog