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Taubman Museum News: Another Lifeline, But No Stability

The Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, which started out in a shiny new building in late 2008, but was struggling for survival by fall 2010, is still clinging to life — by the threads. The other day, Nick Taubman, who just stepped up to become chairman of the board, promised he wouldn’t let the museum “…go broke,” according to the Roanoke Times.

That puts the Taubman family squarely back in the picture. In 2010, his wife Jenny had resigned from the board and (kind of) washed her hands of it.

 Taubman and other community leaders just made a cash infusion of $1.5million “to help it cover operating costs for the rest of the year” and he apparently told the paper that “the arrangement will continue as long as it needs to.” While the new move is admirable, it’s still not a way to run a museum, which has an annual budget of about $3.4 million and has been operating in the red.

Meanwhile, the museum needs a new director: CEO David Mickenberg just resigned. He had been leading the charge to change from a real museum to a community arts center, announced in fall 2010. Taubman says that drive will continue, and the search for a new director will soon commence.

But this art center is struggling, even after a raft of loans from benefactors were forgiven.

The Roanoke Times has more of the gory details — it’s just painful to watch any museum, or arts center, tread water publicly this way.

When will communities take seriously all these cautionary tales of overreaching?

Comments

  1. The Taubman’s “Definition of an Art Center” on their Who We Are page (http://www.taubmanmuseum.org/main/new-direction) is a devastating statement of the demotion of curatorial work within a collecting institution. The characterization of their collections as only “one of many equivalent cores” should be shocking, but unfortunately it describes the course many of our museums and libraries are feeling impelled to follow. They are being watered down, caught in a vicious cycle of staging blockbusters and incorporating social functions in order to attract and accommodate more people, and then having to attract still more people in order to pay for the events and the expansions necessary to stage and staff them.

    The mistaken premise, in my opinion, is that popularity is the primary justification for a cultural institution’s existence. What ever happened to scholarly utility, quality and excellence?

    Why can’t cultural institutions feel confident about staying small and manageable, focused on their curatorial mission and targeted at their natural constituencies, instead of becoming huge corporations that have to compete with entertainment media to hold the general population’s attention? This is a competition cultural institutions will never win. Instead, they will be compelled to pursue more and more self-destructive avenues of “growth” in directions farther and farther away from their core mission (to “preserve, protect and interpret” the objects they hold in public trust), as they chase after ever-changing definitions of “relevance.”

    Our cultural institutions have been hijacked and curatorial authority undermined by marketing managers and administrators with megalomaniacal aspirations. As the Taubman illustrates (as does the ongoing controversy over the NY Public Library’s expansion plans), the transformation of our venerable museums and libraries into expensive, banal “arts centers” is what we have to look forward to, unless the balance shifts back and curators are allowed to resume their rightful role in defining the character and future of their institutions.

    • Steven Miller says:

      Lenora’s assessment of what can happen when attendance trumps intellectual content at a museum or arts center is right on the money – or perhaps I should say “off” the money. Brava!

    • Erik Neil says:

      Lenora makes some good comments here about museums generally but misses the mark in this specific case. The Taubman doesn’t have a significant collection to speak of. Additionally there is little indication that Roanoke has the constituency or the population to support a straight up art museum of this size. There just aren’t enough people. I think having the Taubman name (or any individual family name) on the building is a detriment to future fundraising. Everyone assumes that the founders who are very much alive and present will foot the bill. Note that the Waltons call their museum Crystal Bridges not The Walton. Roanoke will benefit if the Taubmans and the trustees can reconfigure this institution in a way that really serves the interests of the community. A mixed use building with the possibility of some operating revenue and greater funding appeal is probably an intelligent way to go. Perhaps they can start by rechristening it the Roanoke Center for the Arts.

      • I’ve been saying for a long time — to some derision in some quarters — that not every community can support a sizable art museum. Thanks for lending support. Your point about the name on the building is also apt.

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