Institutions can learn by following…and following they must, for now

By following, I mean observing.

Institutions are not static.  In fact, the best of them are living, breathing places from which there is a great deal of interactivity.  Key to assessing one’s impact is to understand the nature of this interactivity at every level.  By keen observation, one only begins the process of trying to suss out the importance and meaning of art and culture today.  Unfortunately, many leaders operating in today’s cultural sector lack this ability.

I’m presuming that we as cultural institutions care about what our audience (and audiences-to-be) values—that we want to understand them and to some extent, even meet their needs (with no judgment here).  This is not true for all and perhaps appropriately so (institutions are taste makers and therefore, in the lead position naturally, etc.).   But I would argue it should be for most, if not for all, at least for now.  Of course this is incredibly (and rightly) complex as so many are debating eloquently here.  So at the risk of being overly reductive, I’ll just put forth one position:  I ask cultural institutions simply to start by being much better ethnographers, then perhaps wiser interpreters of their discoveries…if only to be more refined curators of deeper meaning and better advocates for a point of view.

This may be odd coming from someone who works almost exclusively with museum leadership.  But it’s precisely because of this experience and exposure that I make this point.  In today’s organizational culture in museums, weight is overly slanted to this pinnacle or that.  Expertise and therefore experts are prized (and many primarily affirmed by the same).  But as this shows signs of ebbing—for no other reason than to be more inclusive for a whole host of reasons—there are signs of real dynamism.  I take this as a good thing, as institutions are so often in search of being relevant.

Making meaning for today’s audience is a worthwhile pursuit.  One must begin by understanding them and involving them more.

Next, the role of leading, and by this, I mean influencing.

About MiJin Hong

MiJin Hong has written 3 posts in this blog.

is the Director of Academic Affairs and Program Development at the Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University (GLI), a leading international source of professional and executive development for current and future museum leaders ( MiJin’s primary focus is in designing leadership programs in service to the museum field, building relationships with faculty and other potential partners in the academic, public and private sectors. Key to her success is understanding and examining the issues and challenges facing the museum leadership community and staying abreast of the field’s most pressing developments and its rapidly evolving context. She applies current research toward future solutions by building opportunities for museum professionals, policy makers, academics, and public officials to come together to learn, plan and grow. Along with strengthening the curriculum of long-standing programs such as the Museum Leadership Institute (MLI) and Museum Leaders: the Next Generation (NextGen), more recently, she has been developing new initiatives for the global cultural sector with partners in Canada, Mexico and China.


  1. adrienne sirken says

    I appreciate the larger debate here about the balance between leading and serving the cultural audiences we work with in the visual and performing arts. Key to this debate is indeed striking a true BALANCE rather than swinging to one extreme or another. As “popular” trends influence everything from programming to funding, the importance of an expert’s assessment of an unusually talented, creative and valuable artistic voice is essential. It is STILL the role of the presenter to be able to discern extraordinary skill, quality, and creativity in order to bring this to the attention of the less experienced audience. In the age of blogging and social media where opinions are published on an equal playing field without regard to differences between “expert” and general public there is a true liability of dumbing down quality. The reticent, non-blogging artist who is not suited to personal outreach with the general public is confined to obscurity if the measurement of their worth is fully dependent on the kind of general personal appeal that the blogging artist elicits with the general public. Having such artists cut out of the cultural landscape would be an enormous loss. We can all imagine how malnourished our souls would be without some of the greatest artists in history who were, by nature, highly private or reticent people whose hearts and souls were given to their audiences only on stage, or in their writing or through the creation of their visual worlds. These people are now far less likely to reach the public eye at all because audience preferences are being overly influential. If we only use the criteria of audience preference, the audience would never have the opportunity to discover less known artists who could well be some of the best and brightest throughout the world. I implore arts leaders to continue to choose their presentations based upon their own best judgement of exciting and important talent, even if the artist’s assets include the kind of depth, complexity, and obscurity that might be less accessible to some members of the audience. The legacy of our cultural future is dependent on this kind of leadership. Thank you for your continued courage !