Why are arts organizations so obsessed with anniversaries? Every day it seems, some museum, presenter, dance troupe, alternative arts space or theater company is celebrating a milestone birthday, be it 25, 50 or 75 years with a retrospective or special series of events of somesuch. But to what extent are anniversaries really worth observing from an artistic perspective? Or are they merely crutches for programming, pegs to attract media coverage or excuses for amping up fundraising efforts?
In a sense, an anniversary is definitely something to make a fuss about, especially in this country. Arts organizations often have to weather extreme hardship from a financial perspective every few years and face competition from the endless new forms of entertainment that can have the effect of distracting audiences. There’s little about the current cultural climate that favors longevity, so to make it through even five years without going under deserves some form of recognition.
But all too often it seems to me that anniversaries and the hooplah that organizations make around them are artificial constructs. Is it enough that an organization is turning 30 to merit an exhibition of photographs covering its years of existence? Why should we all be as excited that a museum is turning 75 as the museum is itself?
Some organizations, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, seem to have put a lot of thought into their anniversaries. The museum is at least as concerned with looking backwards through its history as it is in thinking about the next 75 years of its future. The anniversary tagline “75 years of looking forward” is well met by balancing exhibitions that highlight the organization’s legacy eg “The Anniversary Show” with activities like commissioning local artists from a variety of different disciplines to create audio tour material.
But not all organizations come up with anniversary celebrations that are as well-thought-out. Perhaps it’s time for arts institutions to move beyond marking time, either by finding more organic ways of celebrating key milestones rather than bland “let’s raid the attic”-style retrospectives. I love an excuse for a party as much as the next culture fan. But really there’s nothing wrong with letting a jubilee pass quietly by once in a while without a fanfare.