The New York Times has just published online, and will publish in tomorrow’s newspaper, a very important story on the Brooklyn Museum:* Populism Hasn’t Boosted Brooklyn Museum’s Attendance. In fact, 2009 attendance dropped 23% — while comparable museums suffered much, much smaller dips. Two trustees have quit, and I’d bet some people who used to visit the museum have been alienated.
This is a subject I have railed about for years. The answer to making museums interesting, engaging, worthy of visiting in a time-pressed era with so many other options to choose from does not, imho, reside in exhibits of popular culture, in dumbing content down, or in deploying any other gimmick. Nor dies it lie in party nights (here). Nor does it lie in “destination architecture.”
Yes, Tim Burton at the Museum of Modern Art* set records, but so (to cite a few random examples) has the current exhibition of Caravaggio at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. As the Associated Press just reported:
After days of seeing the public wait in blocks-long lines in sweltering heat to admire works by the Baroque painter, city officials decided to keep doors open nonstop from Saturday morning until the end of a four-month run Sunday at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT).
And so did Raphael’s La Velata at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Last Thursday, friends who tried to see the current Picasso exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art* — this was a weekday — could not get in, because the line was too long. They went instead to, and were thrilled with seeing, American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity, an exhibition drawn, sadly enough, from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, which was given to the Met for lack of exhibition space.
As I wrote last July, when I disclosed here that nearly 20% of the Brooklyn Museum visitors came on just 11 nights of the year, those sponsored by Target, part of the problem is museum hours. In many cities — not all — museums must change their culture and remain open at night, even if that means shortening hours on some days.
The full answer is more complicated, of course, but I am convinced that people — not all, but enough — will go to see real art, well-displayed, in engaging exhibits. Museums who go for the quick pop in attendance will lose people who really love art — not to mention supporters.
The NYT story is tough on Brooklyn; admittedly, Brooklyn has a difficult situation — sited near so many other high-quality museums in a very diverse borough. I think director Arnold Lehman’s heart is in the right place, and I have often given him wider latitude than others.
But the Brooklyn experience should be a lesson for other museums. “Populism” isn’t the answer. What is requires more thought, and day-in, day-out blocking and tackling. I recall the phrase Woody Hayes used to describe his conservative, grind-it-out, very basic football strategy: “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Hayes’s career record: 238-72-10.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Brooklyn Museum (top); The Hermitage (bottom)
*I consult to a foundation that supports these museums.