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Time To Rethink Museum “Populism” — It Doesn’t Work

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.

BrooklynVisitor_center.jpgThis 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.”

Caravaggio_Lute_Player_Hermitage.jpgYes, 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.


  1. I think there’s a strong argument for balance. Personally I think pop culture is important because it reflects both the society we live in and many of the references it devours on a daily basis. I also agree that the classics: Rafael, Caravaggio, Picasso… the cornerstones of Western culture are very important. I think the thing is being able to diversify and and offer your audience good exhibitions on many levels. What people are hungry for is content with real meat and intellectual substance to it.

  2. “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.”
    It seems an omission not to mention that the Brooklyn Museum is also showing an exhibition drawn from this collection right now.
    I would also add that the original article’s point about Brooklyn’s focus on drawing a diverse audience seems an important one. I think the audience at the Brooklyn Museum, though smaller than at the big names in Manhattan, is far more diverse. I think Brooklyn’s done a fair job of bringing locals who wouldn’t normally be attending museums into the mix, and there’s something to be said for that.

  3. I agree: “real art, well-displayed, in engaging exhibits.” The question is what constitutes “engaging” and what it looks like. The conventions and assumptions of most art exhibitions — particularly the academically-flavored, dispassionate wall texts and object labels — are benefits to some and barriers to many others. With so little variety of approaches, and with most interpretive innovation relegated to electronic devices, we simply don’t have enough variety for “natural selection” (or something like it) to operate on: we don’t yet know what would and wouldn’t be engaging, and for whom. I worry that positions like yours, which are widely shared, will be an (inadvertent) excuse for presenting art the way it’s always been presented.
    Yes, the art needs to be “real” and worthwhile or the whole endeavor is flawed. But likewise the visitor’s expereince of that art needs to be real and compelling and inviting — and we need to know much more about what that would take.

  4. There’s no one answer to your question. Many museums are trying new tactics to get away from what you call “academically-flavored…” etc., which sometimes are appropriate and sometimes may not be optimal. But on the contrary, i worry that your position will lead museums to try things that don’t belong in museums (dumbing down is only one such thing).
    As I tried to say in the post, no one thing creates an engaging, well-displayed exhibit — it’s many things (three yards…etc.). And what qualifies varies depending on the content of the show. I share here, when I learn of them, ideas museums are using to create excitement without losing their souls.

  5. Kaaren Boullosa says

    An art lover from childhood (not just visual arts but music and literature, in fact, primarily music and literature before visual arts), I have watched in dismay as the astonishing mystery of great art, that undefinable quality that emerges from a complex cauldron of innate gift, compulsion, and obsession, gets buried under the “art as useful tool like electricity or plumbing” canard. It just doesn’t seem to occur to people that by surrounding the simple display of art by this baloney, they are acknowledging that on its own, art has no value.
    As for Mr. Lehman: if I want to see street art, I can go to the street. I have yet to see a piece of street art that reduced me to the tears that one of van Gogh’s “Crow Flying Over a Wheatfield” paintings did years ago at the Met in NYC. I have never forgotten the experience – THAT is what an art museum is for!I have yet to see a crowd of stunned, hushed people, others besides me weeping, as I did in front of that painting, in front of a piece of street art or a display of graphics from “Star Wars”.
    My disgust for the anti-art, anti-intellectual culture that America now has( aided and abetted by people like Lehman) has deepened over the years, as poet Philip Larkin once described something else, “like a coastal shelf”.
    Everything can’t be for everyone, including van Gogh. Is that so terrible? It’s not “elitism”: it’s reality. Some people value art for its own sake more than others and no amount of coaxing will change that. I come from New York City and know what kind of collection the BMA has and gladly used to travel to see it. I wouldn’t set foot in the place again after the Star Wars and hip-hop debacle.
    Mozart didn’t write music as a service to the community – he wrote music because he couldn’t help it. I don’t go to hear his Prague Symphony because of its “message”. I go to hear it because it’s gorgeous, complex, and I can’t believe it emerged from the brain of one human being.
    If this isn’t the real basis for attendance, the rest doesn’t matter – except of course for the funding. . .

  6. Art Smith says

    I think we have to differentiate between popularism and populism.

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