Winners take all?

ny-ah912_moma_ns_20100628183228A researcher colleague wanted to call it the “Great Museum Cartel.” We were working on a RAND report on the visual arts, and it emerged that the vast majority of visitors, operating funds, endowments, and donations accrue to the top ten museums in the country.

Yesterday bought more confirmation of the winner-take-all pattern, when The Wall Street Journal reported that MoMA “attracted its highest-ever number of visitors, 3.09 million, during its 2010 fiscal year.” That’s up a quarter million from last year and a half-million from the year of reopening. Attendance is now double of what MoMA’s saw in its old building. Tourist numbers and memberships are also up.

Of course, there is fodder for doubters. While it’s heartening to see critical stalwarts Marina Abramovic and William Kentridge draw in the neighborhood of half a million visitors–more than the annual attendance of many respectable museums–the big numbers are partly linked to exhibitions with “strong public appeal,” with Tim Burton and Water Lilies clocking in well over 800,000 visits. Whatever the case, MoMA’s popular formula is working.

The larger question is whether such success is replicable, or even desirable in every respect. Another recent report about crowd-pleasing fare at a major New York museum, in Brooklyn, didn’t reach the same conclusion. What seems to be happening is that the biggest fish are capturing more attention, while medium and small organizations struggle to keep their numbers up. This pattern is holding true not just in museums, but also with galleries and art fairs, as recent lines outside Gagosian’s historical shows and the huge throngs at Art Basel pointedly demonstrated.

What can we read into these trends?

5 thoughts on “Winners take all?”

  1. Well, for one thing, size matters.

    MoMA has the capacity and the budget to be many things for many people, and there’s no reason to think that it shouldn’t. Yes, Tim Burton saw two-times the visitors of the Bauhaus show, but I’m tempted to say, “so what.” The Bauhaus show was exceptional; it was the kind of show that only a few institutions in the world could produce, and probably best done by MoMA. (The question is why MoMA bothers with something like the Orozco show, which drowned there and likely would have been better served by the Whitney or-gasp-the New Museum.)

    Institutions that don’t have this kind of absolute size should not be reaching for it because the physics simply isn’t there to support it. Smaller institutions need to specialize and do. Part (if not all) of the Brooklyn Museum’s problem is a scale problem–it’s at once too big and too small (in its budget, square-footage and, most importantly, thinking).

    But perhaps Andras’ question verges on a different and dare I say more theoretical one that needs to be addressed to numbers above and beyond museum admission, giving and endowment numbers–and that is the growing conflict between models of ‘sustainability’ and ‘growth’. Every year cannot and will not be ‘better’ than the last. This ‘success’ is not infinitely replicable, and we know this. The problem it seems to me is to find a new metric for measuring what we mean by ‘better’ and ‘success’.

  2. Adam Levine of Art Research Technologies writes:

    If I can pick up where Jonathan left off and continue to try to get at Andras’s fundamental question, I think that (a large [?]) part of the problem with measuring success in museums is that there are not very good metrics for success.

    We can see how difficult the issue is in the last paragraph of Jonathan’s comment. What is a museum looking for? Growth? Sustainability? What do either of those even mean? (Do they refer to use of operating funds? The endowment? Admission figures? Acquisitons?) Such questions, while obvioius, manifest themselves in statements as seemingly benign as Jonathan’s ‘Every year cannot and will not be “better” than the last.’

    I suspect Jonathan would agree with me, but this sentence (in the context of his response) clearly associates ‘better’ with attendance numbers, which certainly are not the be-all and end-all of museums. With this in mind, I would argue not only that every year can be ‘better’ than the last at any given museum, but also that it should be.

    In other words, it is the neither the definition of ‘sustainable’ nor ‘growth’ that matter; rather, the fuzzier ideas of ‘betterment’ and ‘success’ are what need thought.

    How can we build metrics around such qualitative and institution-specific concepts? In the first place, success should not be grounded only in macro-numbers. Of course attendance is easily comparable across institutions. But the purposes of a university museum and a municipal museum are fundamentally different (at least in theory), and comparing the attendance figures of the two would do a disservice to the former. Any metric for determining museological success needs to be highly particular.

    What I would suggest as a possible avenue is that museums, as non-profits in most cases, look to the literature on the Social Return on Investment. A discourse on SROI has grown up in the study of grant allocations, foundation gifts, and even microfinance. The idea is that there are elements beyond the numbers that are worth ‘accounting’ for, and SROI analysis does its best to account for these.

    In a museum context, one museum may care about how many K-12 students come through the doors while another may care how many of its objects are published each year. While neither of the above is as sexy as revenue, grant monies received, or attendance, based on the charter of the museum in question, the two examples above may be more important. At its heart SROI analysis is about measuring the ‘impact’ of the dollars spent by an institution, and the degree of impact is, I think, directly proportional to the consistency of an outcome with a museum’s mission. To be reductive about it, a high impact per dollar spent is ‘success,’ and a higher impact per dollar spent would qualify as a ‘better’ year.

    In an ideal world, an independent third-party would research the impact per dollar spent at museums much as GiveWell has for charities or MixMarket or Kiva have for microfinance and microloans. Any SROI metrics must be taken with a grain of salt since the weights associated to varioius activities is somewhat arbitrary, but at least such an effort would begin a conversation in earnest about how to measure success.

    To return to Andras’s original post, if such a ‘watchdog’ ever did come into existence, it might even help mid-sized and smaller museums receive more funding. Many donors, including the government, would likely prefer to fund institutions whose impact per dollar received is highest.

    SROI analysis is not the panacea to determining museological success and putting the mid-sized and little guys on the same foot as the giants, but it could be a productive start.

  3. Adam, responding to Jonathan’s appeal for metrics, suggests a fruitful exploration of SROI analysis for museums. I think it would be very exciting indeed to more clearly enumerate the various components of the “social returns” of museum investments.

    Providing a safe public venue, creating a better streetscape, fulfilling the civic function of a “public square”–such “returns” can accrue even if we don’t take into consideration the art exposure and educational experiences that museums offer. And such returns are likely to count for more in smaller communities (or new capitals of emerging nations) where the museum is THE only secular urban amenity, other than the shopping mall. MOCAD in Detroit is an excellent example.

    But Adam’s comment is also interesting because it starts to bridge the gap between those who champion the arts using intrinsic and instrumental rationales. As I recently argued in the Art Newspaper, the art community has taken a huge hit by resorting to the rhetoric of instrumentality–presenting art investments as a means to achieve measurable and quantifiable non-art outcomes. SROI analysis holds the promise of adding “softer” intrinsic elements into the mix, while retaining the hard bureaucratic appeal of numbers.

  4. Just to shift the emphasis momentarily to the UK, I’d have to agree that we need a better sense of what the SROI metrics might be for museums. As has already been noted, they will surely need to differ depending not only on the size of the institution but also on the nature of its collections. One might argue that Tate Modern’s manifest success in achieving significant social traction has been as much to do with those things András enumerates — public security, enhanced civic environment, (whisper it), providing a space for ‘family fun’ — as with stretching the public’s exposure to contemporary art. That success breeds yet more success in raising finance for capital projects like the new wing.

    A question frequently meditated upon back in my Art Newspaper days was, ‘How do you market a decorative arts museum?’ V&A director Mark Jones has now answered that pretty comprehensively — by paying as much attention to exhibits as to the social space, perhaps in the knowledge that, if done right, enhancing one in turn enhances the other. The V&A never got its Liebeskind spiral, but that may have been a blessing, allowing it instead to press ahead with its new ceramics and Medieval and Renaissance galleries (and its hugely popular Madejski gardens) that have improved both the social experience and the educational functions of the museum. The V&A now feels like one of the coolest museums in town, and for all the right reasons (but then this is London, not the provinces).

    Yet none of this confronts the real challenge facing museums, particularly the so-called ‘encyclopaedic’ museums for whom the public addiction to the crystal meth of contemporary art is not so easily tapped into. Quite how one reconciles the need for progress and notional growth in social and educational terms with the rather more intractable problems of conserving collections (a significant percentage of which have never even been catalogued) remains a moot point.

  5. Lawrence Rothfield, Co-founder and former Faculty Director of the Cultural Policy Center at The University of Chicago, writes:

    The opposition between intrinsic and extrinsic outcomes need not harden into one between non-quantifiable and quantifiable. There are many ways to measure intrinsic benefits, and SROI as well as other approaches drawing on the surveying of well-being and happiness measures are feeding into policymaking, at least in those areas where behavioral economics have made some inroads. The arts sector is way behind the curve in bringing to bear these measurement tools.

    To make use of these tools, arts researchers need to do something they have been loath to do: disaggregate the many distinct goods associated with “the arts”. What we tend to get in arts-policy research, especially that produced for advocacy purposes, is a lot of lumping: all museums are lumped together, as if they were intended to serve the same purpose, to produce the same effect. We may all agree that the good museums do cannot be captured just by the number of eyeballs or revenue generated. But there is a tendency to then simply impose some other unexamined criterion, i.e., “coolness” in Tom’s posting, or the notion of what counts as an amenity, as in Andras’ response that Detroit’s only secular urban amenity is MOCAD. (Visitors to the Michigan Central Station, the DIA, or any of these places — — would probably suggest that museum researchers need to get out more.)

    Framing the social experience that we are trying to measure in terms of “coolness” and “amenity” does help put the emphasis on the taste being appealed to, the experience being offered. The problem is that the terms themselves are too general. “Coolness”, for instance, comes in several different flavors — corporate/cosmopolitan (i.e., the new Modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago); hipster/do-it-yourself; innovation-oriented/jazzy; etc. So I might respond that the V&A’s social experience is now cool, but not cool in the way I might prefer, if I preferred Liebeskindism). Similarly, there are many different kinds of amenity that museums could be said to provide. Museums might deliberately aim to provide a social experience in which the crowd is wowed by the mindblowing charisma of the art; or challenged by its in-your-face transgressiveness (think the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” show); or welcomed to a neighborly family-friendly time; or enabled to hobnob with other well-dressed elites in a special evening formal event; or encouraged to get in touch with their deep human selves, their heritage, or some other ground of authenticity.

    Museums themselves are unlikely to be able to articulate what they want in these terms without a little help from those asking them, though their mission statements may sometimes hold clues. So if we arts-policy researchers want to use SROI, then, we need to first dissolve “the arts”, and here “the museum”, into more fundamental experiential dimensions: different kinds of authenticity (local, traditional, etc.), sociality (transgressiveness, formality, neighborliness, etc.), commitment (charismatic rapture, equality, originality/innovation/uniqueness, etc.). Only then will we be able to develop measurement tools that are granular enough to capture what it is that museums — along with other amenities — are or could be offering their publics.

Leave a Reply