Making museums matter in the 21st century

Museums in 2018 face a great crisis and a great opportunity, and they are one in the same: relevance. The historical assumption that museums extend to their audiences intrinsic value has been subjected to great pressure in recent years. Audiences are now asking why museums matter in the 21st century. This question, if it goes unaddressed, constitutes a critical threat to museums as we’ve known them.

The tremendous ensuing opportunity is to take action immediately to address such concerns, re-orienting our core identity in a totalizing way to face a fresh audience with a new and unfamiliar base of knowledge and set of needs. Only by taking these steps will museums achieve relevance, and we will be transformed as a result, emerging in a new light as resources of true and measurable value in the 21st century.

One valuable metric of relevance is museum attendance, as The Sun’s Mary McCauley has demonstrated in her recent series of articles looking at the challenges museums face today. Volume is of course valuable, as any museum professional will affirm, but it can also be deceiving as it relates to relevance. By example: The 2017 Venice Biennale broke all attendance records, but it still fell short of achieving a diverse audience with 72 percent of visitors being white and only 2 percent black. This was especially concerning given our U.S. representative, chosen by the Baltimore Museum of Art, a co-commissioning entity for the United States Pavilion at the event. Mark Bradford is a 56-year-old gay, black, former hairdresser from Los Angeles and the most important abstract painter working today.

In the future, as new public programs are launched and special exhibitions are developed by the the BMA, the challenges will not be volume of visitors, but the composition — achieving a black-majority audience that captures and reflects the demographics of our city and artists for the first time in our museum’s long history. Few if any art museums in the United States have achieved relevance in this respect, but models for success do exist in the artist community. For years now, African American artists like Rick Lowe, Theaster Gates and Mark Bradford have formed, funded and operated nonprofits that present art and culture to deeply challenged urban communities while also and explicitly meeting the most basic needs within those communities and addressing issues of domestic violence, hunger, housing and job training. This emphasis on providing access to art and meeting need is fundamental to achieving relevance and establishing trust and value in our city. Meeting need creates the possibility of an entirely new audience, and it is an important step toward remaking the BMA.

In Baltimore, both the Walters and the BMA are free museums, which is another vital step toward achieving equity of access. In fact, without free admission to these museums’ collections, creating a culture of inclusion across race and class lines would be far harder to achieve, if not impossible. The next vital step is crafting a culture of inclusion within our museums that helps us break down our own walls, integrating with our communities in unprecedented ways. This is generational work that must redress the institution’s core interests: collection development, exhibition planning, public programs and the makeup of the board of trustees and staff. The BMA has recently added two artists — Amy Sherald and Adam Pendleton — whose work explores concepts of blackness to our Board of Trustees to, among other things, help us think through these strategies from within.

Every decision has to be evaluated relative to the museum’s principal goal of achieving relevance through diversity and inclusion. Cast in literal terms, this means that artists of color, women, and LGBTQi+ communities will be emphasized within museum programs and achieve positions of prominence within institutional structures as never before. And as a consequence these historically underrepresented communities will find a home at the BMA along-side our traditional audiences. This This is the BMA’s work now and in the coming years. Great strides have been taken, but the hard work remains.

The true metric of our success cannot be simple attendance, but relevance achieved through a determined and unerring focus on the values of diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice. Living these values should be our only goal. Attendance is a consequence of that conviction, and relevance will be the eventual reward.

Christopher Bedford is director of the BMA; he can be reached at cbedford@artbma.org.

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