A commitment from — and to — our museums

For the first time in modern history, foot traffic at art museums across the nation has been dropping steadily, whereas until the turn of the 21st century, attendance had always gone up. (Ulysses Muñoz, Mary McCauley / Baltimore Sun video)

An art museum where I was curator of education in the 1990s held a staff workshop. We were randomized into small groups and given drawing materials. “Express how you think the museum is seen by the public, specifically people in this town,” we were told. There were perhaps five groups, and every single group came up with some variations on the picture my gang produced. Our image showed the elegant, neoclassical façade of the original 1929 building, columns atop endless steps and massive portals. Around it all a massive chain was padlocked against some perceived intrusion.

We all agreed that the museum was unfriendly experientially as well as conceptually. There was no public transportation bringing people to the museum, and the residential character of the neighborhood meant parking was difficult. Getting into the building posed a number of problems including accessibility issues as well as finding the actual entrance. Once in the building, navigating the structure was difficult, and the atmosphere discouraged many people from admitting they didn’t know what to do. Guards appearing to surveil a subset of visitors was a further concern. There was also the cost of walking through the door.


These problems extend far beyond the culture and practices of an individual institution. Past is prologue, and just as we can’t expect illiterate homes to produce people who read, we can’t expect a society that ignores or else demeans the arts to produce individuals who value and engage with the arts.

Museums try to bring in the crowds by such tactics as free attendance, staging blockbusters, and wooing a new audience. But so far, they haven't stumbled upon a magic cure-all.

We don’t think it is fair to teach reading only to those children who can afford to buy books; it is not fair to make the arts available only to those who can pay the cost.


Museums shoulder many responsibilities: They collect, preserve, conserve, study, interpret and exhibit objects. In doing so they encode, express and promote notions of what is worthy and how we should formulate our values in the future. While museums in general wear this wardrobe of hats with flair, they are by nature conservative. Their habit of looking backward to how things have always been, the values that have been paramount and the demands reliable donors make before they loosen the purse strings, has encouraged a sort of petrification of practice. Their commitment to a hierarchy in which directors, heads of development and curators are regarded as substantially more valuable than educators, guards, IT staff and others who constitute the primary interface with the public exacerbates the situation.

While I think museums have indeed come a long way, a larger ethos of utilitarianism, a sense that the success of an enterprise can only be measured by the numbers it generates — the money it generates — impedes us.

What would I like to see?

I would certainly like to see the end of notions that culture is a “gift” from museum elites (and similar organizations), which should be accepted with unquestioning gratitude by the masses.

I would like to see a reconfiguration of staff and process in museums, a flattening of the pyramid of privilege, so that new and unfamiliar voices and perspectives could sound with power and authority.

I would like to see an active engagement with the looming realities of the second half of the 21st century alongside the exigencies of the present.

I would like to see a commitment from the city, neighboring counties and the state to making cultural venues generally accessible, especially by public transportation, seven days a week.

I would like to see every child in every grade visit a museum, attend a musical performance and see a theatrical production annually — and not just during the last six weeks of the academic year.

I would like to see how the digital identities of our museums could become a magnet for new audiences by becoming an employment opportunity for the young, tech savvy and tech visionary.

That is some of what I would like to see.

The true metric of an art museum's 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.

In 1937, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian wrote, “Art is only a substitute while the beauty of life is still deficient. It will disappear in proportion, as life gains in equilibrium.” I don’t quite agree. I think art is inextricable from the beauty of life which, in fact, is abundant. And it is art through which some kind of equilibrium in life may become possible.

Ellen B. Cutler (ellenbcutler.com) is an adjunct professor of art history at Maryland Institute College of Art.

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