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)
I am writing in response to a recent the series of articles about art museums in The Baltimore Sun. The thrust of the series was that museums were in “decline” because they failed to be relevant, especially to younger audiences, and the solution is the rapid adoption of new technologies (“In Baltimore and nationwide, art museums fight sharp declines in attendance,” Jan. 12).
First, rumors of our demise are greatly overstated. The Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM), for example, had a great year in 2017. On-site attendance was up 26 percent, and program attendance grew by 48 percent. In fact, we had 12 months in a row of attendance being ahead of last year.
Moreover, even for institutions that lost attendance in 2017, the articles offered no comparative context. They cited a National Endowment for the Arts report that showed a 20 percent decline in attendance at art museums between 2002 and 2015. How did shopping malls do in that period of time? Bookstores? My guess is that among brick and mortar institutions, museums are holding their own.
Secondly, we need to measure not only what comes into museums but what comes out. Attendance counts … a lot. Any real assessment of the success of museums needs to account for impact. If museums were just in the “information business,” it might be enough to count eyes-on-objects the way the web counts clicks. But museums are actually in the “inspiration business,” so we need to ask instead, how are people changed by their museum experience?
The museum experience does not just deliver data. It evokes memories that can last a lifetime. At JMM, we’ve started interviewing visitors months after their visits to see what conversations and actions may have been inspired by our exhibits.
Technology adoption is necessary but is no panacea — not even with young people. Museums have been trying to figure out how to get 20-somethings to visit long before the Internet. This is as much a question of stage-of-life priorities as it is a propensity toward technology.
In an era where almost everything has become a commodity and chain stores make every city look alike, it’s our history that can’t be duplicated. You can download images of the Battle of Baltimore from anywhere on the planet. But to actually stand in the shadow of the rockets’ red glare (or experience the awe of the third oldest synagogue still standing in America), you need to come to Baltimore. Even in the 21st century, real things, real processes and real places still matter. They are a source of authenticity in our increasingly virtual world.
Fueled by the creative minds of a new generation, museums are thriving. Don’t take my word for it — come experience it for yourself.