Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Brooklyn Museum - and the value of visitor numbers

I blogged recently on the issue of falling visitor numbers at the Brooklyn Museum, and was politely reprimanded by Sally Williams, the Public Information Officer at the Museum, for not looking at the ten year average attendance as a more accurate statistic.

But it raises a fundamental question as to whether the health of a collecting institution can be measured by the number of people who come through the front door. And it is particularly apt that the New York Times should focus on this issue (and some others) in “Sketching a future for Brooklyn Museum”. As the NY Times says, “For more than a century the Museum has been one of the country’s most important cultural institutions, and for more than a decade it has also caused controversy … By some measures it has succeeded. By others, including attendance goals articulated by the Museum itself, it has not.”

The NY Times asked various experts to comment on issues confronting the Museum including falling attendance, and their responses are enlightening, particularly in the mixed views on the value of visitor numbers. Philippe de Montebello, the recently retired Director of the Met, kicks off, reflecting on the difficulty of positioning the Brooklyn Museum when so many world class museums exist just over the water in Manhattan. He takes the high-brow view that a visit to any museum should be an uplifting experience, whereas the Brooklyn has headed for the popular culture route (implicitly implying a dumbing down of the content). Karen Brooks Hopkins, President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has leapt on this popular culture as a key to success, saying that although visitor numbers are down, “the demographics are unbeatable: Brooklyn audiences are young, diverse and adventurous, which has enormous positive implications for the future.”

Rochelle Slovin, Director of the Museum of the Moving Image, has taken the same view highlighting the popular hip hop and salsa Saturdays at the Museum (a recent one on July 3rd drew an incredible 24,000 people) as no different to string quartets at the Met evenings in terms of concept – just a different flavour for a different audience.

Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and an increasingly visible museum commentator, posits that with so little revenue coming from admissions (typically 2-4%) the focus should be on evaluating museums on their contribution to research, education and conservation, along with their ability to be a hotbed of creativity.

Peter Marzio, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, takes a different tack, praising the Brooklyn for pioneering a new path and “transforming itself into an ecumenical museum by focusing its collections and programs on the diverse neighbourhoods of Brooklyn”. Interesting use of the word ecumenical – I think he means drawing together in a common space the many different local groups.

Finally into this space has gamely strode the Director of the Museum, Arnold Lehman. No-one particularly likes a panel of experts telling them how to run their museum better, but Lehman has graciously acknowledged all their comments as valuable.

And his response is a simple one, namely that the Brooklyn Museum’s interest is in who is coming to the Museum, not in their numbers. As he states, the Museum’s commitment to engage with the local community, rather than be challenged by it, has resulted in the most diverse and youngest audience of any general fine arts museum in the country.

So who wins this most interesting dialogue (and would that we could have such a discussion in the Australian press)? Unfortunately, despite the feel-good nature of the plaudits that many of the experts heap on the Brooklyn Museum and its international reputation for being innovative, the fact that the article has been written directly results from press around falling visitor numbers. And as Wenda Gu, a Brooklyn artist says, “Attendance is the most important and objective measurement of a museum’s success”.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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