Why is everyone so big about big?

Big museums. Big exhibitions. Why is everyone so big about big?

Cathedral building and blockbuster shows are impressive, but do they help build identity? Sadly, no. Unless the big project involves promoting the museum’s own content, it won’t offer lasting differentiation. So if you can’t afford to do the “big” thing, perhaps it’s just as well. The little things count more.

Museums that embrace spectacle over content and form over function to appeal to the largest possible audience remind me of The New Yorker magazine. The old New Yorker was quirky and original, exploring ideas in ways no other publication did. Editorial decisions were made without regard for commercial culture. The cachet created by its no-hype policy had narrow appeal but a devoted following. That identity was dramatically reversed in the late 1980s. Desperate to get attention and fit into an increasingly fragmented marketplace, a new editorial team began defining “good” in terms of popular, and popular as a source of status. It remains a fine magazine, but it’s no longer special.

Two prominent figures in the U.S. made similar attempts to transform the museum world by following mass-market tastes. The late J. Carter Brown, former head of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, created the blockbuster exhibition trend and advocated transforming museums into architectural symbols. Guggenheim director Thomas Krens, another advocate of big, built on Brown’s largesse by inventing the global museum. To institutions overwhelmed by competing demands for money, scholarship, and public outreach, these actions seemed innovative and alluring. They were also dangerous.

The drive for “big” has caused museums to overlook the value of “little.” The public patiently waits for the next “new” thing to be unveiled while forgetting that museums have astonishing things on display all the time. We shouldn’t blame them for thinking museums, like theatres, “are dark between spectacles,” to quote Wall Street Journal writer Eric Gibson. Poor leadership has paradoxically made the world’s greatest treasures accessible to all while eclipsing permanent collections and burying the identity of individual museums.

This problem was created because “big” draws a crowd and attendance is still a key measure of success. The “Battle for the Turnstile”—what some commentators derisively call the great new war between museums—illustrates the community’s addiction to attendance. We feel validated by high visitor numbers, but attendance doesn’t mean enlightenment, nor does it signify public-mindedness. Populism and spectacle may rule in the quest for tourist dollars, but museums’ dependence on high-profile gimmicks leaves them vulnerable.

The museum’s real success should be based on its ability to keep its visitors connected. Pique their interest with compelling exhibits, yes. But then sustain their interest by offering tools that entice them into long-term relationships, nurture them as members or turn them into donors. The museum’s success will come from promoting its own extraordinary collection, developing its own extraordinary identity, and establishing a community that wants to stay connected— something that can’t be done through flashy architecture or exhibiting someone else’s content.

This golden age for museum building is a dark age for content and community and their core by-product, identity. Too bad, because this is where museums really need work. It’s time for a new business model that helps museums go after a permanent and reliable base of support. Museums must stop trying to be everything to everybody. Blockbuster exhibitions are the dragnet of museum marketing. What museums really need is to choose selected targets and cultivate their interests with their unique attributes: expert knowledge and distinctive permanent collections. Making choices isn’t easy, but success in any field results from focusing resources to create something proprietary.

Building a brand is one of the most important things your museum can do. You may think you already have one, but name recognition does not signify brand status. Only when consumers see you as different from others, when they relate to your content, when they associate you with satisfaction and choose to remain with you will you have equity…and a brand. Merely repackaging someone else’s content and borrowing their intellectual capital undermines your identity. Promote your attributes and expertise; be yourself; know your value.

A recent Wall Street Journal story about Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and former director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, revealed a new leadership trend (Lee Rosenbaum, “Hip is out as director transforms a museum,” Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2002). Anderson hadn’t been at the Whitney for long when he decided to cancel a scheduled exhibition on the history of the American stag film. It would undoubtedly have been popular, but he disapproved of its flakiness and feared it would undermine the museum’s reputation “solid,” mature, and dependable” reputation. Rather than touting “must-see” shows, Anderson wants to rebuild the Whitney’s identity by focusing on its core strengths, upgrading the permanent collection and fostering more serious research and publications.

What a contrast to Brown and Krens—and what a relief. Thankfully, someone at a high level is channeling his passion the right way. Still, whose vision will be the lasting one? Anderson appears to be thinking, and acting, for the long term by establishing value and building brand equity. His vision—promoting the “little” things—is the new model, and the new style of leadership, museums need.

Originally published by Muse (Canadian Museum Association), January 2003


One Response to Why is everyone so big about big?

  1. […] Why is Everyone so Big about Big? (January, 2003) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Brand as Bling: Why the AGO and the ROM remain IrrelevantMaritime Art Week – David Byrne’s “Playing the Building”New Media Poetry, Institutional Support, and Art MuseumsWallpaper’s Short List For Best Public Buildings […]

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