Museums seen catering to their visitors. Alan Shestack's views as new head of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts
Boston — Good food, easy parking, helpful brochures, and - oh, yes - appealing and significant works of art. If not quite in that order, these are the kinds of things people expect these days when they visit art museums. And these collateral services are what make it increasingly hard to find museum directors with the capability and the interest to run such diversified operations.
It used to be enough to have the cultural background and the special schooling it took to accumulate, say, important paintings or sculptures, and to cultivate potential donors and other sources of art objects. But today, an art museum director ``must function as art historian and connoisseur, business person and fund-raiser, diplomat, politician, lobbyist, personnel manager, publisher, architectural consultant, restaurateur, educator, after-dinner speaker, and ... resident psychoanalyst.''
That definition not only came from the pen of Alan Shestack - it also aptly describes his multiple talents as the director of Boston's respected Museum of Fine Arts, a post he has held only since September. At the time of his appointment, the trustees spoke of being able to ``maintain the momentum'' already achieved by the MFA during the tenure of Jan Fontein, who had served as director since 1975. The climax of the Fontein era at the museum may well have been the Renoir special exhibition, which drew more than 500,000 people in only three months in 1985. Visitors paid about $9 million to see paintings drawn from a number of museums and private collections, and to carry off souvenirs of the sumptuous show.
Such ``blockbuster'' exhibitions (as they are commonly called) are a mixed blessing for the sponsoring museums - and, in a sense, for the people visiting them, as well. These special showings make healthy additions to income, but put extra demands on the museum staff. At the same time, visitors get to see art of exceptional quality, displayed with creative flair, backed up by printed and aural explanations - but as part of a milling crowd that can make it hard even to get close to the art or give it the quiet contemplation that is ordinarily a museum's basic attraction.
Mr. Shestack defines a blockbuster show as one that ``is expected to bring in a lot of people, and is chosen'' by a museum for that reason. Although he is aware of the burdening of staff connected with such shows, he also speaks of a ``boost in morale to have a show like the Renoir.'' He speaks so familiarly of the pros and cons, it is hard to tell where he will be leading the Museum of Fine Arts in the matter of blockbuster exhibitions. He seems reconciled to them as money raisers (``Nothing has worked as well''), but he also points out factors that weigh against their practicality. One such factor is the possible reluctance of art owners to part with valuable paintings for long periods of time. Another is the danger of multitudes ``breathing on'' the art, so to speak - a more-than-imaginary environmental problem. Another negative factor is the possibility of deliberate attack (inside a museum, or en route) or, say, a planeload of works going down accidentally.
On balance, the blockbuster show seems to belong in the ``plus'' column in Shestack's books, because it has proved its effectiveness in drawing large crowds into the museum - not just in Boston but everywhere they are scheduled. And he notes that once people get caught up in the viewing of special shows, they often begin exploring other parts of the museum - quieter corners, other categories of art.
Mr. Shestack praises museums that take a good look at the populace they serve, and then take steps to provide art that speaks directly to the community's heritage or special interests. He cites the example of Detroit, with a large black population. The museum there bought African sculptures, and attendance by blacks increased. (Shestack wryly notes they were preferred by blacks over ``portraits of George III.'') And while serving as director at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Shestack himself urged the purchase of a decorated Shoshone elk hide, in view of the large plains Indian population nearby, calling it ``something Indian children could relate to more than Italian baroque paintings.''
Reaching out to the public is ``happening all over,'' he says. ``Museums used to be places of serenity and calm. But now we can't go on in that mode. The time is past when museums can be unresponsive to the public.'' At the Museum of Fine Arts, the effort to attract and serve the public includes operating two restaurants in different price ranges, as well as a cafeteria, and (just now) a sandwich bar in the ``crypt area''; building a covered parking garage with 500 spaces across the street from the museum; and running a free shuttle bus during certain special shows. Striving to serve the public better may be one reason membership in the Museum of Fine Arts has grown from about 17,000 in the 1970s to 47,000 today.
The museum has also stepped up programs of research and publication, employed the talents of graphics designers and exhibition planners, and built up its mail order business.
``Museums have become part of the entertainment industry, and to some extent are in competition with movies, television, professional sports, theater, and music for a share of leisure-time attention and leisure-time dollars,'' Shestack says. ``And this is where the strain comes. We are still trying to collect the best art, provide art research, and stay at the cutting edge of conservation.''
Of course, museums hope to do well financially. But Shestack says that they ``must resist the temptation to work backward from the bottom line to the programs'' they offer the public. ``Our mission is not only to break even each year, but to expand and press out people's horizons.''