The nation's approximately 16,000 museums are wrestling with their identity and purpose. Declining attedance, caused in part by more cultural programming on television and a need to raise ticket prices, is forcing them to be as creative as the works they display.
With needed foresight, they're trying out new ways to be educational without being dry, cultivating different kinds of donors, supporting local artists, designing an online presence that doesn't become a substitute for seeing the real items, and, most of all, grasping for those blockbuster shows.
All through the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, giant traveling art shows filled museums around the country. Crowds snaked outside, waiting for a peak at major collections of French Impressionism, the treasures of King Tut, and the jewelry of the Romanovs. Audiences got a taste of what had long been the province of big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Museum membership typically increased. Museums made money, and used it to help pay for other, less popular, programs.
But blockbusters such as King Tut have raised visitor expectations. Many museumgoers want more pizzazz at their local arts palace. Such attractions however, are costly, and public funding of museums has waxed and waned. Corporate money has helped even that situation out, but even those funds have been reduced overall. And museum experts rightly worry that too much museum reliance on corporate sponsorship could lead to companies exercising control - over the content of exhibitions, for instance.
The trend in diminishing salaries undercuts the message that museums are a vital part of cultural life. Pay for museum workers is extraordinarily low. Recent surveys show museum staff earn significantly less than comparable professions requiring specific skill sets. At the same time, the costs of training to become a museum curator or director have gone up.
Steven Hamp, president of the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, calls America's museums "the stewards and protectors of our vast artistic, historic, and scientific heritage." Indeed, they are a vital common civic space.
Nine out of 10 counties in the US have at least one museum. And in spite of adversities, some good things are happening. New York's Guggenheim is getting a major face-lift. The first Daniel Liebeskind-designed museum is in the works for Denver. A new art museum, designed by the renowned Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, recently opened in Fort Worth.
Institutions that are so vital to a community's storytelling ability deserve ongoing, vigorous support from all sectors, public and private.