in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

What Makes Museums Great?

Money, morals and metrics

Tourists standing in line at the entrance to Louvre Museum. © Alamy

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

Published
In Analysis

In such stormy times, what does it mean for a museum to be successful? For this, our 101st issue of In Other Words, we asked directors around the world how they evaluate achievement. From balancing the books to broadening the conversation; from creating communities to provoking public debate, museums have complex and differing agendas.

Historically, visitor numbers have been the standard metric, despite the fact that “most museum attendance figures, from a purely scientific point of view, are unverifiable” as the late Okwui Enwezor, the former director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, said in an interview with In Other Words in mid-December (read the full transcript here). “I truly believe there is a lot of fudging of numbers going on out there,” he said, calling the whole notion of attendance figures and visitor numbers “voodoo economics”.

Most museum attendance figures, from a purely scientific point of view, are unverifiable

His was not a stance against popular exhibitions (“who doesn’t want loads of people to come to an exhibition you create? Of course, that is always a desire.”), but Enwezor felt the mission of a museum was deeper and more expansive— “to engage with the field in as broad and complex a way as is possible for the public to grasp”, he said. “I am a huge believer in the idea of museum citizenship. A museum must also reflect the world that it is a part of, not just blithely rely on cynical popularity.”

Visitors to London’s National Portrait Gallery, where a ticketing scandal sparked debate about the value of museum attendance. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Museums should be “of the people and for the people” by generating debate, says Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, an institution with “a position in the middle of our society”, he says. “What we try to do is show that history is complex.” In 2020 the Rijksmuseum will be the first national museum in Europe to organize an exhibition on slavery, focusing exclusively on the Dutch colonial period between the 17th and 19th centuries to demonstrate that slavery is an integral part of the country’s history. “We want to show the Dutch public great international art in the context of our collection, on subjects we feel are relevant for our society today,” Dibbets says. “Art has a great capacity to unite people.”

The problem lies in deciding who these people are—a conversation often shaped by who provides funding. In the UK, where most museums’ permanent collections are free to the public and partially subsidized by the government, there is reasonable expectation that public money be put to public good. Attendance, as a graspable measure of this, is a figure that makes sense to the people at the top (“It is the government and the Departure for Digital, Culture Media & Sport who have put most emphasis on numbers,” says Charles Saumarez-Smith, former secretary and chief executive of London’s Royal Academy and now a senior director of Blain Southern gallery.)

National identity is an especially charged conversation in Britain, which is grappling unhappily with Brexit. The slipperiness of determining who the public is and what they want was at the heart of a scandal at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London last year after automated attendance counters found—incorrectly, it would later be discovered—that there had been a drastic drop in the number of visitors. This led to a slew of articles about changing the program to better benefit “the public”. After all, attendance was higher for exhibitions of celebrity photographers and famous male artists than for living, middle-aged, female artists, which was taken as proof by some that the “contemporary art program resonates more with the art world than the public”.

Nobody needs to tell you not to show this, you already know you can’t

Especially when attendance is linked to budgets, there can be pressure to program big, marketable hits—which are often shows dedicated to the great men of Modernism or those bouyed by the effects of celebrity (see The Art Newspaper’s international annual survey of attendance). But museum directors should be wary of reinforcing underlying structural biases, particularly in troubled times when political and cultural conversations are in danger of curdling. 

Enwezor talked of shifts taking place in Germany and around Europe as a result of a rising nationalism. The souring political atmosphere “affects the kind of art you can exhibit. Nobody needs to tell you not to show this, you already know you can’t,” he said. “It brings a chill to curating and the ability of institutions and curators to actually undertake more serious work.” The discouragement can be overt. One of Poland’s most significant museums, the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk, is currently fighting attempts by the country’s cultural ministry to make it less independent. The dispute is mainly centered on how the museum should present the country’s role in the Holocaust. (Let’s not forget that the Degenerate Art exhibitions staged by the Nazis in 1937— sensationalist shows that drew large crowds— were essentially the proto-blockbusters).

After Enwezor’s departure from Haus der Kunst, the Munich museum canceled a much anticipated retrospective of female artist Adrian Piper’s work. Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being: Smoke (1974). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. © Adrian Piper

“When people engage with different forms of erasure that have occurred in institutions, there are code words to push back against change. Things like ‘quality’ and ‘derivative’—which are actually just subjective terms that do not have anything to do with the issue at hand—tend to be the easy crutch,” Enwezor said. “So, museums have to face up to that and not become self-congratulatory when they present the work of so-called minority artists or underrepresented or under-known artists—they shouldn’t say ‘OK, we have done that now, so let’s turn back to the popular and the populist.’ ”

Of course, populist is a charged word. The UK-based art historian Bendor Grosvenor questions “who decides what is ‘populist’?” adding that it is “a term often used by snobs”. He says: “Good attendance should be the goal of all exhibitions. Any curator who puts on an exhibition knowing people won’t want to see it shouldn’t be a curator. Public museums are not tools for curators to indulge their private fantasies.”

Public museums are not tools for curators to indulge their private fantasies

Yet audience is a measure that should be made to fit. Pitching the exhibitions of work by three women artists at London’s NPG against its blockbusters was disingenuous criticism said the museum’s director Nicholas Cullinan during a recent In Other Words podcast: “You do some exhibitions which won’t reach such a large audience but are important because of your remit. If you didn’t do them, you would be actually abandoning key things that you are meant to be addressing or people that you are meant to be serving,” he said. The idea that exhibitions are in competition with one another is problematic: “Basically, you’re saying that we and possibly other British museums shouldn’t program contemporary artists or women artists if they don’t reach a huge audience. I disagree with that fundamentally,” he said. “It’s important that you do a range of exhibitions over a year.”

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field (1977) Long-term installation, western New Mexico. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

Some shows and works of art are supposed to be more solitary than social. Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, points to The Lightning Field (1977), the legendary piece of Land Art by Walter De Maria in remote New Mexico. There are only around 1,000 visitors to the site each year, Govan says, but the work “was meant to last 2,000 years. It is about duration and time. Some things are meant to have longevity because of their persistence. And that’s measurable.”

In contrast, LACMA—an encyclopedic museum in a city of more than four million people—should strive for a large audience, he says. When Govan first joined the museum in 2006, attendance was around 600,000 people each year: “not enough to create impact, critical mass, word of mouth”. Visitor numbers have grown to around 1.5m people each year (before construction started on the scheduled renovation) and Govan sees attendance as “a key tool to create impact—which means to impact peoples’ lives, to educate people, to create an emotional and powerful experience, to change art history or to expand and adjust the canon,” he says. “You can’t do that without attendance.”

There is pressure to compete for the attention of ‘the Netflix generation’

Increasingly important to museum directors around the world are the kinds of audience visiting them: “You can very well as a museum decide you want to attract a different group of visitors, which might lead to a decline in numbers, but that will have achieved the objective that you set,” says Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis in the Hague. “Attendance on its own is simply too rough a measure to be meaningful.”

“More important than high attendance figures is the degree of satisfaction of the visitors,” says Benjamin Weil, the artistic director of the Centro Botín in Santander who says that, “in business terms, we would like our visitors to become active stakeholders”. The intention is to spur curiosity, he says. The real challenge however, is to avoid trivialization.

Especially for museums beyond destination cities like New York, London, Paris and Amsterdam, it can be difficult to get the message out. The internet, which many imagined might level the playing field, has in fact fueled the division says Dibbits. “We all thought there would be more spreading of attention, but what we see is that people go to the same things because of the algorithms, which create hotspots.”

45% of all visitors to Centro Botín in 2018 came from the local region of Cantabria, 43% from the rest of Spain and the other 12% from abroad, mainly from France, UK and Germany. © Centro Botín

In younger cities like Miami, there is pressure to compete for the attention of “the ‘Netflix and chill’ generation where entertainment is constantly streamed into your available screen,” says Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. “I believe that the value of the museum, art and artists is becoming greater in the world we live in today, and that an interaction with those things leads to a better future,” he says. “Attendance is but a barometer to let us know how we’re doing in that regard,” he says.

There is perhaps more latitude for museums that either have stable funding or are destinations in their own rights, whether because of their location, collection or building. In Los Angeles, “admission to the Getty and all its exhibitions is free, so revenue-generating exhibitions are not a consideration,” says a spokeswoman for the museum, which has a mission “to seek to advance scholarship and engage audiences in works of art of outstanding quality and historical importance”.

The Guggenheim has building in New York and Bilbao which are visitor attractions in themselves—“the luxury of a world-class building that attracts audiences offers us another kind of flexibility”, says Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. At the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch (1642) is a gem of the collection which by itself “generates a lot of visitors, which gives us perhaps more freedom than other museums”, Dibbits says.

A more interesting measure than attendance is stickiness

Regardless of the size or wealth of the institution, there is growing awareness of the need to cultivate long-lasting relationships with visitors. “Attendance is a very easy measure though I don’t think any of us solely measure our success by it,” says Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Membership is another measure and in the long run at least as important as attendance. A more interesting measure, at least for me, is stickiness: do people want to visit more frequently and spend more time at the museum looking and thinking about art?” he asks.

MoMA welcomed more than three million people to the Museum and MoMA PS1 last year. Here, visitors scale the recently Museum’s restored Bauhaus Staircase (1932). Photo by Iwan Baan

Audiences want “to discover new names, new artists, new ideas and follow the strands and thought of people who are conceiving the program,” said Sir Nicholas Serota, the former director of Tate, London, on a recent In Other Words podcast.  “The success of an institution is where it has built an audience, that the audience wants to come back rather than just coming once.”

If visitors “aren’t having a meaningful experience, then the numbers aren’t going to last or be deeply important”, says Joanne Heyler, director of The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, which has focused on eliminating some of the traditional barriers to entrance since opening in 2015. From making the museum free for general admission to limiting the amount of didactic wall text in the building, the goal has been to allow the audience more agency, she says: “There is a feeling when you walk in the building, I hope, that this museum is yours.”

Beyond the complexities of visitor happiness and crowd numbers, museums each have different ways of measuring their success. The Mauritshuis has developed a set of key performance indexes, from “grades given by a monthly visit by a ‘mystery guest’, the number of publications by staff members, the advertising value of free publicity in the press, metrics from social media, surveys about our educational offerings,” to give it a more rounded sense of performance, Gordenker says.

At the Centro Botín “art as R&D is a really interesting prospect”, Weil says: it recently signed an agreement with Fundación IE—an organization focused on business and innovation—with the goal of evaluating Botín’s social impact “and more specifically the way the experience of art fosters creativity”.

Are you moving the needle in terms of what museums can be?

The mission of the New Museum in New York is to support new art practices, says its director Lisa Phillips. In addition to considering audience engagement, peer respect and critical reaction, it is important to ask whether the museum is “having a positive impact on the community,” she says. “Are you moving the needle in terms of what museums as cultural, community and social centers can be?”

Scholarship is important, too, Lowry says. “We look at how the different publications we produce are doing: are they selling well and winning awards? What do our peers think about them and our shows? Our trustees mandate a balanced budget and we take that seriously as it is what gives us the opportunity to take risks,” he says. “Success for most museums lies in being fiscally sound and intellectually adventuresome.”

Building a meaningful program that can resonate with visitors, critics, peers and patrons is far from being a straightforward task. “It is very difficult for us to predict what will be popular and what will not,” Phillips says. “Popularity can explode via word of mouth and social media when you don’t expect it, and likewise programs that we thought would have a broad appeal sometimes fail to attract crowds.” 

There are a lot of assumptions made about what will be ‘popular’

Exhibitions on tougher, more topical issues such as gender and technology have proven to be some of the New Museum’s biggest crowd pleasers, she says. Equally, two of the most talked-about recent exhibitions in the US have been “The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983”, a politically minded exhibition about race in America which has just opened at the Broad after touring from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Tate Modern in London (until 1 September 2019) and “Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at the Guggenheim in New York, a show dedicated to a previously unknown Swedish female artist who was creating radical abstract works in a spiritual vein before any of her better-known male counterparts such as Kandinsky (until 23 April 2019). On paper, neither exactly scream blockbuster—but each has generated a huge buzz, impressing critics, the public and the art world alike.

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has proved to be one of New York’s biggest recent blockbusters. Photo: David Heald. © 2018 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

These successes suggest that museums should be wary of underestimating their publics. There are a “lot of assumptions made about what will be ‘popular’,” says Helen Stoilas, The Art Newspaper’s Americas editor. “Hollywood used to do it all the time with their blockbuster films and so we’d only see male, white super heroes because executives assumed that’s what the public wanted to see. Then Wonder Woman and Black Panther came along and blew that thinking out of the water, because what people want to see are characters and stories they can relate to.”

There is a fear factor around the fundability of projects 

Some museums can be restrained by their anxiety about finding funders for more niche programs. “There is a kind of mythology, or fear factor, around the fundability of projects but, in my experience, there has certainly been great appetite for programs that might not be as easy,” says Jessica Morgan, director of the Dia Art Foundation. By June last year, Morgan had raised $60m of a targeted $78m for an infrastructural overhaul of the foundation’s sites in New York and overall development of the foundation’s endowment. She purposefully made a strength of the distinctiveness of her program, which focuses on adding overlooked artists to Dia’s collection of art mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, and, in doing so, has attracted like-minded donors. “There is a sense that if you program certain artists then the money will come, and that may be true, but it’s also true that if you run a different kind of organization, the money will come.”

Another common funding misconception is that ‘blockbusters’ generate a lot of income,” Gordenker says, while the reality is more complex. “Popular exhibitions are usually more expensive to organize, so they take more money to start with. Staff and facilities are put under a lot more pressure than usual, so museums often have to spend more in order to hire more people and take care of their buildings. And there is the inevitable hangover after the show has closed, when attendance plummets and everyone is exhausted,” she says. Nonetheless, “sponsors and other stakeholders like to be part of a success story. So as long as the metric of attendance continues to be so dominant, a ‘blockbuster’ will appeal to them.”

You can convince all the marketeers in the world something will be a success but the public is not stupid

Gordenker sees the issue of generating meaningful metrics as relevant to the entire non-profit sector: museums are no different from health organizations or international development agencies in the sense that their ultimate goals “is not necessarily to make money, but to do something else”. Non-profit organizations are instead “faced with the very difficult problem of developing quantifiable measures of success. So, for example, you might aim to acquire artworks of the highest quality, but how do you measure ‘quality’ in numbers? It’s much easier to track attendance than to try to answer that question.”

“There is definitely a tendency in our society to measure success in numbers but there’s a limit to what they can do,” Dibbits says. “You can convince all the marketeers in the world that something will be a success but the public is not stupid—and you have also the responsibility to give them more than they expect.”

This sense of civic obligation is something Armstrong refers to as well. Attendance is, he says, a valuable metric (“it’s especially valuable if your institution needs revenue from the front door”) that can also act as an “index of relevance”, but the numbers should be tempered with a “kind of high-level of responsibility towards younger people in particular, but also society at large, in saying: ‘Are we doing something together that will make us as a people more intelligent, maybe more tolerant and certainly more visually acute?’” He adds: “And if it’s only a few people, is that in itself enough to justify the effort? I would argue frequently yes.” 

You may also like...

On the Ground in Hong Kong

Fair sales, a KAWS for concern and Asian market analysis

By Charlotte Burns

Asia’s Most Innovative and Interesting Institutions

Mapping Museums from Hong Kong to Japan

By Charlotte Burns, Michele Chan, Vivienne Chow, Chelsea Perkins, and Julia Vennitti with Kaitlin Chan,

“There are code words to push back against change”

A final interview with Okwui Enwezor

By Charlotte Burns