I am not in principle against large numbers—who doesn’t want loads of people to come to an exhibition you create? Of course, that is always a desire. But the mission of the museum is not about attendance figures and a mass of visitors—it is to show the complexity of the field of operation, exhibiting both artists who are very well recognized and popular and also artists who are deserving of critical attention. We always have to parse the difference between loved, admired and respected. Each of these play a major role in decision making.
I am not opposed to popular exhibitions: I have made them—my Documenta was visited by hundreds of thousands, as was Venice and others. But, for me, visitor numbers are only one measure and I think we need to be careful that we don’t make them the only measure of success. This is what museums are struggling with. During my tenure at Haus Der Kunst, I was willing to risk that fundamental misunderstanding in order to champion what I believed was the central mission of our institution, which was to engage with the field in as broad and complex a way as is possible for the public to grasp.
The Rijksmuseum has a position in the middle of our society and we should generate questions. What we try to do is to show that history is complex and there are always different perspectives. The museum has to fulfill this role of the people and for the people: it should be a place not only of reflection but can provoke active debate. That is our task. I feel that art has a great capacity to unite people and through art we can show that there is never one side to a story.
There is a kind of mythology, or fear factor, around the funding and the fundability of projects but, in my experience, there has certainly been great appetite for programs that might not be as easy. 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.
As an institution that has only been in its current building for the past five years, I am most concerned with attendance because I believe that we have something incredible to offer our publics, and that we should be aware of what it is they find appealing—especially with the “Netflix and chill” generation where entertainment is constantly streamed into your available screen. We still want to encourage a one-on-one experience with unique works of art while being wholly cognizant of the digital tools at our disposal to make for a rewarding museum-going experience.
Like so many of us, I believe that the value of the museum, in general, art and artists is becoming greater and greater in the world we live in today, and, that an interaction with those things leads to a better future. Specific to Miami, the history of museums is short in comparison to most major American cities. So, I believe we (PAMM and other Miami institutions) are at a crucial moment when we can determine the future. Can we create a museum that is a crucial element of life for each and every person who lives here and every visitor to this city? Attendance is but a barometer to let us know how we’re doing in that regard.
Attendance is a question of the kind of institution. There is a reason for certain museums to exist that are not based on attendance and you can build a financial model based on that: the idea is that you have to have a sustainable budget.
Attendance is a key tool to create impact, which means to impact peoples’ live, to educate people, to create an emotional and powerful experience, to change art history or to expand and adjust the canon. You can’t do that without attendance.
In business terms, we would like our visitors to become active stakeholders. The most important thing is really to think about how we provide the visitors with the support that makes them feel comfortable approaching content they may not be familiar with. Contemporary art is produced by artists who live in the same world we do. It should therefore be more accessible than older work.
The problem of generating meaningful metrics is relevant to the entire non-profit sector. In that sense museums—and the culture sector more generally—are no different from health care or international development work. If your ultimate aim is not necessarily to make money, but to do something else, then you are faced with the very difficult problem of developing quantifiable measures of success. So, for example, you might aim to acquire art 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.
Attendance is a very easy measure though I don’t think any of us solely measure our success by it. 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? We also 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. Success for most museums lies in being fiscally sound and intellectually adventuresome.
Attendance as a metric is certainly important, it’s the most basic “square 1” reflection of public response to what a museum is offering… Its value as a metric relates directly to what our expectations or goals are for how we hope visitors will access the museum or a program. There’s a big difference, for example, between what we’d look for in a successful workshop program with a visiting artist versus the kind of overall volume necessary to meet revenue goals for admissions, retail, restaurant, etc. As long as goals are well thought out, attendance is a valuable barometer.
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.
There’s no such thing as a sure-fire hit. There are good exhibitions and bad exhibitions. And who decides what is ‘populist’? ‘Populist’ is a term often used by snobs. Of course, all museums should take risks with their exhibition program. But the goal should always be to appeal to a large audience.
Numbers are the easiest measure. Everything else, like critical esteem or response on social media, is more subjective.
A blockbuster, as a formula, can exclude real experimentation and scholarship. On the flip side, blockbuster exhibitions can reach audiences who are outside the art world. It gives people an opportunity to express opinions about it, and that’s the beginning of criticism – a language about art.
I think there are a lot of assumptions made about what will be “popular”. 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.
Audiences want to be challenged and surprised too. I’d make a case that a museum wasn’t doing its job if it gave audiences what it thinks they want.
You can bring people onto your campus or into your building but if they aren’t having a meaningful experience and taking something away with them, or you’re not getting a sense as an institution that you’re having an impact on your audience, then the numbers aren’t going to last or be deeply important.
Attendance is a valuable metric and it’s especially valuable if your institution needs revenue from the front door. But, more importantly, it’s a bit of an index of relevance.
[The metrics 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?’ And if it’s only a few people, is that in itself enough to justify the effort? I would argue frequently yes.
It’s very difficult for us to predict what will be popular and draw large audiences and what will not. 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. We feel lucky when one of our “highbrow brilliant” programs finds a big audience. Some of our most popular exhibitions have been those that address urgent themes, like “Trigger: Gender as a Tool or a Weapon” or the triennial “Surround Audience” that was about how technology is changing us.
Bringing working class people, academics, artists, activists, and community organizers into the highest levels of museum governance, where acquisitions are determined, might help diversify the kinds of art and artists that are added to institutional cannons and mitigate some of the overwhelming influence of the taste and preferences of our ruling class.
The success of an institution is that it has built an audience and that the audience wants to come back rather than just coming once. It wants to discover new names, new artists, new ideas and follow the strands of thought of people who are conceiving the program.
What about museums also being knowledge-generating and engaged in debates of what community and society can be? It could sound lofty or utopian, but in future-oriented, young, in-flux societies, museums can actively promote debate and embrace all complexities.
Attendance is important in two ways for a British museum. It’s important because we exist to be open for free to the public and to engage the widest possible audience, so you would worry if you were only attracting a very niche, small, elite audience. That’s not what we’re there for. We’re not a private club. We’re a public institution. So, we constantly want to reach out to the widest possible audience, that’s very important. Again, it’s not just the numbers of people. It’s who.
It’s important financially because of course, if your attendance falls that can impact your budgets. Also, you want to do things that are being well-received, that are getting people talking and thinking, and a sense that what you’re doing has quality and merit.
It would be very easy if you only cared about attendance and nothing else. That’s a very easy program to put together. You basically just go for the biggest possible names with the most appeal, the most well-known names, even perhaps some artists that are less-liked by others but command the most recognition. It would be a super easy thing to do. But would it be very interesting? Would it be worthwhile? Would it contribute to a discussion? Would it help to educate and inform people? I’m not sure.