Rethinking Museums Business Models, Digitalisation, and Courage Issues

Covid Photo Museum Landing page
Covid Photo Museum, cover photograph by Nariman El-Mofty / AP

It took a pandemic to get the art world to finally embrace the online. Exceptions abound, such as Curtain’s own supportive body the Art Curator Grid, yet generally and compared to other industries, ours was dragging its feet. And in terms of navigating the lockdowns, museums are struggling deeply. Their monetisation models (ticket sales, special events, museum cafés) are based on the real life experience, and because of a variety of reasons, ranging from institutional inertia to digital inequalities, they have been tardy to address a number of important issues including colonial gaze, racism, and digital accessibility. What can museum do to adapt to a new era? The question has been lingering around for a while until the pandemic made it essential, naturally prompting along the necessity of redefining the museum space.

The Art Newspaper announced a 77% global fall in museum visitors, from 230 million in 2019 to 54 million in 2020, according to their annual visitor figures survey. Which is explained by museums being closed during lockdowns, stricter restrictions once they are open, and a dramatic drop in visits related to tourism globally. For instance, the survey reveals that the second most popular museum in 2019 and 2020 (after The Louvre), the National Museum of China, saw their attendance drop from 7,4M visitors to 1,6M. They were one of the first museums to close at the end of January, and once they reopened three months later, they were restricted to 3,000 visitors per day, down from their usual 30,000 visitors pre-pandemic. The highlighted results of the Art Newspaper survey (including budgeting and funding issues, with a slight but understandable UK bias) are also available in a podcast here.

Speaking of The Louvre, the French museum has just launched a digitalised version of its entire collection, and somehow managed to retain this feeling of browsing serendipity. And it’s impressive! The museum’s official release estimates that about 482,000 works are now available to look at, smartphone-friendly, for casual viewers and educators alike. In fact it is so user-friendly that you can even start by following the artworks featured in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “APES**T” music video, before finding your personal favourite gems in the collections.

Aiming at addressing the issues of digitalisation and new business organisation, and ahead of the International Museum Day on May 18, 2021, the International Council Of Museums created several tools to help move these pressing issues forward. One is a list of ideas that includes tips for sales of digital content and building communities online called “Museums and New Business Models”, and another is an article that provides the seemingly obvious yet useful steps to reach one’s public remotely. They also published a webinar on digital transformation inviting Microsoft Business Strategy Leader Libraries & Museums Catherine Devine to discuss their respective situations with Nigeria’s Chief Museum Education Officer of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Louisa Nnenna Onuoha; Mexico’s Executive Director at Museo Amparo in Puebla, Ramiro Martínez; and Rijksmuseum Amsterdam’s Head of Digital Marketing Communication and Commerce, Marijke Smallegange; and moderated by Professor of Cultural Economics and Head of the OECD Venice Office, Pier Luigi Sacco.

ICOM International Museum Day
ICOM International Museum Day

Trying to collectively define the broader question of what the museum is and following his last year much-discussed Arnet article advocating for the urgent re-opening of museums in times of crisis, New-York based consultant András Szántó, published with, Hatje Cantz, “The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues”. Based on his knowledge and experience of the art scene, as a cultural strategist and writer, and his advising and moderating of the Met’s Global Museum Leaders Colloquium (initiated in 2014, the colloquium invited museum leaders worldwide to discuss their issues together), Szántó leveraged pandemic times to candidly invite himself, via Zoom, to the homes of 28 museum directors to discuss, well, the future of museums, their modus operandi, and their polyphonic voices. The choice of interviewees is rather eclectic and covers most geographies, although the author himself admits that he could have easily made it a two-tome volume. For a more detailed view of the making of the book, see Szántó’s interview with My Art Guides.

But what happens when museums fail to engage in meaningful conversations? Mega-galleries may come to the rescue, for better or worse. Last year, a travelling retrospective of the work of Philip Guston was controversially postponed until 2024, by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Tate Modern in London—in a joint statement. The four museums considered that Guston’s work, specifically a series of paintings featuring hooded Ku Klux Klan figures, wasn’t well timed in the context of the Black Lives Matters movement. But many argued that it’s exactly the right time to have those conversations and acknowledge the issues Guston was pointing at already fifty years ago, a society where the KKL was parading freely in the streets of Los Angeles making him and the rest of the White community active and/or passive supporters of racial injustice. Many curators and art historians, as well as the daughter of the artist, Musa Mayer, who is also the head of the Guston Foundation, considered the postponement as patronising and cowardly. In this context, are museums still relevant? One should hope that they will adapt in the most agile and Darwinistic way, but in the meantime, New York’s Hauser & Wirth gallery, which represents the artist’s estate since 2015, will be showing these works by Guston this fall.

And to end on a somehow soothing note, if you missed it when it was at its most active between July and September 2020, here is a beautiful website created by Einav Jacubovich and Billy Linker that gathers the work of professional and amateur photographers across the world. The Covid Photo Museum claims to be the world’s first virtual museum dedicated to the curation of photography captured during the COVID-19 pandemic, and includes poignant portraits and landscapes reflecting our moods and surroundings during lockdowns worldwide.

Art critic and writer.

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