A life lesson for art museums


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According to an old adage, everything we need to know is learned in kindergarten. One thing we were taught was to share. But have we learned it well? For art museums, their future will likely be determined by their ability to share: their platforms, their authority and, perhaps more concretely, their collections.

In business school, I learned that leverage, and specifically financial leverage, was a driving theme of contemporary economic opportunity. While financial leverage continues to dominate (and sometimes destroy) economies to this day, the biggest lesson is that, just like sharing, you can multiply your returns through targeted deployment of a single penny. -all of your global assets.

Leverage begins with overcoming the conceptual challenge of giving up control today over something you own in expectation of greater benefits in the future. In commerce, for example, an entrepreneur can use their equipment (an essential resource) as collateral for a loan that will fuel growth and financial return. In the museum world, the museum’s permanent art collection holds enormous potential, not as a financial asset, but as a lever to amplify impact. Unfortunately, museums too often see their collections as exclusive, so many of them never see the light of day. For most museums, the collection is sequestered in a warehouse, “protected” from frequent or new uses.

Fortunately, there are now three forces (at least!) driving us to revive sharing as a model behavior.

1. Museums cannot acquire enough works of art. Art is expensive and often unavailable for museum acquisition. Not only do market prices put works out of reach, but collectors and other private actors often have better access to the most desirable works. And, quite simply, there is a limited supply of works by any artist, whether top notch, emerging or newly ‘recognized’, living or dead.

2. Museums aspire to tell inclusive stories. Contemporary scholarship and cultural storytelling require expanded access to relevant and multi-perspective source material, not just material traditionally referred to as “museum quality”. Even the most encyclopedic (always a misnomer) museum lacks this breadth. This is especially true for the art of artists who have been actively excluded from the mainstream canon.

3. Museums can reduce logistical barriers to sharing. In addition to the cardinal sin of jealously guarding their own treasures, museums face liability and cost barriers, asynchronous technology, and donor restrictions. In other words, (1) transactional frictions (eg, loan forms and terms; insurance and shipping costs; carbon emissions); (2) custom collection management software that is not compatible between institutions; and (3) the well-intentioned but restrictive conditions imposed on some art donations. Evolving best practices, cost and liability sharing, improved technology, and a broader definition of collection ownership are reducing these barriers.

Coinciding with these conditions is the emergence of institutional humility. Art museums accept that they are no longer exclusively about controlling the narratives around cultural production, but rather need to collaboratively engage the communities they aspire to be part of.

Thus, the push for multi-perspective and collaborative work such as group curation, audience-written interpretation, and programming that gives equal time to voices not beholden to the academy, but rather to their own experiences and to acquired wisdom.

From theory to practice: a Californian example.

The newly established Institute and Museum of California Art (IMCA), at the University of California, Irvine, continues to share collections as a central aspect of its operation and mission. This initiative is based on an appreciation of the essential requirement for exploring the vast expanse of Californian art: to have as much as possible available and accessible. IMCA humbly acknowledges that no collection, not even its own founding art treasure, provides this range. It therefore strives to develop a technological, logistical and collaborative platform for sharing between academic, municipal and private museum collections. It will radically change the way researchers can approach their work, as well as the way museums can engage with their peers and the public.

The IMCA integrates porosity and generosity into its founding documents and its fundraising strategy. Over the next year, IMCA and some peer institutions will convene conversations to produce the initial requirements for such a sharing platform. Over time, more users and collections will join the structure, multiplying the range, relevance, and access to shared content.

This new approach to sharing collections is influenced by a long history of museum collaborations. Three other examples include: the 2017 agreement between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Autry Museum of the American West to make their collections mutually accessible; the Tate in London and the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco’s partnership since 1997 with the New Art Trust to co-acquire time-based media art; and the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium in Massachusetts 25-year integration of member collections into a shared database. However, the key to the usefulness of each of these arrangements is the vitality of the specific relationships between the participants. As long as the individuals are aligned, the exchange occurs. Moreover, none are looking or well suited to add more partners. The IMCA model, on the other hand, will offer an operational approach that welcomes participants who may not know each other well and who otherwise do not even consider themselves institutional peers. Additionally, IMCA intends to be open with its learnings, allowing other types of sharing consortia to borrow and develop this model.

The first step, as stated above, is for our institutions to agree to share what we have in order to improve us all. And what we have is art.

About the Author – Tom Shapiro

Tom Shapiro from Cultural Strategy Partners specializes in strategic planning for art museums, with a subspecialty in campus museums. Since 2007, CuSP has been helping museums and nonprofit cultural organizations better respond to the needs of their communities and to the ever-changing perspectives of cultural history. Shapiro is currently an IMCA partner at UC Irvine, among others. [email protected]


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