Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Live Blogging from CAM part 6: The Vacaville Project Confirms Alternative Revenue Generation Strategies

Shawn Lum may be speaking about the collaboration between the Vacaville Museum and local theme park Nut Tree in terms of innovative interpretation and exhibition strategies, but the specific steps she is describing also serves as real-life evidence of a couple of the alternative revenue generation strategies I addressed earlier (and can be seen here). Most obviously, the very fact of the collaboration is a great example of a successful museum/corporate parternship. On a smaller scale, there is the use of collections such as the selling of replicas in the gift shop. It's always great to see more examples of these strategies in action.

Live Blogging from CAM part 5: New and Alternative Funding Streams

The 2006 California Museum Study produced by CAM reported that, for that fiscal year, California museums expected to face a 3.8% decline in revenues despite the fact that just in the previous year museums in general throughout the US had enjoyed 38.3% increase in revenues. What's more, according to a 2007 study by the Urban Institute, by 2004 government grants had shrunk to a mere 23.5% of nonprofit revenues. In other words, museums have a desperate need for creative strategies for generating revenue. Today I moderated a session on this topic, "New and Alternative Revenue Streams for Museums." More details on the session will follow in a subsequent post, but for now, here is a link to my presentation, as well as to other related Orinda Group publications.

Live Blogging from CAM part 4: The Curse of Knowledge

What happens when you devote your life to a particular topic or discipline? Eventually you become so involved with that topic, so enmeshed and close to it, that you can no longer effectively communicate the ideas behind your topic to those who don't know about it--lay people. This is referred to as"the curse of knowledge," a concept explored by Dan and Chip Heath in their book, "Made to Stick." What can be done to break the curse when trying to convey exhibit concepts to visitors? Make your exhibition development team interdisciplinary: bring in executives, community members, experts from other academic areas and other professions. Also, never forget to include educational principles and practitioners. Remember: you shouldn't be trying to turn your visitors into PhDs during the course of one 40-minute museum visit.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Live Blogging from CAM part3: Museums as Forums

This may seem obvious and yet it needs to be stated. The purpose of museums has been discussed and debated since the concept of museums first began, but one phrase that often emerges in these discussions is that "museums are forums." Similar to this sentiment is that museums are spaces for focussed social interactions. Well, for goodness' sake, what on earth better way to help museums to actually more fully and completely serve these functions than by enaging in social media that is specifically designed with exactly those purposes in mind? Some of us spend hours and hours trying to explain the relevance and importance of Web 2.0, but really the explanation is simple: if museums are truly to be forums, they must engage in social media.

Live Blogging from CAM part 2: Conference Documentation

Sitting here in the Web 2.0 part I session, most people around me are furiously scribbling on pad and paper; my keystrokes are the only ones to be heard. And yet, the speaker is recording everything via a microphone in his shirt pocket, with the thought of eventually turning excerpts into a podcast. The presentations will be uploaded to the CAM website for download to attendees. And, perhaps most interesting to me, there is one man in the very front who systematically takes photos of each and every PowerPoint slide. The contrast of the multitude of a singular form of documenting the session--pen and paper--with the few examples of a variety of higher tech forms of documentation seems to accurately reflect the current state and approach to technology in museums. Most museums are still using the same lo-tech methods, while a very few are exploring a wide variety of high-tech options. Eventually, the numbers will change a bit as some of the new tech options of today become the standard options of tomorrow.

Live Blogging from CAM part 1: Thoughts on YouTube

I'll try to type quietly--I'm sitting in the first of a two-part session on Web 2.0 at the California Association of Museums annual meeting being held in Fresno. Jim Angus is giving a brief overview of what stratgegies and tools comprise "Web 2.0." As he discusses YouTube and the importance of learning what content exists on YouTube about your museum, Jeremy whispers that the number one video on YouTube that comes up when you search for "museum," is an ad for the video game Halo 3 because the scene from the game takes place in a museum. I think about my impending presentation tomorrow in which I will mention, among other things, that since September, the number of hits for the search term "museum" on Flickr, YouTube and Yahoo Groups have all increased significantly. That's right: just since September.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

BCAM is Born!

Photo by Peggy Archer

Walking through Chris Burden's forest of lamp posts "Urban Light" on Friday night, I felt like I was in a fairy tale. Or like I should be wearing a trench coat and fedora and singing in the rain. It's only a matter of time before someone starts swinging around one (or all) of the street lamps that now welcome visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its newest edition the Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

Burden's installation is only one of the large and striking pieces that grace the new BP Grand Entrance at LACMA. Approaching the entrance plaza from the other side, visitors are treated to Charles Ray's whimsical giant-sized toy fire truck. That's sure to be another climbing temptation for adults and children alike. And at the center of the plaza is the visitor's first taste of Jeff Koons--his "Tulips."

Meanwhile inside the BCAM there is an entire gallery devoted to Koons' work. In fact, many of the galleries all appear to be devoted to a single artist: Damien Hirst, Robert Therrien, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman and Robert Rauschenberg to name a few. The new three-story building is chock full of big names and surprising and wonderful artworks but it isn't too crowded; the galleries are wide open spaces with ample room for hoards of visitors to mingle and appreciate each work.

Oddly enough, one of the highlights of the new building for me (and for lots of other people) was the giant elevator! 21 feet wide, 16 feet high, 9 feet deep with a glass front and a custom Barbara Kruger installation, people were lining up just for a chance to ride it!

Richard Serra's maze-like sculptures and Robert Therrien's monumental piece "Under the Table"--consisting of a super-sized table and chairs--also contributed to the off-kilter sense of size, leaving me feeling like I'd slipped down the rabbit hole and eaten some curious cake. Frankly, though, I think that this feeling is absolutely appropriate when visiting a contemporary art museum.

And LACMA and its funders spared no expense for the opening. All last weekend the new BCAM was open for free to the public, following an entire week of members-only events, kicked off by a star-studded gala. The giant tent where once Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs ticket-holders waited their turn for a chance to see the wonders of the boy-king's tomb was transformed into a swank lounge. Live music played, sangria flowed and members munched on gourmet food at the tables or sipped their drinks and chatted in white vinyl booths. Later, some people even danced. The whole scene was 1960s chic.

Between the party and the art, the opening was a huge success. But even once all the cocktail napkins have been cleared away, the exhibits will definitely be a strong draw. The new BCAM will without a doubt be a new major feature of the LA cultural landscape.

For more beautiful images of Chris Burden's "Urban Light," go here.

To learn more about the art and architecture of the new BCAM, go here.

To view an interactive calendar of the events leading up to the grand opening last week, go here.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Plea for Permanent Collections

Last night I attended a members-only exhibit opening at a museum here in town. I had been cautioned to arrive early as typically these events result in huge entrance lines around the block. But when I arrived, there were no lines to be seen anywhere, despite the fact that the booze was flowing, the DJ was spinning, there was at least one famous person in attendance and the art itself was phenomenal. What was going on? I'd like to think that the reason for the relatively low attendance was the fact that tonight there will be another big gala museum event catering to a number of the same patrons and trustees, however it would be naive of me to overlook the fact that the opening last night was for an exhibit from the permanent collection.

Arriving early and leaving late, I had the pleasure of wandering the exhibit halls twice--once on my own in a happy art-induced fog, lingering over the pieces that simply made my heart stop and eaves-dropping on conversations about other works I didn't care as much for, hoping to learn why other people loved those pieces. The second time I accompanied a few friends I met up with there, watching to see what caught their eyes and chatting merrily away about the art, the party, the outfits people were wearing and museums in general.

My friends were blown away by both the breadth and the depth of the collection, with frequent exclamations of, "I had know idea they had Diebenkorn/Jasper Johns/Pollack/Rothko/Rauschenberg/Ruscha/Diane Arbus etc.!" At one point, one of my companions finally turned to the rest of us and declared, "Wow, with all these amazing famous pieces, this place must be rich! They sure don't have to worry about money!" I explained that no, that was not necessarily the case at all. Most art in museums is donated rather than purchased--just reading the label copy closely will tell you that. And the cost of caring for such a vast and important collection is fairly steep.

Another friend chimed in, "Is that why they usually have traveling exhibitions from other places? To bring in more money?" Exactly. Traveling blockbusters are sexy. Given the opportunity to catch a fleeting show dedicated to Monet/Warhol/whomever and seeing an exhibition based on a museum's permanent collections, the public will jump at the limited engagement show in a heartbeat. The relatively low numbers last night are living proof of that fact.

The question then arose, "But if the permanent collections are never shown, why bother having them at all?" Sigh. Yes, that's exactly the dilemma, isn't it? Audiences don't value what they perceive as mundane, and what is actually owned by museums is often perceived as mundane in comparison with something exotic from someplace else that is only available for a limited time. The fact that pieces from all sorts of celebrated artists were present in the exhibit didn't seem to matter. Or maybe it would have mattered more had the marketing really played up the magnitude of the collection, perhaps even giving a nod to the sorry reality of the public perception of permanent collection shows: "Yes, it's a permanent collection show, but you know why it's as thrilling or more so than a traveling exhibit? Because we have the goods and we *own* them--and you almost never see them!"

Again, the public perception seems to be that all the best goodies in a museum's holdings are on permanent display and anything dredged up from the basement for a permanent collection show must therefore be dreck. What they don't realize is that a museum is lucky if they have enough gallery space to show off 5% of their entire collection; most can only exhibit 1%! That means that there is an awful lot of good stuff hiding in the back storerooms and I for one think it's great when some of those works get to see the light of day and strut their stuff.

But it's true, as I shared with my fellow attendees, that exactly because of this permanent/traveling debacle that more and more museums--not just science centers--are moving away from collecting and instead are devoting all of their gallery space to traveling shows. I understand the financial reasoning for this change, but I think it is important to remember that there is a reason why museums have been largely collecting institutions, holding in trust items of cultural value for the public. Perhaps rather than abandoning our collections we should instead be finding ways to make them more enticing and exciting for visitors, reminding the public exactly why we are holding these objects in trust in the first place.