The Recession and US Museums
Here are three possible ideas. First, dramatic and competitive physical expansion and large-scale temporary exhibitions have, in a sense, substituted for an effective agenda of community engagement. These strategies have served as a way of generating buzz and money while interest in the traditional mission of the art museum was waning to the point where it was insufficient to generate the funds required. These strategies are now stalling because of their expense; the contraction of the philanthropic and public sector funds and the cultural tourist market on which they are premised; and the diminishing returns the strategies secure in a crowded, winner-takes-all marketplace. Art museum agendas will have to shift to seek viable alternatives to these warhorses and with them, the skill sets required of museum leadership will also shift.
Second, in the search for resources, the desire to explore ways of capitalising collections will continue to grow. The straightforward fiat that is the current international norm—no deaccessioning unless you spend proceeds on more art—will either be finessed or ignored under the pressure of financial realities.
Third, what museums accept they cannot do alone, they will explore doing together more thoroughly and earnestly than in the past: collection sharing, joint acquisitions, pooling conservation resources, and pooling curatorial appointments. The museum economy is increasingly globalised and these trends will be global in their impact. The alternative to the open-minded exploration of radical alternatives is a sombre one, in which the energies and ingenuities of the sector are devoted increasingly to the support of a dysfunctional pseudo-mission: that of maintaining appearances at any cost, even if the museum becomes a sort of “living dead” organisation, in which any capacity for aesthetic or intellectual endeavour is sacrificed to the goal of keeping the institutional ego protected.