Let Museums Evolve: A Case Against Brooklyn Museum’s Recent Bad Press

A meet up at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Amy Dreher.

How do you quantify a social mission? The Brooklyn Museum recently underwent a mild media smack-down because they tried something new—and while many outcomes (the most important ones, some argue) were positive, the museum was painted negatively in a recent New York Times article.

I have argued before that allowing nonprofits to evolve to meet (let alone succeed) business goals and compete with for-profit companies requires more than just innovative thinking from within the sector- it requires acceptance from the general public. This is where nonprofits often run into trouble because gaining this acceptance necessitates a change in the way that the public perceives certain nonprofit organizations.

The New York Time’s article, ‘Brooklyn Museum’s Populism Hasn’t Lured Crowds,’ opens with not-so-great statistics: the goal of the museum was to triple its attendance by 2014, but attendance has actually dropped 23% in 2009. A decreased attendance is never good– but to those with an eye to the museum-world, those aren’t the notable statistics in the article. The Brooklyn Museum is actually succeeding in areas where other museums would like to succeed, and is in the position to serve as a positive model for attendance and interaction.

There are two things, in particular, that the Brooklyn Museum is doing well. These are not “attendance is down, but ____ is up” items. Regardless of overall attendance, these achievements deserve positive attention on their own, and the success of these items is being skewed by popular perceptions of what museums should be according to museums’ past reputations, which limits progress for these institutions. Here’s how the museum is breaking barriers:

  • The Brooklyn Museum audience has increased in diversity. Museums have a general reputation for being stuffy places, accessible only to the upper-middle class and above who are interested in displaying their intellect. Museums across the country  have done many things to battle this stereotype, and though it may be far from the truth that museums are now only for the white and wealthy, the myth’s origins often keep folks away. While the Brooklyn Museum’s overall attendance numbers have not sky-rocketed, there has been  an increase in diversity– a highly-sought after increase within the industry. In fact, the article reports that over 40% of all visitors were  people of color, and the average age of visitors is a surprisingly young 35 years of age. The museum is doing something right. It’s the responsibility of other museums looking to increase their number of diverse visitors to gather more information, and perhaps take a cue from this museum.
  • The Brooklyn Museum has increased interaction among visitors and community members. The museum is taking on another stereotype here: the idea that museums should be quiet, serious places reserved for only those who already have a deep interest in art. The article strangely quotes Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art, saying, “Star Wars’ shows the worst kind of populism. I don’t think they [the Brooklyn Museum] really understand where they are. The middle of the art world is now in Brooklyn; it’s an increasingly sophisticated audience and always was one.” Ouch! Featured in the article just after the mention of the museum’s younger, more local, non-white audience, this quote speaks volumes! The quote is interesting, because including it assumes that New York Times readers understand that the museum should be geared primarily for that artistically-literate and “increasingly sophisticated” audience (and who is to say the young, the locals, and those of color are not those people).

Moreover, the article somehow uses the museum’s First Saturdays against them. This a program celebrated for its richness of diversity (age, sex, race, background in art). It draws in the community– and even if the general non-Brooklynite public doesnt,  the museum’s director at least  knows how important that is. Arnold Lehman says, “If that environment could be replicated…on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, then I could easily retire and say we’ve succeeded and people think of the museum as a place to be of significance in their lives, not necessarily to see an exhibition.” Lehman is transcending boundaries. He doesn’t want the museum to be a stale place for exhibits, but rather a breathing and living institution that meets the needs of Brooklyn’s true community.

Though we can say “over 40% of museum visitors are people of color” and understand that that’s great, there’s no way to truly quantify the value of diversity– or of community conversation, or personal engagement. Is reaching a more diverse audience (directly related to the mission) more valuable than the number of people walking through the door (directly related to the monetary health of the organization)– a number upon which foundations often use to gauge museum success? There are arguments for both sides.

What is clear, I believe, is that if we want museums (and other nonprofits, for that matter) to continue to grow, culturally feed our communities, and remain forward-thinking institutions, then we must allow them to pursue these goals without being limited by outdated perceptions of institutions of the past. Let’s let them help us grow.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Trends 7 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

7 Responses to Let Museums Evolve: A Case Against Brooklyn Museum’s Recent Bad Press

  1. Allison Jones

    Colleen, thank you so much for this insightful post. When I read the NYT article, the assumption was that unless numbers increase, nothing else matters. That attitude not only limits the ability of the museum to prosper in a different way (as you point out) but also dismisses the impact the museum is having on its community. I have to admit, being from Brooklyn the museum always occupied a “field trip for my social studies class” place in my mind. However, its recent efforts challenged my perception of museums as being places that simply commemorate a distant, often foreign past instead offering an image of museums of places for interactive engagement with the past, present, and future. Increasing access is an achievement that should be celebrated.

    What steps can we take to begin fostering the acceptance of different measures of achievement?

    • colleendilen

      That’s a very good question and I wish I knew the answer! I personally believe the key is to educate the public on the needs of nonprofits more broadly in order to increase general stakeholder acceptance. I think the media (and many folks in general) can grasp the way the private sector and the public sector function, but don’t know much about the third sector– and don’t often think about its needs and how they differ from other sectors. I think the biggest step we can take in fostering the acceptance of different measures of achievement is to share our knowledge with one another and the public, be transparent, and simply make it clear that nonprofits must be thought of *differently* than business or government entities.

      I am sure that you have ideas on how to begin fostering this acceptance, too, and I would love to hear them as well!

  2. Adrianne Russell

    I’ve been so annoyed with the NYT article and the elitism that it projects that I barely know where to begin. Museums are rapidly evolving into centers where art, culture and community not only intersect but thrive. Attendance figures are important, but as you mentioned, determining success ultimately depends on the outcomes you deemed important. It is foolish to use one rubric to measure all museums.

    It takes dedicated work and sincere effort to knock down the complex psychological, sociological and economic barriers that prevent people from visiting art museums. Brooklyn Museum should be commended for becoming part of the community instead of simply taking up space in it.

    • colleendilen

      Here here, Adrianne. I agree whole-heartedly!

  3. Pingback: museum snobbery on the ropes « Cabinet of Curiousities

  4. billy

    Your article is confused and meager in content. It is OK for Museums that are losing attendance but diversity more than makes up for that? Ridiculous.
    What museums are doing is competing with private sector for business conferences. You did not point out that competing with for profit business is probably morally wrong and is certainly not the mission of a non-profit publicly funded institutions mission should be in this regard.

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for your comment, Billy.

      You have a good point about the fact that museums and nonprofits are often competing with private companies. This is especially true for museums, as they “sell” goods and services directly to “customers”/ donors. There is certainly an exchange taking place there that mirrors the market and abides by those rules. I certainly wouldn’t call museums as social enterprises “morally wrong.” I think that if nonprofits can find a way to be sustainable, then it helps them to survive and therefore better serve their constituents and fulfill their social mission.

      The mission of nonprofits is generally to serve, and if nonprofits can master the market and generate revenue in a way that matches their mission (museum admission, for instance), then I think it’s wise for them to utilize that in order to survive and thrive.


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