Visitors thronged to English Heritage's medieval weekend event at Bolsover Castle
About a year ago I read a blog post by Nina Simon reflecting on how important events were for driving visits in her museum. The museum has a different business model to most UK art galleries and museums (eg it charges for entry) so whilst I found her post interesting I didn’t see an immediate implication for art galleries and museums with free entry. But over the past year I’ve noticed more of more of the UK cultural venues I visit with my family are focusing increasingly using events to attract visits and so I’m beginning to wonder whether events-driven programmes deserve more consideration by art galleries and art museums.
Our local National Trust favourite property Fountains Abbey runs a varied programme of events from open-air theatre, to bird-watching tour or Santa’s grotto. For the past 5 years we’ve done Santa’s grotto in a variety of local museums from National Railway Museum, to Yorkshire Museum of Farming and Castle Howard. A Mothers’ Day programme at Baltic attracted our most recent family outing to that gallery. Last weekend we enjoyed our first visit to English Heritage’s Bolsover Castle attracted by its medieval jousting event (for my knight-crazy 5 year old).
The museums and heritage sector has definitely realized that events drive visits. Talking to Tony Butler, Director of Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) a few years ago for a research project into business models he told me that six ‘event days’ account for over a third of MEAL’s annual visits and represent a substantial contribution to its financial position. But for art galleries and museums events tend to be a smaller part of both the programme and marketing strategy: often targeted more at sub-sections of the audience than as mass appeal draws.
In her original post, Nina observes that the events in her museum have a number of characteristics beyond being free that might account for their appeal:
- Timing – they happen in the early evening when the Museum is usually closed so are accessible to people who wouldn’t be able to attend during working hours.
- Sociability – these events have a different feel which is more informal, social (eg music, drinks).
They sound very similar to the Late Nights that many museums (especially larger ones) have been doing in the UK for over a decade – such as Late@Tate or Friday Lates at V&A.
So, if events have potential to drive visits what might be the implications?
- Events are often seen as secondary, additional activities by galleries and museums and consequently don’t benefit from the level of resources they need to realize their full potential. If you’re serious about doing events then they need to be clearly part of the programming team’s responsibilities.
- If entrance is already free, the other benefits of events have to be marketed to potential visitors. Of course this depends on who you are trying to attract, but f mass-appeal and/or new audiences are the target then you will need to create a great social experience. (Alternatively, if entrance is usually free – you could approach events on a charging or income generating basis?).
- In contrast with an exhibitions (which can last for 6-12 weeks) or a permanent collection display when the impetus to visit on a specific date means sometimes you don’t get round to it (or hence the last weekend spike in attendance for many exhibitions), an event is an ‘unmissable’ one-off.
Reflecting on this weekend’s event, I offer three final observations about making events work for galleries and museums:
1. Maximise the trading opportunities – English Heritage added a marquee shop selling knightly merchandise and even flags to wave during the jousting event to show your allegiance. Entrance was free to EH members which was a great incentive to join on the day, or (if you were already a member) to spend on day as entrance was ‘free’.
Alex joins in - trying on armour
2. Include activities that encourage participation and socializing. My son Alex’s favourite parts of the day were the mass participation recreation of the Battle of Towton and impromptu sword fights with a variety of other mini-knights (whilst we compared knight-obsessed kid anecdotes and passed on tips of good local castles to visit with their parents).
3. Bring in the experts. The jousters, falconers, re-enacters etc weren’t English Heritage staff – they brought in events professionals. No doubt this eats into the profits but events don’t have to be about making a profit: the aim of the day you equally be about reaching new audiences (and we were first time visitors) or attract new members.
So, in summary, I’m interested to see whether events are going to become more significant within gallery programmes: perhaps it’s just because I’ve started looking but I think I’m seeing more and more galleries now featuring events, such as the birthday celebrations at The Hepworth Wakefield a few weeks ago. If they are then it’ll be interesting to see what this means for how they are resourced and driven from within the institution. As ever, I’d be interested to hear what you think – whether or not you already use events in this way or have decided not to for now.
Leonardo involved a lot of queueing and looking at the back of other people's heads
Patience is a virtue, but not one of mine, so the queues that were a prominent feature of my visit to the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery today were not my idea of great visitor experience. There were queues snaking outside the building to buy tickets (fortunately I escaped those as I had one already), queues to get in the galleries, queues to look at the pictures…
Fortunately the exhibition is, very much, worth the wait.
I’ve been thinking a lot about audiences and visitor experience recently so beyond enjoying a fantastic exhibition, I was also interested to observe so many people engaging with art. Also, as I don’t actually know anything about Leonardo da Vinci, despite having a PhD in History of Art, it was interesting – from a professional perspective – to be in the position of a visitor with little prior knowledge of the exhibition. (I acknowledge I’m accustomed to galleries so not equating myself with a first-time visitor).
So, for the first time in my life, I used the audioguide and found it an incredibly useful and interesting source of further information that enabled me to get more from visiting the exhibition.
I was also struck how many others (probably the majority) were also ‘wired for sound’. Those works which had an audio track were by far the busiest as people studied them as they listened to the curator explain more about the work on display. As I have often noticed now that so many people are surgically attached to their iPods in public spaces, wearing earphones seem to either make people oblivious to others or give them permission to ignore you. So the experience of being in a very crowded room with lots of people wearing earphones wasn’t great – I got stood on, shoved, pushed and rudely walked in-front-of quite a lot. I rather like talking to other visitors and listening to what they are saying – which doesn’t happen when you’re all wired up. But on balance, having access to that extra info as a solo visitor was great and meant I didn’t have to bother reading the labels unless I wanted to know who owned the work (not sure I’d want the audio guide if visiting with a friend though – as I often do – it felt very anti-social).
Overall, this was a very interesting (as well as enjoyable) gallery experience for me in terms of thinking about galleries and museums. Many of us talk about galleries being a space for people to make their own meanings, to discover art for ourselves and ourselves through art. I still subscribe to that vision about the museum and gallery as a civic space where we can come together to enjoy art and share art with one another. That involves experts facilitating those experiences – but also recognizes that much of what we value about art is the personal and collective experiences it enables us to create, be those aesthetic, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, political, social.
But I was reminded today that not everyone wants that kind of collective or co-produced experience. Some people want – what I must stop thinking of as a more old fashioned – passive experience of consuming or receiving. Sometimes – such as today – I want that. I knew nothing and I wanted an expert to help me understand what I’m looking at so I could get more from the experience – more everything, more knowledge about Renaissance painting, patronage and society, more appreciation of the skill and beauty, more understanding about art history and conservation, more food for thought about art and its role….
Other times I want to get a big red pen and cross-out the labels and wall texts which tell me what to think. The challenge for the gallery or museum is how to cater for these very different needs.
A few weeks ago, I came across a story running in the charity sector press about the appointment of the new CEO of the Institute of Fundraisers: the professional membership body for those working in fundraising. The article focused on how the successful candidate wasn’t a fundraiser by profession, but a general manager. There was no implication that the individual concerned was unsuitable to run the organization, but given the frustration of many in fundraising roles that there are few career progression opportunities for them it added insult to injury that not even the Institute of Fundraising was run by a former-fundraiser.
In my own sector, visual arts galleries and museums, the only route to the top is a curatorial one. Exceptions to this rule can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Arguably those working in learning, marketing and fundraising are just as likely to be potential senior managers and leaders, why is it that so few end up running an organization?
‘The traditional route to senior roles in the visual arts has been curatorial and so that’s the skills-base people start with and value [...] So I think there’s a sense within the visual arts you profile and that will lead to a senior position.’
The vast majority of art galleries and museums in the UK are run by people who began their careers as curators and this has been the traditional career path for gallery directors since exhibition galleries first emerged after the Second World War. But running an art gallery or museum in 2011 is far more challenging than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Those seeking to lead galleries and museums today can no longer expect to learn all the fundraising, business, managerial and strategic skills they need in today’s environment while ‘on the job’.
Nor – I would argue – can curators single- handedly expect to master all these diverse skills alongside their core expertise of continually developing their knowledge of artistic practice.
Over the past 10-15 years we have begun to see the emergence of Deputy Director and more recently Executive Director roles in the visual arts, often during periods of major growth (such as capital developments) or in response to major change. But for cultural reasons, many visual arts organisations prefer to recruit single leaders (and curators specifically) although many of those I interviewed for my research felt that there is a problem with supply of suitably experienced candidates. Research into the university sector shows that for knowledge-rich organisations (such as art galleries) having leaders who understand the core business is important for standards and internal and external credibility. It also has a demonstrable impact on business performance.
Art galleries and museums should be led by those with a deep understanding of our core mission. But the core business of arts organisations is not just the art product – it is equally the way we engage people with the art and yet we very rarely appoint learning or marketing experts to executive leadership roles in visual arts. We might take it for granted that curators have this knowledge of ‘the core business’, but they do not necessarily have expert knowledge (or a vision) about how people engage with art.
Curators should lead art galleries and museums, but so should other visual arts professionals with expertise in audience engagement, such as learning and marketing staff. And if we want to develop a wider and stronger pool of future leaders in the visual arts then we need to value management and leadership and encourage curators to develop their competencies in these areas, alongside their curatorial expertise.
The language of personal relationships often dominates discussions about joint leadership models in the arts. Several people I interviewed for my research referred to these partnerships as ‘professional marriage’. Some Artistic / Executive Director pairings in theatre (e.g. Tom Morris & Emma Stenning, currently at Bristol Old Vic) are long-term commitments which endure beyond one organisation with Artistic / Executive Directors applying for roles together in some cases. ‘Personal chemistry’ is often cited as a reason why some pairings work (or fail), and less than ideal situations are described as ‘forced marriages’.
Regardless of how a pairing comes together, interviewees and the wider literature concur that, as with romantic love, it takes time – and effort – to build an effective relationship and stressed the importance of partners sharing common values. Just as sometimes ‘opposites attract’, difference of approach and experience was also apparent and found to be highly productive in professional relationships.
It is this difference which is considered the greatest asset of collaborative working – the grit in the oyster which makes the pearl. And yet it is also this difference which can lead to conflict within partnerships, ultimately poor performance or even breakdown of the relationship. For collaborative leaders (and I’d argue all joint leaders have to be able to lead collaboratively), awareness of their own preferred way of interacting with others, combined with the ability to adapt their style for different situations, (‘emotional intelligence’) emerges as a key competency.
Beyond their own working relationships, collaborative leaders are adept at managing the inherent tensions within non-profit arts organisations between the different agendas of mission and money, artistic innovation and audience experience. The skill of collaborative leaders is to create an environment, a framework and an organisational culture, in which difference can support and result in a synthesis of ideas, rather than a battle between opposing camps – characterised as ‘creatives versus suits’.
So joint leaders have to be collaborative leaders, but in the arts and cultural sector what can be overlooked is that single Directors also need to be just as (if not more) collaborative as joint leaders.
While many working in the arts may aspire to collaboration: relatively few achieve it. As MMM highlight in their excellent report on collaborative working, participants often know what is required in theory and have good intentions but lack the competencies required. Collaboration is demanding and the necessary values to achieve success also often run counter to prevailing attitudes and ways of doing things within our organisations. Recognising the systems and behaviours that underpin collaboration and having in place measures that reflect how leaders (and organisations) work and not just what they achieve is imperative if Boards are to be able to support and challenge executive leaders.
So what should Boards be looking for if they are looking for a collaborative leader? Below I set out a ‘person specification’ I suggest is the foundation of any leadership/management role when partnership or collaborative working is important (i.e. any role!). It starts by outlining the values which underpin successful collaborative leadership of arts organisations, moving onto identify the key competencies required:
What to look for in a collaborative leader?
- Genuine respect for artists and audiences. Believes arts organisations exist to create art experiences for audiences and have responsibility to support and develop innovative artistic practice.
- Believes all staff are creative and have mission critical roles: not just the artistic team.
- Believes arts organisations play a wider role in society and their local, regional or national context.
- Takes pride in collective effort and does not seek lime-light or personal recognition.
- Recognises the distinctive role of different arts organisations in a wider ecology – i.e. looking to smaller organisations to profile emerging artists and using the resources of a larger space to develop audiences and to provide curatorially rigorous appraisals of an artist’s career, to offer fresh insights.
- Determination: strives to achieve exceptional results; holds others to account; looks to constantly improve; learns from experience and adapts behaviour accordingly.
- Communication: uses informal and formal communication to build relationships; is able to address conflict constructively and encourages open and timely conversations.
- Emotional intelligence: understands their own motivations and style and is able to manage and adapt leadership style according to context; actively listen and seeks to understand others; builds empathy.
- Facilitation: ability to frame constructive and purposeful meetings and conversations which encourage understanding, develop solutions and find consensus, an ability to delegate and does not need to control everything.
- Influencing: builds shared vision; ability to inspire and engage others.
- Vision: ability to articulate how artistic mission relates to wider world; ability to see beyond their short-term interest and contribute to wider goals.
It sounds like a tall order! And of course, Boards will also be looking for candidates with particular expertise depending on the mission of the individual organization.
But perhaps the pool would be bigger if we were willing to consider a wider pool of potential arts managers and leaders from among our ranks to progress to the top positions? In the final post in this series I consider why we don’t see more leaders emerging from fundraising or marketing roles and ask whether only curators are equipped to run art galleries?
Some people get very uppity about job titles and what they call themselves: I’m not normally one of those people. But when it comes to visual arts managers I think we have an image problem and that the job title doesn’t help.
In my book, a job title should give you a clear sense of what that person does, and perhaps (if it matters for the sake of clarity or credibility) where they sit in the hierarchy of the organization. That’s the raison d’être of a job title: but, as with the title of a book or film it probably helps if the title sounds a bit interesting too.
One of the things I struggled with when undertaking my research into leadership models in the visual arts and theatre was what to call people doing the ‘managing’ jobs (as opposed to the artistic jobs for which they are clear titles like Artistic Director or curator) in a way that was clear – so I wasn’t talking at cross purposes with my interviewees. People were called a variety of titles: General Managers, Deputy Directors, Executive Directors, Head of Business and Administration, Head of Amin & Operations, Administrator, CEO. Often people in different organisations were doing very similar things under a different title – or called the same thing but had very different roles.
Also – and you’ll just have to take my word, or read the report to find out why this isn’t a sweeping generalisation, as otherwise this will be a very long post – there’s a problem with supply of suitable arts manager candidates in the visual arts and curators who go on to become solo Directors rarely have the opportunity or inclination to develop adequate management and leadership skills. So we desperately need 1) more people to consider a career as a visual arts manager and 2) curators to want to develop their management and leadership skills more.
This led me to conclude that we needed to re-brand and re-name arts manager roles in the visual arts so that people who work with them (and may consider these roles as career paths) have a clearer, and more positive, sense of what they do.
So what do we call them and how do we describe what they do? As discussed in my first post of this series, successful senior arts managers in the visual arts are usually extroverts, defined as ‘Resource Investigators’ in terms of Belbin’s team roles; put simply they are outward- facing, risk-taking, entrepreneurial people who make things happen, not the traditional accountant or administrator stereotype.
In theatre the senior management role (the Executive Director) is often linked with that of Producer. Some ED positions incorporate being the lead Producer in the organisation, or in a trading subsidiary. Many people now working as EDs have been producers earlier in their careers. When talking about what made a great ED, one theatre Director I interviewed explained it in terms of the producer role:
‘What you need in a producer is someone who’s extroverted, who likes to get on the phone, get out there… Producers have to be risk-takers and have to have a rashness about them [..] An OK producer just makes it happen, a brilliant producer exploits it; they get international touring, they get people excited about it. The producer is doing the external identity of the company. You need to have someone who’s good at external relations, so that you can do that thing you’re good at which is direct plays.’
One useful description of the manager role in an arts organization (which came to me c/o Battersea Arts Centre) is ‘Organisational Producer’. There is a major difference between the role of an administrator looking at the day-to-day running of the organisation and the far more strategic ‘organisational producer’ role which helps shape and market ideas, and enables their successful realisation through securing the resources and creating the conditions required. One is an operational role, the other strategic.
Viewing arts managers leading organisations in these terms – as organisational producers – offers a better understanding of what they do, the benefits a good arts manager brings and the competencies required to do the job well. However, in the visual arts, the concept of ‘producer’ is less familiar than that of curator – although arguably many curators (especially those who are independent or working in small spaces) are often undertaking many aspects of a producer’s role. So whilst I think the ‘organisational producer’ term has merits I’m not entirely convinced this translates to the visual arts when the term ‘producer’ has less currency and status.
That means I’m still looking for a term that sums it up nicely. I’d be very interested to hear your suggestions about how we describe these senior management roles in our sector – answers on a postcard (or via Blog Comments or @claireant are very welcome).
Talking to various people about my research it was also often difficult to describe what arts managers did without resorting to framing this in negative terms (I heard several people say they did ’everything except the art’ which was neither accurate nor a particularly attractive job description). It was rarely this simple – artistic, programming, organizational and business strategies are related to one another closely in most organisations. Leading the ‘business’ end of an arts organization can’t be a wholly separate endeavour from leading the programme/ artistic side of things – or you’ll soon encounter problems. Therefore ensuring both artistic and organizational leaders are able to work collaboratively is also essential.
In the next post in this series I share what I discovered about how senior managers need to work with artistic staff if executive director, general manager etc roles are to be successful in practice.
Centre George Pompidou as you've never seen it before (unless you've played mini golf in the Bois de Vincennes recently)
One of the fascinating things about spending time in another country – particularly one like France which is many ways is very similar to the UK – is noticing the differences between our ways of doing things. Having spent quite a bit of time in France again over the past twelve months, both as a tourist and working on a couple of projects, I’ve enjoyed reacquainting myself with a country whose arts institutions I got to know pretty well when I worked for British Council in Paris 2003/05.
Thinking purely about the visual arts, two major differences strike me between the UK and France:
1. France has far more public institutions collecting contemporary and modern art overall, and a far larger proportion of those public spaces are art museums than exhibition galleries.
Every region (I believe there are something like 27 administrative regions – compared with 9 in England) normally has its own active art collection (FRAC – Fonds Régional d’Art Contémporain), usually house in a gallery that shows both the collection and other contemporary exhibitions. Most cities have either a museum of contemporary art or modern art – again their programmes tend to include both collection displays and temporary exhibitions of the type you might find in one of the major UK galleries such as Arnolfini, Ikon or Baltic. On the other hand, there are relatively
2. Only students and young people (under 25s in most cases) have free access to museums as a whole, including art museums, and the rest of us pay to visit collections as well as exhibitions.
Et bien? You may ask – why does it matter if we do things differently to our near-neighbours? And who has got it right – us or the French?
In terms of the number of art galleries and museums – I’d love there to be more but clearly we’re not in a position to start increasing the number of institutions we have for the foreseeable future. In any case, before we go building new spaces, it would make more sense to make fuller use of those galleries we already have: we have too many which are often only half-full.
But do we have the balance right between collections and temporary exhibitions in the UK? I’m not sure we have. In recent years there have been some very successful attempts to use existing collections more widely in exhibition galleries, as well as some innovative partnerships to create new collections that involve commissioning agencies working with galleries to build collections (such as as this Artangel project with Whitworth and Ikon to co-commission works). The emergence of newer institutions like New Art Gallery Walsall, MIMA and Hepworth Wakefield which give more equal billing to exhibitions and collection displays than most regional art museums/ galleries is another welcome development.
Why does this balance matter? Whereas Modern and historic art is extremely popular, contemporary art (which is the primary concern of the regional exhibition galleries) can be very challenging for audiences. Just as contemporary dance or new writing in the theatre can struggle to appeal to a wider audience – beyond a peer or highly engaged audience – contemporary art tends to attract a small, niche audience – often other artists, arts professionals or students. Showing contemporary exhibitions within a programme or institution that includes Modern and/or historic art is one way to contextualise what’s on display and offer audiences insights. Similarly collections of contemporary art can be displayed over a longer-period of time, and in different ways, that encourage new ways of looking beyond the monographic exhibition favoured by curators (and artists).
We don’t even have to look abroad for inspiration – this kind of programming that includes better-known, more familiar work (re-invented or refreshed) alongside newer work has long been a programming tactic in performing arts venues in the UK. Hopefully the merger of Arts Council (responsible for the exhibition galleries) and MLA (hitherto responsible for the art museums) will lead to greater collaboration or ‘extent cordiale’ between our two parallels worlds of contemporary spaces and collections.
So what about this second major difference – that we have free access to our galleries and museums? No one would want to go back to museums charging for entry (and of course most art museums have never charged for entry) but against a backdrop of falling public funding how else can we sustain the level of activity and quality we currently enjoy? Only the largest institutions are raising significant income from corporates or private individuals, and that’s mainly confined to London. Arts & Business’s own statistics show 80-90% of private money goes to arts organisations based in London. But despite the difficulty of the fundraising climate, especially outside of the capital, I’m not advocating charging on the door for art galleries and museums because I think that like some aspects of visiting France (attitudes to drink-driving, those toilets which are holes in the floor, the ongoing popularity of Johnny Halliday) this could be too much of a culture shock.
But I do think we have to think again about how we can encourage individuals to support us; a subject to which I’ll return in a future post.
A visitor enjoys a quite moment at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
What drives you to visit museums? For me it’s different things at different times. I sometimes go to see specific exhibitions; if I’m travelling I often pop into the local museum (like San Francisco MOMA above) to broaden my professional knowledge; if I’m taking the kids to the Yorkshire Museum it’s usually because I hope they are going to learn something about Romans even though I’m not very interested myself; and if I sneak into the galleries for five minutes when I’m working at Tate then it’s usually to simply enjoy the work on display and recharge my batteries.
John Falk is one of my favourite thinkers on museums (his book on business models is particularly brilliant) and his book Identity and the Visitor Experience which I’ve just finished reading offers food for thought for anyone involved in museums, particularly those of us interested in encouraging audiences.
Drawing on decades of experience in audience research in museums (including acknowledging important work done in this field by UK-based museum and arts marketing experts Morris Hargreaves McIntyre), Falk makes a compelling case for changing how we consider the visitor experience. He suggests that if we are to improve experiences for visitors instead of thinking about who comes and measuring whether they are satisfied, that we need to conceive of visitor experience in terms of a dynamic intersection of the expectations a visitor brings to museum and a consequence of what happens to them during their visit. He demonstrates that if we want to predict – and respond to – visitor needs then we must focus on the motivation of visitors, not their demographic profile (age, gender, ethnicity etc).
Falk defines 5 motivation-types among museum visitors:
- Explorer – seeks to satisfy intellectual curiosity in a challenging environment.
- Facilitator – looking for meaningful social experience for someone you care about in emotionally supportive environment – often, but not exclusively, children.
- Experience seeker - exposure to the best things and ideas, e.g. touists.
- Professional/hobbyist - desire to further specific needs with a subject matter focus.
- Recharger – physical, intellectual and emotional recharge in a beautiful/ refreshing environment.
As my own museum visiting demonstrates, the same person might fall into different categories on different days or different types of museums. So what makes me happy when I’m visiting an art museum on my own (unfettered access to beautiful artworks in quiet spaces with minimal interpretation and definitely no distracting school groups or interactives) is very different to what I’m looking for when I visit a natural history museum with my family (plenty of interpretation, good cafe and family facilities – buggy park, low-cost entry, friendly staff, inter active displays etc). Understanding motivation is the secret to ensuring visitors are attracted to visit, satisfied and likely to return. You can’t please everyone all the time because different visitors have different needs and expectations – therefore personalisation and differentiation become the name of the game.
Falk argues that under-pinnning the vast majority of museum experiences is a desire for learning – although this is more pronounced in some of these categories than others (Explorers and Professional/Hobbyists are consciously seeking to learn, Faciliators are focussed on their children’s learning in many cases).That we opt to visit museums, rather than are compelled to learn as we are in formal education settings, leads him to champion the role of museums as spaces for free-choice learning which – research suggests – is generally a more effective way to learn. Those seeking informal or free-choice learning are usually looking for different kinds of learning than you’d associate with statutory education:
‘Visitors [do] use museums in order to support their lifelong, free-choice learning, but the purpose of that learning is not to gain competence in a subject as in school or work-based context. Museum visitors are using learning as a vehicle for building personal identity,’ p.59
Interestingly, Falk goes on to link visitor motivation to a process of developing and affirming identify through museum visiting (and other leisure activity). He argues that:
‘…even before the visitor steps across the threshold of the museum, he or she has already consciously or for many visitors semi-consciously created a set of expectations for the visit. These expectations represent an amalgam of his or her identity-related leisure desires and needs and his or her socially and culturally constructed view of what the museum affords.’ P.81
In other words museum-visiting can be understood as part of en-acting our identities (which it’s generally accepted are multiple and dynamic). When I visit an art museum to ‘recharge’ my batteries it’s because I see myself as someone who values art, and the intellectual challenge it offers. When I take the kids I’m playing out my desire to be a good parent who spends their leisure time supporting their children’s learning (rather than letting them watch DVDs and et crisps all day – I only do that when it’s raining…). If the kids have a good time and seem to learn something then I’m a happy customer. But even if the museum has the best exhibition in the world, if I don’t consider my kids have been welcomed and enjoyed themselves then I’m likely to be unhappy. One way of looking at identity, Falk argues citing Wenger, is as a ‘lens’ through which we perceive and understand the world. I’m interested in how museums can shift these ‘lenses’.
Ultimately, Falk argues that if we consider visitor experience in this way then it would ‘dramatically change how museums define and measure their impact; bringing institutional missions, practices, and assessments more in-line with the actual public values and outcomes.’ (p.11.). No doubt that’s true – and could be very valuable – but I’m left wondering about the role of museums to challenge as well as affirm our understanding of the world – and our place in it? Falk reveals that most museums have very high levels of visitor satisfaction – primarily because people know what to expect. If satisfaction is just a measure of how well we meet expectations, if we are looking to challenge some assumptions about what a museum can be or the subjects we are presenting, then perhaps some signs of visitor dissatisfaction aren’t always a bad thing?
Palaces or community centres?
The Hepworth Wakefield: a new art palace that's still reaching its community
As exhibitions galleries and art museums in England move a step closer together due to the merger of Arts Council England and MLA, I’m struck by a significant cultural difference between these parallel worlds and excited by the opportunity that bringing together these different perspectives brings.
Both the contemporary galleries sector and the museums sector are wonderfully diverse and I can cite examples from both which contradict what I’m about to say. But I’d argue that whilst all public galleries and museums are committed – at least in principle – to both art (and artists) and audiences, our art museums can often favour the audience at the expense of the art, and our contemporary galleries too often privilege the artist and art object over the audience. In other words, one tends towards the being a palace for art, the other can sometimes feel more like a community centre.
A quick comparison of audience trends in the ACE-funded contemporary spaces (stagnating) with the MLA-funded galleries (growing strongly – at least in those funded via Renaissance) bring this distinction into sharp focus. Just as a quick glance at the curator-focussed art press would reveal a disproportionate focus on the contemporary spaces when it comes to critical success.
It was notable how in PHF’s recent report into good practice in engagement and participation only museums-sector art galleries were included: not contemporary spaces. There must be a happy middle way – and there are an increasing number of organisations inhabiting it including Turner Contemporary, Hepworth Wakefield, Baltic, New Art Gallery Walsall, The Whitworth. But I’m looking forward to seeing how the forced marriage of these two quite separate worlds helps to challenge more widely our professional and organisational assumptions on both sides – to the benefit of artists and audiences.
Estelle Morris’s recent report for Arts Council England looks at one aspect of the merger of public bodies responsible for museums and the arts – how well ACE’s current funding and strategic framework ‘fits’ museums and libraries and where it needs to be adapted. Others in the museums sector including the Museums Association and Tony Butler (Director of Museum of East Anglian Life) have made strong arguments for the funding approach now used in the arts to be applied to their world. But lets hope benefits run both ways – and those of us who are more rooted on the arts side of the fence perhaps need the challenge of a stronger focus on audience which is a key strength of the museums sector.
Audiences and art (or artists) is not an either/or – it’s got to be both for public art galleries whether they have collections or not. It’s a fine-balance for art museums and galleries to strike but I thought Baroness Morris’s introductory remarks in her report articulated it very well:
‘Museums and libraries, art and performance are of value in their own right but they only make real sense when they connect with people and become part of life the nation and its citizens,’ (Estelle Morris, Baroness Morris of Yardley, Review of the Arts Council’s strategic framework, April 2010).
Perhaps then it’s not palaces or community centres we need but ambitious and proud town halls? Or Habitat – but as this well-known brand’s current demise illustrates, stylish and affordable can quickly become neither fish nor fowl…
Ryedale Folk Museum - one of the participating organisations
Whose Cake is it anyway? is the result of an in-depth study of engagement and participation in the UK museums sector, produced by Dr Bernadette Lynch on behalf of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Working closely with 12 leading organisations in the field (including Ryedale Folk Museum pictured above), the report sought to move beyond descriptions of innovative short-term projects to look instead in greater depth at the key issues limiting this important field of museum practice. For those of us who value engagement, the findings do not make comfortable reading. Notwithstanding the many and excellent examples of good practice among the 12 participating museums, the report concludes:
… the funding invested in pubic engagement and participation in the UK’s museums and galleries has not significantly succeeded in shifting the work from the margins to the core of many of these organisations. (p.5)
The report points to five main reasons for engagement and participation not having achieved its full potential in the UK’s museums and galleries including:
- False consensus and using people to ‘rubber stamp’ plans rather than really consulting or collaborating with them).
- Policies based on ‘helping-out’ and ‘doing for’
- Communities treated as beneficiaries rather than active agents
- Project funding leading to non-mainstreaming of engagement and pretending things are better than they are
- Absence of strong, committed leadership
I suggest these first three ‘faults’ or problems are linked to poorly-implemented participation, often hampered by outdated mindsets. Whilst not doubting these are barriers that need to be overcome -there’s plenty of evidence of organisations in the UK and internationally getting this right (including the many of the organisations in this study).
Perhaps because it has been commissioned by funders, the report places too much blame for the problems on project funding – unfairly in my view. If engagement and participation are often relying on external project funding then can we conclude this is caused by funding policy? Or could it be – rather – that some organisations only undertake the activity if additional funding is there because they don’t consider it to be core activity? Certainly, when I was working as a curator and trying to make a participatory learning project happen without full institutional support (ie willingness to use core funds for it) being able to access project grants meant I could make it happen.
The report raises a wider problem with using ‘project funding’ to encourage or develop activity – unless the projects funded in some way change the capacity (or desire) of the recipients to undertake this activity in future then it is inherently unsustainable. Without digressing into a discussion about intelligent funding, I simply want to argue that participation and engagement are no less suitable for project funding than any other area of work. (And I look forward to seeing how PHF’s ongoing support for participation shapes up and responds to these challenges about how best to fund and enable this important area).
For my money the key barrier is this fifth one – leadership. When the leadership of the organisation is committed to and understands participation in the way I know it does at places featured in the report such as Ryedale and Museum of East Anglian Life* then it works. We can always improve participation and engagement – and this report is helpful in understanding how – but without strong and committed leadership it will remain a unfulfilled promise.
* disclaimer – I don’t know the others in the survey well enough to pass judgement on them!
Elsa Ant enjoys the adventure playground outside the new Hepworth Wakefield Gallery
Our new local gallery has it all: contemporary exhibitions, free family activities, an adventure playground, and a resident heron. What’s not to like? Elsa (3) liked making animals out of play-doh in the Learning Studio, Alex (4) enjoyed giving the sculptures names and given Barbara Hepworth is one of my favourite artists then I was in my element. Best still, in return for a takeaway cappucino from the cafe, I could leave @timant watching over the little terrors for half an hour in the splendid adventure playground whilst I enjoyed wandering around the gallery space without having to worry about them destroying any exhibits.
The Hepworth Wakefield attracted 15,000 visitors on its opening weekend and when I brought the family along yesterday to take a look we could see why it’s proving so popular. Here’s why we love it:
1. Bringing together contemporary, modern and historic art under one roof. The Hepworth Wakefield has 10 galleries: around one-third of the floorspace is devoted to contemporary art, one-third to Barbara Hepworth and one-third to Modern and historic displays drawing on the former Wakefield City Art Gallery Collection and loans from other (mainly) public collections. Outside the capital (and Liverpool) opportunities to see Modern Art are sadly limited. As a History of Art student in Yorkshire twenty years ago I remember having to slog down to London and Paris by coach to be able to see Picasso and the other artists we were studying. But equally important by showing contemporary art alongside more established and popular artists THW has introduced Eva Rothschild’s work to an audience who would otherwise not have seen it.
2. It’s free. If visitors had to pay for exhibitions then this cross-pollination described above would be far less – so keeping the whole offer free is important. Let’s just hope that people realise ‘free’ guides, leaflets, events and exhibitions need to be paid for by someone and they give generously via the donations boxes, membership scheme, and spend in the shop etc if they value their day out. An equivalent family day out at a National Trust house or soft play centre would cost in the region of £15-20 for a family before refreshments so as I’ve said before I think we need to do more to remind people to donate.
3. It’s family-friendly. Families are a target audience for many museums and galleries, but speaking as a member of that ‘segment’ I can assure you it isn’t always very relaxing taking the under 5s into art spaces. Perhaps it’s because we’re regulars of Yorkshire Sculpture Park where the kids can touch and explore the sculptures but the problem we have with normal art museums is that the kids expect to be able to touch the sculptures. Pictures are usually safe but sculptures are irresistable to toddlers. Having family activities in the learning space and an outdoor play area where small people can run off steam before going inside (or whilst one parent escapes inside for a bit) is a stroke of genius. There’s also indoor and outdoor picnic spaces for families which is very welcome if you have faddy eaters or don’t want to fork out for a cafe meal. The only criticism from the kids (apart from not being allowed to touch of climb on the sculptures) was the lack of ice cream in the cafe.
4. The gallery celebrates Yorkshire’s rich cultural heritage: yesterday and today. You may scoff and mention whippets, flat caps and Ilkley Moor Bah Tat but Yorkshire played a major role in Modernist Sculpture via Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and our most important advocate and critic Herbert Read. Today it’s home to a concentration of sculpture specialist organisations: Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and now THW. One display in the gallery celebrates Wakefield’s history through pictures, other displays remind us of the historical importance of Wakefield City Art Gallery (one of the leading post-war regional galleries). Recognising where it is based – rather than focussing on the increasingly globalised art world – is a smart, and refreshing, move.
5. The Hepworth displays offer insights into how sculpture is made. When I first heard about the Hepworth gift many years ago I was sceptical about a display of plasters – not least as I will confess to preferring her carvings and drawings. But the two galleries which house the permanent displays are the heart of the gallery and were packed with visitors. The stunning maquette of Winged Figure familiar to many from the exterior of John Lewis on Oxford St elicited a ‘wow!’ from my son. The study gallery with films showing the artist at work, drawers full of pebbles she collected and her tools, as well as working models for some of her best-loved public works (including a tiny 3D sketch for one of my favourites Rosewall) offered insights into how sculptors work – both in terms of materials, processes and techniques but also how public commissions happen. The appetite to learn more about sculpture was evident from the popularity of this room with visitors. Even my pre-schoolers enjoyed the videos and tools – although I suspect we’re the only people to contextualise Hepworth via Bob the Builder.
6. There’s lots of Barbara Hepworth. This is always a good thing in my book! Seriously though whilst Wakefield has a core collection which includes some very high quality works, loans from other public (and a few private) collections have very much augmented the displays and this collaboration with other national and regional collections is very good to see. Also I noted there’s a linked display of Rothschild’s work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park – and it’s good to see these organisations working in partnership to build and develop audiences and tourism.
So, if you’ve not been already I whole-heartedly recommend a visit. And when you come remember to put your hand in your pocket please.
A Lancastrian friend of mine tells this joke, ‘What do you call a Scotsman who’s had all the generosity squeezed out of him? A Yorkshireman’. The generosity, and vision, of Wakefield Council in building and funding this ambitious gallery suggests this stereotype is wrong. Let’s hope the predominantly local and regional visitors also disprove the stereotype through the donations box, membership scheme and patronage that the gallery will need if it’s to continue to offer such high quality experiences into the future.