Thursday, August 9, 2012

What Can Museums Learn From The DIA?

Hooray for the Detroit Institute of Arts! ---  one of the bright spots in the sometimes grim reality of modern-day Detroit.  Since I was born and raised in Detroit (yes --- actually inside the city limits) I've followed the recent activities of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), one of the first museums from my childhood with great interest.

Two particular aspects of the recent history of the DIA could well provide valuable lessons for museums of all types, stripes, and sizes:

1) Look Inside First
The Detroit Institute of Arts re-opened in 2007 after being closed for several years to reinvent and reinterpret (my words) itself.  As part of this process, the DIA building(s) and the collections were re-arranged and re-installed in ways to deliberately make the world-class collections more accessible to the widest range of the visiting public. 

New labels and graphics provide information for multiple ages and interests, while interactive opportunities (both low-tech and high-tech) directly related to the art/collections in each gallery foster understanding for different learning styles.  For example, a "virtual dining" experience set amidst a gallery of centuries old French silver, glass, and porcelain, gives what could be a "what's with all these old dishes?" experience much more context.

Perhaps more importantly, the DIA weaned itself (for the most part) away from big traveling "blockbuster" shows, and chose to exhibit, display, and reinterpret the wealth of its own collections.  The museum looked inside first, with much success.

Every museum has internal and community resources that it can use to its benefit, if each institution chooses to look "inside" first instead of reflexively always looking "outside."  To me that's the first lesson of building up "internal capacity" and part of what makes a museum shift from being merely good to truly great.

Unfortunately, reopening right before the world-wide economy crashed in 2008 really rocked the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Like many other museums, the DIA faced layoffs and budget cuts --- especially painful following the excitement of the "new" DIA opening.   The DIA was forced to face the "dirty little secret" that most museums try to avoid, which leads to lesson Number Two:

2) Where's The Money?
Even though the Detroit Institute of Arts has an endowment, the museum was still woefully underfunded (over time funding from the State of Michigan shrank from $16 million a year in the 1990s to zero in recent years.)  Despite being a world-class museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts might have been forced to close its doors. 

Instead the DIA successfully risked touching the political "third rail" (especially these days) of TAXES.  Fortunately, a tax millage was successfully passed in the three counties containing, or nearest to, Detroit.  In exchange for homeowners ponying up approximately twenty dollars per household per year for the next 10 years, the DIA will get around $23 million per year and provide free admission to anyone who lives in any of the three counties in question.

Several cities in the U.S. (St. Louis for example) provide ongoing governmental support to ensure the financial health of their cultural institutions.  Because that's the "dirty little secret" of museums --- most institutions, despite their optimistic projections, simply cannot sustain themselves over the long haul without the continuous, ongoing support of some private or governmental benefactors (or both!)

So what about the arguments of citizens around Detroit who opposed the tax millage?  Namely, if your museum can't be "run like a business" you shouldn't be in business in the first place?  (A view often shared by some museum trustees around the U.S.)  Should any government and/or society provide funding to sustain its cultural institutions in some way?   Even if I didn't work in museums, I'm sure my answer would be "yes." 

But what do you think? Should museums be more forthright with the public about the limitations and inherent differences of running a cultural institution "like a business"?  How might being more honest about the "dirty little secret" of museum budgets and budgeting change public funding streams?  

Let us know your thoughts in the "Comments" Section below.

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