Commentary: Fuzzy mission statements mask a transitional moment for museums

András Szántó, The Art Newspaper, 12/1/11

Composing a mission statement isn't as easy as it sounds. Should a mission describe what a museum is doing, or what it should be doing? How will it reflect a museum's take on cultural progress, audience demographics, funding sources and technological opportunity? Mission statements comprise a surprisingly diverse rhetorical landscape, from the Akron Art Museum's refreshingly short - "To enrich lives through modern art" -- to the Museum of Modern Art's 420-word magnum opus with six bulleted sub-clauses. One pattern that does seem to cut across categories is the vogue for anodyne formulations that set no tangible goals and forestall accountability. Museums all too often strive, engage and foster. Variations on this theme abound: advance, seek, aim, offer, sustain, affirm, focus, honor, consider, invite, and so on. To the dismay of foundation and government officials, there is little in this vocabulary to lend itself to measurable outcomes. Lack of specificity, in fact, may be the one trait that mission statements have in common. A more generous interpretation could be that the mission statements reflect a philosophical crossroads where museums now find themselves. Slowly but surely, it seems museums are handing over some authority to their audiences. The fuzzy, all-over-the-place rhetoric may be masking this transition. It's possible that museums are trading in one set of self-definitions, involving absolutes and excellence, for another, stressing audience orientation, inclusiveness and interactivity. So which is it? A fractured landscape, or a transitional moment? You decide.


Commentary: Museum's new website is a model for all kinds of institutions

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor, The Atlantic, 12/5/11

Minneapolis' Walker Art Center launched a new website that should be a model for other institutions of all kinds. The site repositions the Walker, in the words of Artlog, "at the center of the global conversation about contemporary art," by incorporating ideas, words, and art from far outside the museum's walls. In a networked world, people and institutions become valuable by becoming important nodes. That means taking on some (but not all) of the attributes of a media company. Museums can continue to pull people inward, but they also have to push content outward. They have to learn to exist within different, overlapping ecosystems -- Tumblr, Twitter, the art blog networks, cultural institution sites -- and figure out how to receive ideas and content from those places, not just broadcast to them. The Walker's director has called their concept "the idea hub." I tend to be suspicious of how hub-like an institution intends to be, especially if a marketing department is anywhere near the controls. But The Walker's new site is helmed by Paul Schmelzer, who has long run the excellent Eyeteeth blog. If anyone can figure out how to turn The Walker's website into an art mag frontend for the museum's collection, Schmelzer can. What I love most about what the Walker is attempting to do is that they seem to have realized that they can do more than stave off a slow spiral into irrelevance. The Internet means that the Walker can become a global art powerhouse from the comfort of the upper Midwest.


Commentary:'s new 'Genome' website predicts what paintings you will like

Shahan Mufti, Wired magazine, 11/23/11

25-year-old Carter Cleveland, founder of a web startup called, and a team of art historians have spent the past year studying thousands of works and compiling a list of their distinct and measurable elements. The result is the Art Genome, composed at present of more than 550 "genes": attributes of fine art that range from the simply factual (the medium, the color palette) to the undeniably subjective (the "movement" a work falls into, or its "subject matter"). Using these attributes,'s recommendation engine can evaluate a piece on the fly and suggest relationships with other works, presenting those results on any device -- even, eventually, a phone. Cleveland's technology has the potential to be transformational. At present, gallery spaces and auction houses remain the only places where high-end or even midrange fine art is presented to prospective buyers. If succeeds, it could upend what remains one of the last cultural precincts largely untouched by the digital revolution -- changing not just how art is sold but also what art is sold and to whom. By teasing out traits in artworks that link them together aesthetically and historically, can draw on buyers' own taste to suggest other works to them, in some cases circumventing (if not entirely dispensing with) the choices put forward by gallerists and critics. On, a would-be collector can select a work of art and get presented with a range of "similar" work, much of it for sale. And what this will represent in practice is not just more products to buy but - potentially -- future geniuses to coronate.


London museum may not renew BP sponsorship deal after environmental protests

Alex Needham, The Guardian [UK], 12/13/11

The Tate galleries are reviewing their 20-year partnership with BP, after demonstrations by green campaigners. Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, has said it will decide whether to renew the contract with BP "quite soon". This month he was presented with a petition from 8,000 Tate members and visitors organised by pressure groups Platform, Liberate Tate and Art Not Oil. Serota said: "Both the trustees as a board, but also the trustees through their ethics committee, which was instituted about four years ago, have looked very carefully at the question." The trustees had decided that "the good that has been done through the money that has come from BP for the gallery, and for the gallery's public, has been very profound". The current three-year sponsorship runs out in 2012. [BP] first attracted protests after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Two months later, five gallons of molasses were poured down Tate Britain's stairs at its summer party. Demonstrators also let off helium balloons in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with dead fish attached which were shot down with air rifles by gallery staff. Sponsorship is increasingly contentious as arts organisations make up the shortfall in government funding. Last week, two poets withdrew from the TS Eliot prize sponsored by investment management firm Aurum Funds. On Thursday, the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said artists should support firms that donate; it is "is encouraging good behaviour by corporations." Arts Index calculates business contributions are down 17% from 2007-10, but Hunt said he hoped this coming year would show an increase of 6%.


Commentary: Public policy through the eyes of visual artists

Sean Bowie, Technology In The Arts blog, 12/12/11

In the world of public policy, ideas are a dime a dozen. What's often missing, however, are new and exciting ways to present these ideas, taking formally bland issues and finding new ways to solve them. This is where the arts community comes in. While city planning and urban development may not be the most exciting issues to talk about, an exhibit in New York City is showcasing four artists who are attempting to use the power of artistic expression to bring attention to urban planning issues. The exhibition, "Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City," opened on October 13th of this year and continues until April 22, 2012 at the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park. There have been similar art exhibits where policy ideas are presented by artists themselves, who often have no connection to the policy community or stakeholders. What's unique about this project is that the four artists involved were all invited to partner with an urban planner or architect to imagine and conceive new developments in the Long Island City area, bringing a degree of realism and practicality to the individual projects. Instead of imagining idealistic public spaces or infrastructure improvements, the artists were advised to come up with ideas for spaces that would compliment already existing structures. While the artists and those involved in the exhibits may not have all the right answers, the exhibit itself is a refreshing reminder that sometimes the best policy ideas do not come from government offices or elected officials: sometimes, the best and most original ideas come from those who are active in their communities, aware of local issues and problems, and passionate enough to devote time to the issues. In this case, that category just so happens to include the arts community.

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