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What Does Change Look Like?

At Carnegie Museum of Art, change looks like now. For almost all of 2015, we have been involved in a major reorganization spurred by the enormous cultural shifts that have been impacting us all over the last two decades. The interactivity and mass personalization of the web have altered the expectations of audiences everywhere. As a result, while museums are still in the business of producing knowledge, we have begun to disseminate it differently. We want to be of use to our communities, near and far, and to be that we must put their needs first. Many articles on museums and change have appeared in newspapers and journals but, as New York Times critic Holland Cotter noted recently, “there will be no single model, and there shouldn’t be. Art and life, which are equally a museum’s business, are too complicated to be reflected in any one mirror.”

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A behind-the-scenes look at the staff offices at Carnegie Museum of Art during construction, November 2015. (Photo: Bryan Conley)

This acknowledgment of the uniqueness of each institution feels new to me. The traditional structure for general museums like Carnegie Museum of Art evolved over more than a hundred years and has been pretty entrenched. It centers on curatorial departments defined by chronology, medium, or geography that each oversee a specific collection and galleries. Other departments—education, publications, marketing, registration—are brought into exhibitions and other projects late in their development to create supplementary programming. At CMOA, curators still drive big exhibition ideas but now members of the team with expertise in the visitor experience are integrated earlier to help develop the ideas and to make certain they are available to a broad public. The traditional museum has offered visitors many wonderful things—varieties of aesthetic experience, provocative ideas, and contemplative spaces. We don’t want to do away with those attributes, but we want to make them more accessible to a wider population.
Making the museum more accessible means changing culture, and meaningful change comes from the inside out. At CMOA, we began with our organizational chart, creating shared resources between curatorial and education, and publications and marketing. We’re working toward a flatter hierarchy that allows innovation to come from any quarter, so volunteer staff task forces have been important. As a result of the work of the revenue task force, for example, we are expanding partnerships for events, enhancing social programming, and creating project-specific funding models. (Our November 10 event Hops & Hopper combined a beer tasting and film screening to complement an exhibition of the work of Edward Hopper.) Thanks to our office restructuring task force, we are currently reallocating office space to reflect the changes in our organizational philosophy, making them physical.

Coinciding with major shifts in our social environment are significant changes in the philanthropic landscape. Today, corporate support, when available, is usually market-driven. Among foundations, there is a trend away from supporting exhibitions in favor of education and outreach. In response, we’re exploring shows that seamlessly integrate education and outreach with art and art history. Next fall, we’ll present a Forum Gallery exhibition co-organized by our curatorial and education staffs that will be a model for larger exhibitions to come.

In order to accomplish all of this we need increased data, in part because funders are demanding it but also because it will allow us to respond better to our audiences’ needs. Such evaluation, essential as we move forward, itself requires new expertise and resources.

Change has not been easy, but it is necessary; and seeing what we’ve accomplished is heartening. I’m excited about where we are at CMOA, and where we’re going. We’re becoming an innovative 21st-century museum that is relevant to, and valued by, its community and important to its field. Please visit us often as we pursue these goals.

Happy holidays to all, and a wonderful 2016!

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.