AAM Annual Meeting Reflections – Museums: Catalysts for Civic Renewal

SESSION DEETS – Sunday, May 23, 2010

Chaired by:
Beverly Sheppard, President and CEO, Institute for Learning Innovation, Edgewater, MD
Penelope Cuff, Senior Program Officer, Partners For Livable Communities, Washington, DC
Juana Guzman, Vice President, National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL
Prerana Reddy, Director of Public Events, Queens Museum of Art New York City Building, Queens, NY

This session will articulate new opportunities and a growing imperative for museums to become catalysts and partners in strengthening and revitalizing their communities, focusing on principles and processes for integrating diverse voices, artistic strengths and collaborative learning. Speakers will examine the theoretical bases for leading through cultural expression and will share provocative examples of the processes at work.


Juana Guzman of National Museum of Mexican Art

  • Museum serving as catalyst for social and economic change.
  • Art can create income for communities. As museums, we have to look at ourselves in non-traditional ways. Demographics are changing.
  • 45% of NMMA’S operational budget earmarked for education!
  • Capacity building for museums. Visitors are not only visiting to see museum but also the community. They want to experience what local businesses and artists have to offer. This infuses the economy in neighborhood. [MJ: This brings to my mind the First Friday Artwalks I have been a part of in both my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona and my current town of Eugene, Oregon.]
  • Anti-immigrant issue – The museum can serve as a diplomat to this conversation.
  • Broader dialogue between Mexican community and museum facilitated by exhibit, “The African Presence in Mexico.” This show has traveled as well, initiatiing educational civic dialogues, dialogues that went with this exhibit. They included discussions about racial healing and racial identity. Arts can do this. Workshops for families and teen dialogue to occur because a lot of tension existed. Accessed faith-based groups and health service providers.
  • Her museum is interested in transnational dialogue. In one exhibition, they explored the influence of Mexican artists on artists like Jackson Pollock. Another exhibit brought attention to the Juarez women who were murdered.
  • Gift shop generates money for us – objects from local artists and artists in Mexico. Finding fit between tourism and community.
  • “Uprooting” – The root issues: housing in Chicago. Gentrification. Issues of displacement. Identifying sense of home to involve the neighborhood. Brought people in museum at Dia del Ninos with medical testing.

Prerana Reddy – Director of Public Events – Queen Museum of Art

  • Reddy has a film and political education background.
  • Highways separates museums from community where most visitors come from. Psychological barrier to Coronoa “shifting sand” neighborhood.
  • Their businesses and activities still very much part of visual landscape.
  • Revival of jazz history in this neighborhood because of Louis Armstrong House Museum.
  • New Corona is 70% now Latino and 10%  Asian immigrants. Over 168 languages spoken in this area!
  • 1/4 – 1/3 percent illegal immigrants. Hesitant to take advantage of institutions. Museum could be neutral agent in connecting community with these services. Arts, culture, and social services.
  • Using art to change perceptions about community members. Using exhibitions to create dialogue. Exhibit about immigrants. “New” New Yorkers – not just separating out everyone from immigrant city.
  • Leadership through arts – working with young people because time prohibitive with adults. Entry way to their families. Help directly with programming and have a stake; are given staff badges. Power relations – who has stake, who needs access to technology, access to define.
  • Beautification – community organizer. Activation of public space became space for community celebrations. DOT grant as a result. Collaboratively programmed with 40 organizations in Corona Initiative (more about this here).
  • What does this have to do with exhibitions/curatorial? “Spotlight on Redlines Housing Crisis Learning Center.” Needed conversation with housing activities. (13,000 foreclosures in mid 2008; only three in Manhattan). Opening the “Learning Center.” Thank you party for housing activities – ploy as well to get them to see work/exhibit in larger context. There was a panel on the panorama. 2 hours long conversation. There were town halls in foreclosure neighborhoods. Also Redlines family day – how do you explain this? (2 art therapists on staff). Offered free space to run fundraisers after exhibit over, keep up with partners. Important to have people on staff who can keep these partnerships alive.
  • Culture Shapes Community!
  • Institutions may subvert activist parts of organization. Museums as “good neighbor.” Local, transnational institution. Not choice to be activist versus collecting curating but deciding for organization identity will be. Developing visual literacy. Changes how we think of exhibitions in the future.
  • Important to bring people into conversations why art is important to them. Not repositories but resources. Reflectors of/to leaders in community. Stable, reflecting organizations.

R.I.P. James Wood – “Leader among museum leaders”

James Wood, the CEO of The Getty Center in Los Angeles and prominent museum leader and scholar, passed away at the age of 69. Jori Finkel called him a “leader among museum leaders” in this post on Culture Monster, an arts blog that is part of the LA Times.

Michael Govan, Los Angeles County Museum of Art:
James Wood and Anne d’Harnoncourt [of the Philadelphia Museum of Art] were the two museum directors that people really looked up to — they were the ones who made it safe for people like me to go into the museum world. They had a kind of clarity and elegance about their sense of purpose, what they were doing and how they were doing it. They were leaders, that was clear: They composed themselves as leaders, they spoke of themselves as leaders.

To read more, click here.

Getty Center Photo Journal

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Safe, sound, and on the ground in L.A.

View from the hotel...Staples Center in the distance.

And the adventure begins…

Tomorrow, I’m off to Los Angeles for the 2010 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting! This experience is available to me thanks to a generous award from AAM, the Emerging Museum Professionals Fellowship, a conference travel grant from the Art and Administration program and the Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy at the University of Oregon, as well as graduation gifts from my always supportive family. I will blog and post pictures while I am at the conference and leave messages on my Twitter @mjfreelance. Comment if you’re going to be at the conference and we can meet up! L.A. sunshine, here I come!

Museums: Don’t be scared of the re-brand! (Pt. 2)

(You can read Part 1 by clicking here.)

Sometimes Re-branding is Necessary

It is imperative that museums constantly reevaluate the messages they project about themselves to the public, what can be considered branding. Re-branding is a part of revamping or even creating an identity for the institution. Thor writes that re-branding:

“is not simply a marketing initiative. It’s a holistic process that must consider and represent every aspect of any organization. Branding is not just about how you want to be seen. It’s about showing the world what you are and what you believe in…your brand must capture your vision, mission and values, not just a subset” (para. 6).

DeLouise suggests, “Re-branding is always an act of imagination. The question to ask if you want to re-brand is “will this propel our mission?” (para. 5). Also called brand repositioning, this process can be difficult and time-intensive. Notwithstanding the financial burden, a museum may not have the resources necessary to change the public’s mind about who they are and what they offer. If an institution is going to re-brand, this not only means a overhaul of its current messaging, logo, graphic standards, and communications processes, but also requires the organization to strategically determine how they are going to persuade visitors and non-visitors to think about their museum in a different way, away from the frame of previous experiences and impressions.

VanAuken (Branding Strategy Insider) offers the following conditions under which an organization might re-brand:

  • “Your brand has a bad, confusing or nonexistent image…
  • Your organization is significantly altering its strategic direction…
  • Your organization has acquired a very powerful proprietary advantage that must be worked into the brand positioning.
  • You are broadening your brand to appeal to additional consumers or consumer need segments for whom the current brand positioning won’t work.”

VanAuken operates from a commercial standpoint, but his ideas resonate with museums, which also struggle to establish a reputation due to a bad image. The catalyst for change may be that the organization wishes to alter their focus from being an institution known for putting on blockbuster exhibitions to one that showcases more regional art and artists. Many non-profits want to reach out to a younger demographic like Generation Y, individuals born between 1977 and 1998. Appealing to a new segment of the population may require a museum to change its brand so that it is more easily communicated across electronic media platforms like a Facebook fan page, an e-newsletter, or a blog.

How does a museum ensure that its new brand will thrive? As with any investment, monetary or otherwise, the return-on-investment is not always guaranteed, but there are ways an organization can strategize for brand success. Brothers Chip and Dan Heath (of “Made to Stick” notoriety) use the term “stick” to describe ideas that are “understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact—they change your audience’s opinions or behavior” (p. 8). In the twenty-first century, institutions should rely on an integration of traditional and guerilla marketing techniques to communicate a new identity to the public.

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Museums: Don’t be scared of the re-brand! (Pt. 1)

Branding the Museum

What is a brand? Is it the trademarked logos in the shopping mall, or the packaging of products lining the shelves in the grocery store? Is a brand reflected in a company’s matching stationary, or simply embodied in the “look” and “feel” a company projects to its public? The simple answer is a brand encompasses logos, packaging, stationary, architecture, design, and the socio-cultural references we associate with a particular product or business. The goal of a brand is to stimulate memory, to entice consumers to purchase products or services. It can be thought of as the tool of capitalism to make the public purchase even what they do not need. However, a brand does not only embody a product or service. It can accentuate an individual’s identity and assist in validating their social status when they use things they think will set them apart.  The Apple iPhone and four-dollar lattes from Starbucks create an illusion of a certain lifestyle because these companies have strategically designed branded products that can transcend mere monetary value and transform the way their customers live by changing their habits, tastes, and interests.

Branding Resistance

The non-profit realm of museums has experienced resistance to marketing in general, but branding specifically. Given its more mercenary purpose in the for-profit world, the reticence is not surprising. Corporations reserve a large percentage of their budget for marketing and often have more room to modify their brand if at first it does not succeed. While companies aim to offer products or services customers will buy, they are not publicly funded institutions as museums are and are thus not as accountable to transparency and the public trust. In general, museum administrators have been more apt to spend money on collections management and public programs rather than on the often lengthy and expensive branding process that typically aligns more with entrepreneurial endeavors. However, non-profit organizations including museums are increasingly seeing the benefits of branding as necessary to “creating and maintaining a body of programs and attitudes that convey a clear promise, encourage familiarity, and generate ongoing support” (Wallace, 2006, 1), and in some cases this includes museums that have history but not necessarily an identity. They may be working with a design that has graced their building for twenty years, but that is not integrated across their website, communications materials, or has even evolved into something more than a logo.

Many organizations may see a need for a change in their image, and embark on the process of re-branding.  Wallace (2006) argues, “Smart museums are finding their identities, articulating their core values, and as any good professional would do, seeking new ways to enhance their image” (p. 6). This is what re-branding is all about, and in the following pages, I will discuss the importance of branding for a museum, why a museum would embark on the process of changing this brand, and will conclude by examining cases involving the New Museum in New York City and the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Why Brand a Museum?

A museum brand is a business imperative, a strategic marketing move, helps attracts more volunteers (and visitors), and assists in raising funds (American Association of Museums; Branding Strategy Insider). Colbert writes, “the role of the brand is to differentiate the products of one firm from those of other firms, or to set the firm itself apart from the competition” (p. 36). Branding encompasses “collections, exhibitions, publications, marketing materials, Web site, partnerships, recognition, awards, docent tours, store merchandise, programs, events, and signage,” which all broadcast an identical message about the museum with similar visuals (Wallace, 2006, p. 2). Richardson believes that while a logo is important in the branding process, it is not the only consideration. He writes, “[Branding] really starts with asking what makes your Museum special and thinking about how you can communicate that to your audience” (para. 3).

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