Qualifications and the Professional Preparation and Development of Art Museum Educators

Article excerpt

Art museums in the United States have undergone profound changes since the 1980s. Have the qualifications and professional preparation of art museum educators changed as well? This article focuses on these qualifications from five points of view: a) the changing context of art museums in transition from object-centered to visitor-centered institutions, b) developments in the disciplines of art history, education and art education, c) the development of art museum education from practice to profession, d) surveys and recommendations made in the 1980s regarding the professional preparation of art museum educators, and e) the expectations of employers today reflected in position announcements. Consistent emphasis has been placed on academic preparation in art history combined with practical experience in education, and on interpersonal and communication skills. Important new qualifications include knowledge of information technology, and skills in teamwork, management, leadership, and budgeting. But there is surprisingly little interest in experience with diverse audiences, exhibition development, visitor and program evaluation, or research and publication on museum education. What qualifications will prepare art museum educators to serve changing audiences and support their own continuing professional development?

Art museums have undergone profound changes in an effort to attract visitors and engage their interests. As experts on visitors, art museum educators have found themselves taking on new roles in support of these changes. What kinds of experience, knowledge, and skill can enable art museum educators to strengthen their profession, to make their voices heard, and to provide leadership in helping their museums serve their audiences? The qualifications that will empower art museum educators depend upon several contextual factors: a) the changing environment of art museums in transition, b) developments in disciplines related to art museum education, including art history, education and art education, c) the development of art museum education from practice to profession, d) recommendations made in the 1980s regarding the professional preparation, and e) the expectations of employers.

Art Museums in Transition

Over the last 30 years, art museums in the United States have gone through a transformation (Hein, 2000). On the one hand, they stand today "at a historic peak of institutional power and prominence" (Harris, 1999, p. 33). More than half of American art museums were founded since 1970 (American Association of Museums [AAM], 1994). In 1997, an estimated 225 million adults and 1 12 million children visited art museums (Lusaka & Strand, 1998). The numbers are steadily growing, encouraged by the building of new museums, the renovation and expansion of existing facilities, the continuing attraction of blockbusters, popular new programs and visitor services, and aggressive marketing, including use of the Web. On the other hand, there is relentless pressure to bring in more "cultural tourists" to pay the bills and growing competition from other venues for cultural education and entertainment, from theme parks to virtual museums on the Web. Traditional visitors and patrons are aging, and demographic, economic and social shifts in local communities are further eroding the traditional base of support for many art museums. New, more diverse audiences have different expectationssometimes demands-for what roles art museums may serve in their lives (Association of Art Museum Directors, 1992; Karp & Lavine, 1991; Muller, 2001). In response, many art museums have shifted from an inward focus on the growth, care and study of their collections to an outward, market sensitive focus, anticipating and serving the expectations of their public (Anderson, 2004). The shift, in Stephen Weil's terms, is from "being about something to being for somebody" (Weil, 2002). Driven by financial necessity and faced with mandates and encouragement from private foundations and government granting agencies, donors, and the general public, the trustees, directors and staff of art museums have been examining their mission, core values, structure, and operations in order to place new emphasis on marketing and serving the customer (Kotler & Kotler, 1998). …