Some Thoughts (and Concerns) about the Future of Art Museums

By Rub, Timothy | The Antioch Review, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Some Thoughts (and Concerns) about the Future of Art Museums


Rub, Timothy, The Antioch Review


This brief essay focuses on the future of art museums, a small, but prominent subset of the large number of museums--some 35,000 in all, according to a recent study--currently operating in this country. These are the institutions with which I am most familiar, having worked in them as a curator and director for more than three decades. They also face, in comparison to other types of museums such as those that focus on history or science, a unique set of opportunities and constraints that leave me, variously, hopeful as well as concerned.

It is not intended to be comprehensive or, for that matter, prescriptive. Rather, I would liken it to a diagnostic exercise that will offer, from the perspective of a practitioner, a number of observations that seem to me to be salient to the future of museums like the ones I have had the privilege of leading in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and at Dartmouth College.

Reconsidering Our Missions

I'll begin with the problem of defining the core mission of art museums in this country and how this has changed over time. Most of the major civic art museums in this country, at least those founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were envisioned as having an instrumental value--that is to say, as a means to an end. More specifically, they were conceived to be, first and foremost, educational institutions--modeled after the example set by the South Kensington Museum in London, today know as the Victoria & Albert Museum-to serve as resource for the training of artisans and, more generally, the improvement of public taste through the study of the finest examples of historic works of art. Thus, the collecting and presentation of works of art, although certainly considered to be valuable activities in and of themselves, were also intended to serve a clearly defined purpose.

This is no longer the case today, in part because the way in which artists are trained has changed dramatically over time and the study of the art of the past no longer serves as the primary basis for their instruction today. Whether this has been for the better or the worse is not at issue here. Rather, it is that one of the foundational functions of art museums and the collections they assembled for this purpose is no longer as significant as it once was.

What has replaced it? To be sure, education remains central to the way that art museums define their missions today, but it is important to recognize that how we define museum education has evolved rather significantly over the course of the past half-century and more, and that it continues to do so today. The time-honored tradition of looking at works of art in the gallery combined with art-making in the studio still lives on, largely in the form of programs for schoolchildren or for adults in search of ways of filling their leisure time with enjoyable learning activities. The teaching of aesthetics, art history, support for literacy and other aspects of the K-12 curriculum--these and many other ways of utilizing the art museum as an educational resource have been in vogue at various times and still serve a valuable purpose today. Although none of these activities, as useful as they may be, has ever achieved the clarity of purpose and of the original educational missions of our art museums, the development of each was motivated by the same basic assumption that they, our art museums, must serve a useful--or, perhaps better put--a utilitarian purpose.

Over time, this focus--that is to say, on what is at the heart of an art museum's work--shifted away from education as a core function toward the development of collections and the related activities of their preservation and display. To be sure, these have always been central to any definition of what art museums do: it is self-evident, but nonetheless still helpful to note that great collections make for great museums. Nevertheless, we should also recognize that the development of a collection is a means toward an end and begs the question of to what use this should be put. …

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