The cultural consultant András Szántó has advised museums and arts organizations all over the world, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Art Basel. In the summer of 2020, with many of these institutions facing financial and existential crises, he reached out to their leaders for a series of soul-searching conversations.
The resulting book, The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues (published last month by Hatje Cantz), takes the form of both philosophical inquiry and pragmatic problem-solving—all enlivened by Szántó's familiar repartee with his sources. Directors including Anne Pasternak of the Brooklyn Museum, Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Galleries, and Koyo Kouoh of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa contribute widely divergent answers to the questions of what a museum is, can be, and should be.
Szántó also has his own answers, after many years of working with leaders in the field and, before that, running an arts journalism program at Columbia University. In an interview conducted via Zoom with Artful's Editorial Director Karen Rosenberg, he offered his thoughts on pressing, headline-making issues in the museum world such as deaccessioning, diversity, and sustainability.
Karen Rosenberg: I'd like to talk about some of the more urgent questions that museums are facing right now. There are a couple that have been in the news just this week, including deaccessioning and diversity. But before we get to that, I wanted to step back for a minute and look at an overarching theme of your book, which is the globalization of museums starting in the 1990s.
András Szántó: If you were to describe today's museum system compared to fifty years ago, the most important thing you can say is that it's a global system. This is not a book that's trying to make generalizations, but one major claim it does make is that globalization has opened the doors to a more pluralistic museum. There was a long chapter of the museum which was basically European-influenced. Then there was a half-century where you saw an American influence layered onto the museum, with blockbusterization and a heavier emphasis on the audience and education. The next chapter is the global influence.
This is an incredibly welcome development. Now that there are museums in Africa, do they have to look exactly like the ones in North America or Europe? No, and I think this is a really interesting shift. And these international museums are jumping over a phase. They don't have to retrofit the museum to a post-Eurocentric, post-colonial model. They can just build that model. They don't have to retrofit the museum as a place that appeals to young people and has good WiFi. They can build it that way. That is a great advantage for these young institutions.
KR: At the same time the pandemic has, at least temporarily, forced museums to become more local, both in terms of refocusing them on a nearby audience and making it harder for them to orchestrate these big traveling shows with lots of loans. Do you think this adjustment will have a lasting impact?
AS: Along with the local pivot has come an extraordinary digital pivot. We have to acknowledge that museums have finally pushed themselves into this global digital channel. I think they were tremendously lucky with the timing of this pandemic, because had this whole thing occurred even five years earlier, so many of the prerequisites would not have been in place—whether it's staff, technology, the digitization of so much of the collections. These are the slow, boring, non-sexy things which happen behind the scenes in museums, but which really pay dividends.
I think the real question, though, is what we mean by that local audience. Previously, when many museums thought of their local audience they had in mind a relatively narrow demographic. And because of these circumstances of the past year there was a realization—a difficult realization—that the museum, all positive rhetoric to the contrary, all the beautiful language and advocacy that has been happening for decades—was still erecting visible and invisible barriers to attendance. Now we're seeing real changes, shifts in the curatorial staffs and the leadership and in almost every facet of the museum.
In the hands of this generation of museum leaders—and partly in response to the wake-up call of the pandemic and particularly the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement—the very idea of what a local audience means has been wrenchingly, thoroughly, cathartically reassessed. This, I think, will be the long-lasting reverberation of this period.
KR: That is exciting. But what about the financial impact of the past year, which has threatened not only the health but also the existence of some museums?
AS: Maybe I'm more sanguine than others are, but whenever I see prognoses at the worst moment of a crisis, my guess is that those numbers will turn out to be significantly exaggerated. One assumes that before there are dying institutions there might be merging institutions, and yet I haven't seen any press releases about merging institutions. And we are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It's broadly assumed that by summer of this year at least some elements of the classic business model will come back. If there were going to be 10,000 closed institutions, we would be seeing that by now.
Let us not forget that when we say 'museums' we are talking about an incredibly segmented field. Some of the museums which have had dramatically negative impacts in terms of their earned revenues, nonetheless saw their endowments grow by double digits during this time even as their top-line expenses went down. Some museums are in a better situation than others, simply because they were better at managing their finances. And those museums which happen to have a strong balance sheet right now may have opportunities to host exhibitions that maybe wouldn't have come through their town, or to hire staff that perhaps wouldn't have looked at their 'second-tier' city.
KR: A related issue on many directors' minds now is sustainability—not just in the environmental sense, but other aspects of the museum and its functioning. What should museums be striving for in this area?
AS: There are several layers, and it's important to think about them separately. One is environmental sustainability. I don't think necessarily that means kissing goodbye to loaning artworks—I think some of that is more virtue-signaling than real carbon footprint-reducing behavior. I mean, the most polluting thing you can do is construction. It's going to be years and years of traveling shows before you do as much damage as you do by demolishing a wing and building a new one. Museums can also use their curatorial and programming tools to change the public's consciousness around this issue. We see very nice examples of this at the Serpentine in London, where director Hans-Ulrich Obrist has been mounting campaigns outside the museum. Museums have to get out of their own boxes and engage in much wider debates.
The second layer is economic sustainability. Museums are basically in a vise grip. Society is putting ever greater demands on them. We want the museum to speak many more languages, we want it to use technology, we want it to have after-school programs. We want it to be open 365 days a year, until 10 o'clock at night. All of those are dollar signs, and we are not providing additional means for the museums. Their earned-income sources are tapped out. General operating support is not a sexy philanthropic proposition. Younger philanthropists are gravitating to other sectors of philanthropy. And, if you remember, before the pandemic, one of our biggest issues in the art world was figuring out who is even allowed to support a museum. So what's the solution? Either museums do less or they rewrite the rules of where they can find resources, looking for funding relationships with new kinds of entities or unlocking resources from their collections—hence we see this very lively discussion around deaccessioning, much of it based on bad information.
The third layer is cultural sustainability. Is the museum a thriving institutional form, and does it actually help a culture thrive? These are some of the biggest questions looming for the future of the museum. During the pandemic we have received one very adverse signal about the museum's importance, which was the fact that they were ranked so far behind other entities in terms of what is an essential institution. It turns out, they're less important than airports and supermarkets—okay, I get that. But they're also less important than Home Depot. That doesn't bode very well in terms of signaling cultural relevance.
KR: I have to follow up on your intriguing earlier comment that a lot of what is written about deaccessioning is based on bad information. I also wanted to ask you more broadly: Where do you fall on this issue, and what do you think are the principles museums should keep in mind here?
AS: The press has a lot to answer for when it comes to the way these issues are portrayed. Speaking as someone who spent ten years working at the Columbia Journalism School running a program for cultural journalists, and who has committed many acts of journalism myself, I think that there is a little bit of 'gotcha' journalism going on. There's a lot of 'presumed guilty until innocent.' There's a lot of jumping to conclusions, very large claims based on meager evidence. However, I don't fault the media for not being always so competent, because I think the museum sector has conducted this type of business behind a veil.
I would also say that museums have been deaccessioning for many years, in a non-controversial way. The average annual deaccession at the Met—an institution, full disclosure, with which I worked very closely in the past—is $15 million a year. We are talking about highly technical issues—in this case, that the museum directors' association made it possible to not only steer funds generated through deaccessioning to the replenishment of collections, for which museums like the Met actually do have funds, but to temporarily apply them in different ways. But we are in the realm of art and civic institutions, so people really care. The debates have a kind of theological tint to them. There's a great deal of passion and conviction and categorical statements around issues which by their nature are highly complex. I think they also reflect a certain lack of faith in institutions to make the right judgments, which is a very big topic in our society and not unique to museums.
I also think the issue is particular to each museum. Some museums have been collecting 150 years, others have not. I agree with those who worry about a slippery slope, but I don't believe that you can take a categorical position against it. It's like a medical procedure—there are so many variables that come into play.
There are many other discussions going around museums about how to monetize collections in other ways, or share the burden of collections doing acquisitions, or in various ways unlock value. I'm just going to give you one hypothetical example: Institution A is an impoverished institution with a stellar collection. Institution B is a very wealthy and well endowed institution with a very weak collection. Could Institution A and B agree to a co-ownership agreement where the wealthy institution provides the funding, and the other institution provides access to the masterpiece? Would that be controversial? There are many other conversations going on about how institutions could unlock value from an existing collection without running afoul of the legal, regulatory, and moral rules. There is a lot of technological innovation happening in the world of finance, and we may start seeing it gravitate into our field as well.
KR: What are these financial and technological innovations that would enable museums to unlock value in their collections?
AS: I would prefer not to get into that, because I'm aware of some things that I wouldn't want to get into. But even in the public record there are various investment schemes, co-ownership schemes, various ways in the art world now that sophisticated technology, bookkeeping ability, blockchain, and other tools are being used to dilute ownership, to create new models for what exactly it means to own the work. And let's not forget that the idea of what an artwork is is also shifting radically. If the work of art is an augmented reality piece, ownership is different from when a work of art is a sculpture made of marble. I think this is one of those areas where we will see a lot of change in the years to come.
KR: How would you respond to the argument against deaccessioning that's been made by some critics, namely that the trustees of the museums in question should step up and dip into their pockets?
AS: My understanding is that in many museums—at least in the boards that I recognize and know about—trustees have stepped up. When that happens, nobody writes an article that says 'I heard that the trustees of this museum raised two extra million dollars to avoid further layoffs.'
I do believe that there are plenty of people in our world who have more capacity to step up, and I hope that they will. But that, to me, is part of a larger question in the very highest echelons of wealth. A generation ago, the apex of what it meant to be a philanthropist was that you were the chairman of the board at the local museum. That is no longer the case. We're all waiting to see what Jeff Bezos will do. My guess is that Bezos's first goal is not to become the chairman of the Seattle Museum of Art, or even the Met, even though he could wipe out the debts of most American museums very rapidly. So to me the larger question is, if we're going to look to wealthy people—and by the way, it's very interesting to me as a European that a lot of the most progressive voices are looking to wealthy people to solve problems—why aren't today's great wealth holders thinking of the museum as the place where they should deploy their giving capacity?
I think this ties back, in an optimistic way, to a lot of what is captured in my book. Because insofar as the museum opens up, becomes a vital community resource, addresses all kinds of social needs for a much wider range of people and contributes in ways small and large to the health of our society, I think it will be easier to imagine people with this great capacity getting behind museums.
KR: Another very urgent issue is the need for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in museums. There have been signs of genuine introspection and progress in the past year, but we were reminded just this week by the Indianapolis Museum job posting that there's so much work still to be done. Why do you think it has taken so long for museums, many of which have long seen themselves as champions of diversity and social justice, to effect actual change in this area?
AS: There is no excuse for why it has taken so long. What is undeniable is that the true remedy to something that has taken centuries to accumulate is also not going to come overnight. There are of course steps that can be taken immediately. I've noticed, because I'm giving a lot of talks these days, that every museum event online now comes with an acknowledgement about the land on which that museum is located. So some things can happen overnight, but other things can't happen overnight. One of the directors in this book ran the numbers in Australia, and found that it would take them almost eighty years of buying only works by women artists before they had gender parity in their collection.
I would hope, and this comes back a little bit to the financial decision making, that people would give these institutions a little bit of room to take these steps. I'm not trying to let anyone off the hook or say that these steps are not necessary. But we're talking about closed institutions with furloughed staffs and reduced budgets. Making change in museums has always been very, very difficult, but I think you're beginning to see it.
For example, we've seen this extraordinarily generous grants now coming out of the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation. Those are now out there, and they're starting to translate into real action, curatorial positions, initiatives, diversity outreach. The area where we will really be seeing these lasting changes to the museum, after the pandemic, is in this area. And we haven't even addressed trustees, but you're beginning to see the diversification of trustees.
I do not see the momentum diminishing, but I do see it requiring some time to become fully visible to the public. The directors in this book represent a transitional generation. They have one leg in the period before the internet, one leg in the time after. They were born, most of them, in the Cold War, but they live in the post-Trump world. They are managing the museum through these enormous changes, but they are themselves transitional, so I think the full resolution of some of these things may be a generational undertaking.
KR: Is there anyone you think is doing an especially good job confronting the issues we have talked about? Who's getting it right, if anyone?
AS: One of the messages of this book is that there are many ways to get it right. There's no one solution. I do take inspiration from those who are thinking of the museums as a place, a campus, a larger social organism. That's a very interesting trend, and there are a number of wonderful examples in the book including Sonia Lawson, the director of the Palais de Lomé in Togo, who has built this museum that's not just a museum—it's also a botanical garden and a public park where young people learn to have a relationship to the natural environment. I also think that there is innovation happening in places that are not global cultural and economic centers. Instead of trying to get an audience to speak an Artforum-like language, these museums are reaching for a completely different set of tools.
People often say that this is an optimistic book. I find the optimism in the possibility that maybe you can have it both ways, that you can be committed to the traditional functions of museums to build collections, safeguard them, study them, present them, create wonderful exhibitions and programs and publications—but also have these new dimensions of the museum that open it up to community, make it a platform for our urgent debates, connect to other disciplines, provide many creature comforts. And that you can actually achieve these things together, not one at the expense of the other but in combination. Maybe that's me being an incurable optimist, but that is what I came away with.