Over breakfast one recent Saturday, Kaywin Feldman, the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, recalled a moment years ago at a meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors. Then in her mid-30s, one of association's youngest members, and director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, she proposed a session on museums and the environment. "I was told it was irrelevant," she says.
By June of this year, when the AAMD met in Indianapolis for its annual meeting, the association had caught up with her thinking: Not only was a session devoted to making museums "greener," but Ms. Feldman was elected president.
Ms. Feldman is part of a new generation of women and men in their 40s that is taking the reins at America's top art museums. It includes Christoph Heinrich at the Denver Art Museum, Thom Collins at the Miami Art Museum and James Steward at the Princeton Art Museum, to name a few. Shaped by their times, which differ markedly from the formative years of the directors they are replacing, many have different views of what a museum should be.
The Walker Art Center Is A Leader In The "Town Square" Trend
There's no shining line separating the generations, of course. Some directors have been preaching the "populist" gospel for years, often translating that into exhibitions about guitars, hip-hop or "Star Wars" paraphernalia and live music nights with cocktails, DJs and dancing.
Current thinking goes much deeper. Many young directors see museums as modern-day "town squares," social places where members of the community may gather, drawn by art, perhaps, for conversation or music or whatever. They believe that future museum-goers won't be satisfied by simply looking at art, but rather prefer to participate in it or interact with it. "The Artist Is Present" show by Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art—silent, one-on-one encounters between volunteers and the artist, which viewers hung around to watch—is a recent, popular example.
New technology and social media, from blogs to Facebook to YouTube, are helping to drive the trend. "We're on the cusp of a huge change in the way technology will change the visitor experience and how people learn about art," Ms. Feldman says. Adding to the pressure are changes in the art world, which is growing more global and more interdisciplinary, and in education, which skimps on the arts and is forcing museums to provide more context.
"The biggest transformation is how we're conceiving of social engagement with our audiences," says Olga Viso, who became director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in January 2008. "We are working out the strategy for engaging in a much deeper way and a multiplicity of ways. It's about breaking down boundaries."
Ms. Viso offered two recent examples. First, the Walker is staging "Open Field" on its grounds this summer, a "cultural commons" where artists and the public alike may create, perform, discuss books or current affairs, attend demonstrations or just watch everyone else. From its "Tool Shed," the Walker lends radios, blankets, playing cards, sketch pads, scissors and even iPads. Second, through Sept. 15, the public has been invited to vote on which works on paper, drawn from the Walker's collection, will be shown in its "50/50: Audience and Experts Curate the Paper Collection" exhibition this December.
Some of the curators, Ms. Viso concedes, are not comfortable with that concept, but she stresses that it's just one display, which the curators will install. In any case, she believes that "curators will have to share their research differently" henceforth. They'll have to Twitter, blog, work across curatorial departments and take a larger approach to their job. "We are actively in the process of updating their job descriptions," she says.
Elsewhere, broader outreach may be as simple as exhibition programming that goes beyond the traditional lectures and concerts—and beyond museum walls. In Oregon, for example, the Portland Art Museum recently organized an exhibition called "China Design Now." It featured works by about 100 designers, architects, filmmakers and artists who have moved China from its days as an imitator to being an innovator in design.
In conjunction, the museum contacted area designers, universities and design galleries, encouraging them to mount an exhibit or program on the same theme. Then it created a website to capture all the activities in the same place. "It extended the spokes of the museum's wheel," says Brian Ferriso, the museum's director, who previously headed the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla. He is careful about one point, though: "You never lose the curatorial voice. You add other voices."
Back at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Ms. Feldman sees exhibition content and acquisitions as a way to reach out to the community. "People want to see themselves on the walls," she says. "You have to make them feel comfortable." When she took over the Memphis Brooks in 1999, it had very few African-American visitors even though they make up more than half the Tennessee city's population. She increased their attendance by exhibiting and buying art made by African-Americans.
The Minneapolis area has few African-Americans, but it has a large East African population. When the MIA adds to its African collections, Ms. Feldman says that she'll be looking for art from that area.
The degree to which museum directors are adopting these strategies varies, of course, and they seem to be especially strong at contemporary art museums. But they are spreading.
The AAMD, the museum trade organization, has definitely taken a stand. Once something of a club limited to 100 directors of the largest museums, it has recently, Ms. Feldman says, made "service to the community," rather than budget size, the criterion for membership, which now numbers nearly 200.
The group has also won a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help document and publicize stories about its members' community-service programs. These include activities like bringing art to those with Alzheimer's or posttraumatic stress disorder, and farming crops for donation to local food banks. The goal is "making art essential to everyone."
Ms. Feldman admits that her cohorts know that goal is not possible. "It's a vision, far out there," she says. But it's what they, for better or for worse, are trying to do.