Op-ed: A New Era for Art Museums

Art museums have been remarkably successful in attracting younger audiences

Uncertain economic times usually mean uncertain times for "high culture" institutions like symphony orchestras, opera and ballet companies. But art museums seem to be flourishing.

In the past few years, more than a handful of major new art institutions have opened, including the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas; the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and the neighboring Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Ambitious new buildings will soon open in San Francisco, Denver and Atlanta, and major expansions are planned in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle and Raleigh.

 There are several reasons why this is occurring.

The planning for many of these projects began 10 or 15 years ago, prior to the New York Stock Exchange breaking the 10,000 mark and philanthropists realizing new and sometimes spectacular levels of wealth. But it takes more than money to bring so many new art museums to life.

Art museums have learned the lessons of successful retailers in that they allow people to visit at all times of day, including evenings and weekends, not at a prearranged time. And a visitor can go at his or her own pace in a museum, looking, reading, thinking and enjoying.  Plus, a concert, dance, performance or film is often included in the price of admission.

Speaking of admission, some museums, including all the great museums on the Mall in Washington, D.C., are free. Even the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, which charges the highest admission of any art museum in this country, is still a bargain at $20, compared to typical ticket prices of $40 at the New York Philharmonic and $32 to see the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Art museums also have been remarkably successful in attracting younger audiences not only because of the ease of access and low admission, but because of the inclusive nature of the art on view. Art museums are repositories of works of great beauty, from magnificent collections of Greek and Roman antiquities to Renaissance paintings, Impressionist masterpieces and early American furniture. They also embrace contemporary art in all its complexities, including photography, video and new media of all kinds as well as works from many different cultures outside the Western tradition. Art often reflects popular culture and topical political and cultural commentary, as artists like Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and others have long demonstrated. And artists like Marcel Duchamp, who scandalized the Paris art world when he signed an industrially produced urinal and put it on display in 1917, have not hesitated to upset the status quo and force us to see things differently.

It's no wonder why so many curious people, young and old, are drawn to museums and find so many different ways to connect with what they find there. 

Those of us who run museums are keenly interested in all our audiences and how they experience our institutions, but we are perhaps especially sensitive to those young adults who are discovering us for the first time. Will they form a habit of museum-going that will last a life time? Will they bring their own children? And will they, as users, also become supporters, who are essential to our survival?

Like their municipal brethren, university art museums are experiencing a building boom, too, with ambitious new buildings recently opened (or about to) in places as far-flung as Eugene, Ore. (University of Oregon); Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College) and the new Nasher Museum of Art here at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Traditionally, university museums were rather sleepy places, with teaching collections that were used by professors and students in art and art history classes, but otherwise attracting few outside visitors. Worthy but modest displays were generally the rule, as were tight budgets and few outside supporters.

But all this has changed - “ with more ambitious exhibitions and better funding - “ as anyone who has visited the splendid museums at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and other universities knows well.

Museums reach out into their surrounding communities and give back something that all can enjoy and benefit from. I hope you get the chance to visit one soon.