Dr. Wilda Reviews Seattle Art Museum’ 2014 – 2015 seasons: SAM is at a fork in the road

19 Nov

Moi was pleased to be included in Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) preview of the 2014 – 2015 seasons. Media from all over the region gathered for lunch at the Triple Door. Lunch was provided courtesy of the Triple Door and Wild Ginger. The 2014 – 2014 season has what is now mandatory, a knock-your-socks major exhibit or two, a nod to the ethnic diversity of the region, an example or two of art mediums other than painting as well as the grand installation at the Sculpture Park. The headline is that SAM produces another stunning season, it won’t disappoint. The backstory is that SAM is at a fork in the road. It is hard to say about an institution, like SAM, who has been in existence over 85 years, what do you really want to be when you grow up, but that is the question at this moment in SAM’s history. This review has two parts, the review of the 2014 – 2015 season and some of the challenges faced by museums like SAM. Executive Director, Kimerly Rorschach disclosed that SAM will be starting the planning to produce a five year strategic plan and that Barney A. Ebsworth has given SAM a major piece, Echo for the Sculpture Garden. This gift highlights one of SAM’s major challenges, its acquisition budget.

Among the upcoming exhibits at SAM are:

William Cordova

September 20, 2013–January 19, 2014

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse

November 16, 2013–February 16, 2014

Leo Berk: 2013 Betty Bowen Award Winner

November 7, 2013–February 23, 2014

From Abstract Expression to Colored Planes

March 16, 2013–November 9, 2014

Light in the Darkness

A Fuller View of China, Japan and Korea

August 10, 2013–April 13, 2014

Hometown Boy

Liu Xiaodong

August 31, 2013–June 29, 2014

Inked

Wan Qingli

August 31, 2013–June 29, 2014

Sandra Cinto

Encontro das Águas (Encounter of Waters)

April 14, 2012–February 17, 2014

Miró: The Experience of Seeing

February 13–May 25, 2014

DECO JAPAN: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945

May 10–October 19, 2014

This is just a sample of what is coming. Other exhibits of note include La Toya Ruby Frazier’s photographs, City Dwellers: Contemporary Art from India, and Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art. Upcoming events can be found at http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/exhibit/exhibit.asp

Despite the dazzle, SAM’s strategic plan has to examine some serious issues. A 2008 blog post by Ross Dawson examined some of the issues.

In Thinking about the future of museums: fourteen key issues, Dawson opined:

Below are fourteen key issues in the future of museums.
What is a museum?
On the face of it, a museum records and makes accessible artefacts the past that have cultural value. The curatorial process is one of showing people things that enrich them. Museums need to have a clear idea of why they exist. In most cases (in addition to any financial imperatives) the objective is to benefit society, by educating and creating culturally richer and more well-rounded members of society.
Entertainment vs. education and onto experience.
Entertainment and education are quite different intents, but they can be integrated to achieve both aims. Certainly the demand from younger people has shifted strongly to only paying attention if content is truly entertaining. Beyond that, museums are fundamentally about providing experiences. People will seek engaging and powerful experiences, and if museums can provide them, their can fulfil their roles.
Complement formal education.
Recent developments of school and adult education have not kept pace with external change. There is in particular an important role for experiences that help prepare people for the future.
Speed of response.
Exhibitions are a slow medium, often taking 6 months or far more to put together. This means that any exhibit will be historical rather than truly contemporary. As people grow used to a faster informational cycle, ways of bringing together information quickly in a meaningful way is often required to engage people.
Being credible and authoritative.
In a world of infinite information, people are looking for credible sources. The brand and identity of a museum can assist in being a preferred source of information.
Physical vs. Virtual.
A museum is in almost all cases a physical space with physical exhibits. Yet access can also be provided online, including in three dimensional worlds. It is not a question of choosing between them, or even doing both. Rather the issue is how to integrate both physical and virtual so they complement each other.
Potential for geolocational tagging.
As a specific form of integrating the physical and virtual, I think geolocation is a very useful technology. This can for example enable visitors to geo-tag exhibits, making their comments visible to others moving through the physical space. Video glasses or mobile devices can allow people to pick up on and add to conversations about what they are seeing and interacting with.
Engaging younger generations.
Today schoolchildren going on a museum visit often do their reports by typing notes and taking pictures on their mobile phone. However they are far from passive consumers, and unless you allow them to be active in engaging with content, you will lose them.
Getting museum experts to interface directly with users.
The existing interface between the knowledge of the museum staff and users is the exhibit. Social media and social networks are ways to enable this more direct connection, interaction, and knoweldge sharing.
Energizing the community.
Because museums touch so many schoolchildren, they have an opportunity to engage them far beyond their visits. MIT’s ThinkCycle, which takes an open source approach to designing solutions to problems thaat touch many underprivileged people.
Helping people to answer new and important questions.
Therapeutical cloning, genetically modified food, embryonic genetic modification, are all new technologies that we as individuals and a society must work out how to respond. A museum can help people to understand these issues to help people to make up their own minds in an informed way.
Moving from gatekeepers to enabling access and building communities.
Not so long ago museums were essentially gatekeepers, choosing from all of the wonderful things they have access to, which will be on display. Now that access can be provided digitally, the issue becomes more one of making these valuable resources more accessible and visible, and building communities to share perspectives.
Museums as media organizations.
During the discussions it struck me that museums are basically media organizations, providing and editing (i.e. curating) content. Exactly the same issues apply, including that of whether to control or open out the editorial process.
From interacting with exhibits to interacting with people.
A great interactive exhibit is one that makes people visiting the museum to interact with each other. There are many fabulous technologies that can take the old push-button style of interactive exhibits into an entirely new dimension. However building live and asynchronous social networks on many levels is really where interactivity needs to go. Both stimulating and enabling conversations is where museum interactivity needs to go.
I think the issues facing museums are extremely interesting, and relevant across a far broader domain, as they fundamentally deal with the intersection of the virtual and physical in our experiences. Despite the rise of the virtual, there is extraordinary value in physical artefacts. To move into the future we absolutely need to understand and draw on our past. Physical objects are the crystallized manifestations of our collective thoughts and history. Museums are on an extraordinary journey which will see many thrive, and often look very different to how they do today. http://rossdawsonblog.com/weblog/archives/2008/05/thinking_about.html

So, SAM literally has to decide what does it want to be when it grows up.

Looking at attendance figures, SAM is one of the top museums in the country. See, Top 100 Arts and Culture Museum Ranking https://sites.google.com/site/silviaresanswers/Home/top-100-arts-and-culture-museum-ranking According to the Art Career Project, SAM is number six in the list of 30 Must-See Art Museums In The U.S:

6. Seattle Art Museum – Seattle, Wash.
The museum actually owns and operates three separate facilities, including the main museum, the Asian Art Museum located in the city’s Capitol Hill, and the Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront. All three are tremendous visits and are home to some magnificent works of art. The collection has more than 20,000 works and few museums can boast such a impressive array of different types, from every corner of the world.
Three to see:
Olympic Sculpture Park
Not only is the scenery surrounding the park a breathtaking sight to behold, but admission is free and the sculptures on display are awe-inspiring. The Eagle by Alexander Calder may be the most famous part of the collection, but don’t miss the Eye Benches, some of the most unique sculptures you will ever see.
The Art Ladder
Chances are if you visit the museum, you can’t miss the “Art Ladder” and its monstrous statues. Just make sure not to pass them by so quickly. The area is free to walk around and the statues are impressive in their size and craftsmanship.
Colors of the Oasis
http://www.theartcareerproject.com/30-must-see-art-museums-in-the-u-s/1044/#sthash.UG2EJ89g.ZPNuo6C5.dpuf

SAM is nationally and internationally recognized for the quality of its presentations, so why this fork in the road talk?

Christopher Knight wrote in the 2007 LA Times article, With new space, Seattle Art Museum expands its vision:

When the Seattle Art Museum turns 75 next year, it intends to be not only the most important general art museum in the Pacific Northwest but to be nationally prominent too. It might just get its wish…

The museum’s regional rank has been secure for years, but mostly by default. The competition is slim.

Even now, if your idea of a first-rate general art museum is one that’s stuffed with European painting and sculpture dating from ancient Greece and Rome to the rambunctious launch of the 20th century, the Seattle Art Museum is not for you. Two of its long-standing strengths are African art and Northwest coastal Native American art. The small European collection is mostly mediocre and not remotely comprehensive. There’s great porcelain, but you won’t find a Picasso painting.

If you’re willing to shift conventional expectations, though, you’ll discover a museum that has been smartly rethinking itself in recent years. What’s new is this larger aspiration….

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-seattleart2may02,0,4475141.story#axzz2l2RvTWDM

Back in 2007 SAM had big aspirations, now the question is where are those aspirations leading?

Charity Navigator has some very interesting information about SAM. Here is some balance sheet information:

Income Statement (FYE 06/2012)

REVENUE

Contributions

Contributions, Gifts & Grants

$5,768,913

Federated Campaigns

$447,253

Membership Dues

$4,897,027

Fundraising Events

$438,145

Related Organizations

$294,013

Government Grants

$403,865

Total Contributions

$12,249,216

Program Service Revenue

$4,242,610

Total Primary Revenue

$16,491,826

Other Revenue

$8,023,516

TOTAL REVENUE

$24,515,342

EXPENSES

Program Expenses

$21,173,594

Administrative Expenses

$11,769,768

Fundraising Expenses

$2,482,792

TOTAL FUNCTIONAL EXPENSES

$35,426,154

Payments to Affiliates

$0

Excess (or Deficit) for the year

$-10,910,812

Net Assets

$240,796,053

See the full report at http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=4449#.UosW_B7Tldh

Judith Dobrzynski wrote in the New York Times article, How an Acquisition Fund Burnishes Reputations:

Although acquiring art is a core mission, private collectors donate 80 to 90 percent of what is on view in American art museums. Fewer than two dozen museums have sizable nest eggs to buy the art they choose.

A few more, notably the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, are wealthy enough to buy steadily by drawing on unrestricted endowments, but have no special funds for acquisitions. Most of the time, when art museums find an object they desire, “we find someone who’s willing to support that acquisition,” said Dan L. Monroe, director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

In lean times like these, when museums are budgeting to the razor’s edge, those with pools for art purchases enjoy a distinct advantage — they are not permitted to use the money, usually about 5 percent of the principal each year, for anything but buying art…

Who has money set aside for buying art, and who does not, has more to do with a museum’s benefactors than with its size or location. The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., has more than four times what the Seattle Museum of Art has: $35 million versus less than $7.8 million. That is because Henry Melville Fuller, a trustee, upon his death in 2001 left the Currier $43 million, half designated for the art purchase fund….http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/arts/artsspecial/a-fund-for-buying-art-burnishes-collections-and-reputations.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

In terms of acquisitions, the question for most museums is how do we get there from here?

SAM is a much loved institution in Seattle and the upcoming strategic plan analysis must look at a number of issues, but most important is where does the museum go as it looks ahead to the next 85 years.

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Dr. Wilda Reviews Seattle Art Museum’ 2014 – 2015 seasons: SAM is at a fork in the road

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