The Evolution from Temples to Community Centers

Art Museums Today

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 15, No 2 (Summer 2004)

John R. Killacky

These remarks were presented at the Art Museum Development Association Conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles on April 23, 2004. They are presented here with permission from John Killacky.

Keeping dreams alive in this period of draconian change is daunting, but I am a hopeful person. This is not the time to merely work harder to make things better. We need to adapt and work differently.

I began working in the arts thirty years ago as a post modernist, first as a dancer and then managing Trisha Brown's company. The National Endowment for the Arts was still in its first decade and state arts councils were just being formed.

There were not a lot of expectations in those days—sweat equity went a long way. When Trisha Brown and I testified before the House Appropriations Committee on behalf of the NEA, she said her aspirations were not to have a two-car garage, but a two-coat closet.

Responsibilities of artists and organizations also seemed simpler then. The walls between art and life were being torn down, but no one thought to bring the audience along. Artists made work in isolation, burrowing into their studios—individuality was valued above all else. Mainstream institutions were temples for the worship of antiquities and masterpieces.

For many artists, validation did not come from the market place, but from burgeoning federal and state government support and from some of the institutions you represent today. A few select museums invited these cultural infidels into your dark and light spaces, mainstreaming an anti-establishment aesthetic.

This welcoming in of multi-disciplinary and new forms was a part of a larger movement in the 1990s. The museum field itself was coming under attack for being irrelevant and many tried to reinvent themselves, not only in aesthetics, but also in relation to civic engagement and cultural participation.

During this time, I was at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, running the Performing Arts program. As part of strategic planning, we redefined the mission to “being a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences.”

Including and involving audiences paralleled a significant shift in worldview experienced by most arts organizations. We first thought audience development was to be handled through education and marketing. Curators didn't think it was their job. Soon we began to understand that “outreach” was only a small component of our work to engage audiences. What resulted was systemic change. “Inreach,” or changing systems and perceptions internally, was a lot harder than outreach.

Earlier we had placed artists at the center of the mission. Now we placed audiences at the center of the experience. Didactics and docent training were transformed. Anchoring the work more deeply in the community became as important as supporting artistic expression. This shift in focus did not however mean moving away from cutting-edge artists. In the Culture Wars, I frequently got in Jesse Helms' craw. But I spent a lot more time in the community—creating a context for the work, having a dialogue with our various constituencies, and inviting people in before, during, and after performances.

Eight years ago, I moved to San Francisco to run Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. While the Center was being developed, a survey revealed 85 percent of San Francisco's cultural philanthropy went to fifteen organizations—all mainstream, all Euro-centric. This added another layer to the imperative: making sure programming was truly multi-cultural, community based, and representative of the city's diversity.

Given its mandate, the staff had to learn to behave differently. Our job was not merely to present the best to the community, but to engage in a cultural dialogue in an inclusive, respectful manner. Institutional ego had to be checked at the door. Curators had to learn to not only share real estate, but to give it up to community groups.

This is complicated. We hire curators for their passion and expertise, and then ask them to relinquish authority. It is very complex for exhibiting institutions built on a temple model to transform themselves into community centers.

An example of how Yerba Buena approached curatorial practice was the augmentation of the Roots, Rhymes and Rage exhibition that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame organized. When I first saw it, there were no Bay Area musicians included. My curators and I felt it would be wrong to just bring this to our community.

We met with members of the local hip-hop scene and worked with a local DJ to create Hip-Hop by the Bay, highlighting our region's unique and parallel development to counterparts across the country. Bay Area hip-hop came out of the hippie funk style of Sly Stone and politics; Tupac Shakur's mother was a Black Panther. This is quite different from the beat-box of the Bronx music scene.

By adding the local component, we told a different story, and thereby contributed to a national dialogue. We hoped these exhibitions would be popular and they were. Whenever I was in galleries, I saw excited teens bringing their friends, first to the local component to point out artists they knew personally, and then downstairs to view Queen Latifah's costumes. Local elements added considerably to the draw.

One question I was often asked was “Did the hip-hop kids return?” They did not return for the next exhibition of conceptual work from Portugal. But that's not the point. The important thing is that they came and will return when the Yerba Buena has something again for them.

Staying on mission while becoming more market sensitive is tricky. Mission drift should be a major concern as we look to increase earned income. It is dangerous to equate populism with success. Perhaps we have become too focused on measuring visitor figures and ancillary product sales. While blockbusters are crucial for income and temporarily bump up membership, they do not always translate into box office receipts for subsequent shows.

Everything we read these days forecasts bleaker times ahead, and from my current perch at The San Francisco Foundation, I think it is true. California has a long way to go before recovery. We lag behind the rest of the country in increasing job growth. Even with the Governor's proposed spending cuts, there still remains a $15 billion deficit, most of it structural. State support for the arts won't be returning any time soon.

It is important to remind each other that downsizing does not necessarily mean lessening the impact of programs. Fewer offerings allow staff to do more in depth programs connected to the exhibition calendar. Many university-based museums are now collaborating with other university departments to support curriculum needs, as well as to conduct joint fundraising.

Forging mutually beneficial partnerships are now even more essential. Organizations have an opportunity to become more porous by equitably sharing decisions, authority, resources, and space with myriad community partners. No longer can we merely ask them for their mailing lists.

A paradoxical aspect of our business is the “edifice complex.” Here we are in the majestic Getty. Libeskind's Jewish Museum, Eisenman's Wexner Center, Polshek's Rose Center for Earth and Space, Piano's Nasher Sculpture Center, Herzog and de Meuron's de Young Museum and Walker Art Center addition, Gehry's Guggenheim, Gehry's Experience Music Project, and Gehry's new Walt Disney Concert Hall—why does every city want a Gehry?

You work very hard with your boards and directors to raise astronomical amounts of money to realize these iconic buildings. The great families in our communities are willing to build them, let's hope they will help maintain them. Many may be great architecture, but twenty-five years from now, we'll see how many of these palaces will be considered distinguished, let alone functional.

Signature buildings often represent cities' dreams for sparking an economic and cultural renaissance. Yet how many museums actually live on the street where they are built? They are often more welcoming to tourists than to neighbors next door, especially if the organizations are built in blighted areas as a cornerstone of urban renewal.

At the Walker, we were very disappointed when we found out we were not too relevant to poor children and families less than one mile away. The staff got busy and tried to redress this. Folks at the Studio Museum in Harlem told me a similar story.

Reviews were rapturous about the Brooklyn Museum's makeover by Polshek, but naysayers were concerned about its focus on marketing to surrounding neighborhoods. The former director was quoted last week in The New York Times as saying he was disappointed in the new direction. In fact, the Brooklyn Museum's shift seems strategic to me and not controversial at all, even though the article stated: “Critics worry that the museum officials are taking the theme of accessibility so far that they are undermining the museum's strengths as a place respected for its scholarship, its research library, and its school outreach programs.”

W. McNeil Lowry, former director of the Ford Foundation's Program in the Humanities and the Arts, warned an audience in 1962 of “the temple complex.” He said:

In dozens of communities around the country, there are plans, drawings, or actual skeletons of so-called “cultural centers.” Somehow in our country public, business, and other lay leaders appear to believe that art begins with real estate, as if art is engendered by the four walls, if they be imposing enough. At the risk of appearing ungrateful...I believe we must guard against a failing...the tendency to mistake the symbol for the thing, the intent for the doing, the name for the act...it appears we are to have the audience before we are to know who will perform before it.

Lowry's words resonate today. Buildings alone are never the answer. Iconic architecture does not guarantee a great museum. You in this room enable your institutions to deliver the mission and programs.

I would like to close with a few words about personal agency. In January, I had a public conversation with playwright Tony Kushner at the Arts Presenters conference in New York. He spoke about the need for each of us to have our own personal agency, reminding us that when we don't act, we act; when we don't vote, we vote.

We need to be very conscious of this notion. In our zealous drive to recruit and retain members, court and please wealthy donors and collectors, and convince foundations and corporation to fund programs, we must retain our own sense of personal agency, as well as our institutions. No donor, no object, no contribution can be more important at the end of the day. Before I left Yerba Buena, fundraising had polluted most of my professional and personal relationships.

During the Culture Wars, I was perplexed at how little support arts groups got from each other. The radical right was very clear about its moral imperative. Unfortunately, the art world wasn't. When the Walker came under attack for presenting Karen Finley and Ron Athey, few museum colleagues offered support, publicly or privately.

This was no different than what happened in Cincinnati with Mapplethorpe or in Brooklyn with Sensation. By not acting, we acted. No one won the culture war; we lost it and live with the consequences.

In the days ahead, let us stay on course with our own moral compass. We are extremely dedicated arts workers, but need to become better cultural citizens. If any of us think that Janet Jackson's breast or Howard Stern being pulled off the airwaves has nothing to do with us, remember controversy is always the morning after and may be in your museum next month. When that happens, remember it is not about only supporting what we like. Like is what people have in their homes above the couch or in the CD player. Museums are supposed to offer a diverse array of offerings to our communities. That is our job. We define our humanity in difference not sameness.

Provocateurs in every age gave birth to new art movements. This has been the role of artists. As cultural stewards, we must support and embolden artistic expression. On the next cultural battlefield, let us not be silent out of fear, but close ranks on higher principles.

John R. Killacky is program officer, arts and culture, The San Francisco Foundation.