Art museums need to be bolder.
For decades, the nearly 700 campus-based museums across the United States have exemplified this courage and played an outsized role in making the fine arts ecosystem more equitable and accessible.
College and university galleries and museums, almost always lauded solely for serving liberal arts learning and teaching, quiet and largely remote from urban centers and shores, have done other important work: They have as sanctuary from staring guns served for both artists seen and alternative art histories; they have eagerly prioritized the needs of their audiences, often in ways that a conventional museum would not dream of; and they are committed to showing visitors how Knowledge itself is constructed, including the museums’ own role in such constructions.
In their missions, practices and deep engagement with the public, they provide seeds for the reinvention of the entire sector. Here are five ways college and university museums are modeling a bolder future for museums in general.
First people, then objects
Unlike traditional art museums, most campus museums did not begin with missions primarily focused on collecting and preserving art. They were designed to educate people, especially students: people first, art second. This underlying ethos has been at the core of the work of my own museum, the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), for the last several years. Arizona State University’s museum mission statement also makes it clear, asking, “What if museums designed to honor objects change their model to honor people?”
In practice, campus museums’ focus on student learning has translated into a prioritization of broad access to their resources and a more equitable sharing of authority. Most of them are completely free, with no tickets to special exhibitions or programs. Many have student governing bodies with decision-making authority. Many also borrow works from their collections, which students can take home for months. The Weisman in Minneapolis is perhaps the earliest; The program began in 1934. The Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College extends the practice beyond students, inviting community members to borrow works each semester.
Non-university museums could follow this model by including community members and students on their boards. Partnerships with local organizations, colleges and universities also provide a powerful mechanism to demystify the work of the board and engage the public in decision-making – showing that these stakeholders, and not the objects stored, are the museum’s true constituency.
Give the public a stake
At UMMA, in recent years it has driven our decisions to give the broader public meaningful participation in the institution. In 2019, we invited the public to decide which items we should acquire from a selection of 1,000 indigenous photographs presented in our Take Your Pick exhibition. Over 100,000 votes were cast and 250 photographs entered the collection with the annotation “Selected by museum visitors”.
In 2020, we met an urgent public need by transforming our most visible gallery into a fully functioning town clerk’s office: 5,400 people were registered with the UMMA to vote and more than 8,000 ballots were cast within our walls. We’re doing it again for the midterm elections this fall. By involving the public in the decision-making process and using the museum to meet broader civic needs, campus-based museums upend traditional power dynamics and begin the process of converting visitors into partners and collaborators.
Many museums have experimented with crowdsourced curation and voting projects, but usually as episodic or artist-driven projects. They could follow the lead of university museums in promoting this as an ongoing endeavor. When UMMA offered the public a vote to purchase photographs, many voted freely for images of BIPOC people, a subject rarely seen in museums. We have diversified significantly in one fell swoop who was seen on the walls of the museum and learned what many of our public desired to see more.
Challenge the canon
With no governing bodies to influence collecting, many campus museums have long served as sanctuaries from the outright discrimination and misogyny of both traditional canon and market forces.
Historically, Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have led this work and single-handedly championed Black artists for more than a century, whom all other institutions have refused to “claim them, put them on display, put them on the wall hanging on to teaching about them,” as scholar Jessica Lynne wrote.
Other campus museums have followed suit, championing unknown artists and art histories long before they became popular. Since it opened in 1985, MIT’s List Gallery has primarily shown artists who have not yet had solo exhibitions. The Nasher at Duke University emphasizes collecting work from artists who have historically been excluded from established art institutions.
Many art museums are now pursuing more diverse programs and learning from the example of HBCUS and others. But focusing all efforts of art museums on expanding the history of art, present and past, would do much to appeal to a wide audience.
Scattered across the country, in rural areas and small towns in every state, campus museums also provide much of the regional diversity needed for a healthy arts ecosystem. They have been steadfast in their support of local artists despite the field’s continued focus on artists in New York and Los Angeles. ArtGym, established under the auspices of Marylhurst University, has featured work exclusively by Northwest artists since the 1980s.
Wayne State University in Detroit, on the other hand, has been collecting contemporary works by Michigan and regional artists, many of them African American, since the 1960s. Embedded in colleges and universities as they are, this commitment to local talent has an outsized impact: it introduces these artists to the historical source of canon-making itself, the academy, and introduces the next generation of curators, collectors, and museum-goers to work.
Show your work even if it’s flawed
Additionally, campus museums have shown a consistent willingness to expose how museums themselves construct and produce knowledge, including systemic racism, misogyny, and exclusionary art history.
At UMMA, this has been the guiding principle of Wish You Were Here: African Art and Restitution, an exhibition and research project that examines, in real time and on gallery walls, 11 works of African art in our collection, allowing visitors access to documents, photographs and correspondence to better understand the history of each object and prepare multiple objects for possible repatriation.
All museums need to be honest about their own practices of exclusion and what has enabled them to do so, from the administrative structure to hiring practices to opaque decision-making, and deal with it openly so that the entire field can begin to function as true cultural stewards and themselves to meet the widespread call for change.
Campus museums are not perfect. They are embedded in institutions with their own history of deep-rooted racism and exclusion. But they have unique freedoms and missions that they can use to create profound industry-wide change. They are capable of doing the most daring and radical work in this field. And other museums should take note of the model they offer: people-centric, governed by the public they serve, accessible to all, and transparent about how they got here.
Christina Olsen is director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art and co-chair of the Arts Initiative at the University of Michigan.
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