There is a belief held by many people, including artists, that art museums are about artists.
And by extension, local art museums are or should be about local artists- their art, their concerns and their careers.
A recent article in the St. Petersburg Times brought this belief into sharp focus. Museum Innovators Stay True To The Mission is an interview by Times art critic Lennie Bennett with six Tampa Bay museum directors. In an extensive double-spread story, the directors discuss their missions, creativity, and working through tough economic times.
After reading the interviews, it occurred to me to reread the story and with a yellow marker underline the word “artist” each time it appeared. I was surprised to find “artist” mentioned only one time in the entire story. Three internationally known painters were discussed, but only in the context of upcoming exhibitions. In closing, one of the directors stated that the key ingredients for a successful museum are exhibitions, collectors, critical writers and patrons. None of the six directors said part of their mission is to exhibit, promote, or support local artists.
However, all of the area museum directors I’ve known do support the local art scene. At various times there have been outstanding exhibitions of local artists as well as student and very special arts exhibitions. Museums have also, in the past, helped sponsor art related events. Sadly, these kinds of shows have succumbed to economic demands.
The Times article brought home one crucial factor in understanding how art museums function. Museums are in the business of art and consequently greatly concerned with
meeting payroll, insurance, taxes, building maintenance and myriad other problems that arise. These all take money of course, and I’ve come to believe that the main job of museum directors is fundraising.
Suffice to say, every museum exhibition must be considered in terms of how much buzz will be created and how many paying customers will come in the door. In that formula, exhibitions of local artists are not a high priority.