I recently attended the American Association of Museums (AAM) conference in Minneapolis, an enormous interdisciplinary gathering of over four thousand museum professionals from institutions of all kinds – performing arts, visual arts, science, natural history, air & space, you name it. The theme of the conference was “Creative Community,” and for my fine arts colleagues, this thrust resonated with a February 2011 NEA study authored by Jennifer Novak-Leonard and arts evaluation guru Alan Wolfe, about an increasing diversity of arts participation in America—despite the rapidly diminishing role of the art institution.

Whereas the 2008 NEA survey on the arts in America showed a significant decline in attendance at all arts institutions (34.6% of all Americans, down from 39.5% in 2002), as well as an audience that has become disproportionately white in contrast to increasing demographic diversity, the 2011 study offers a glimmer of hope. Rather than focusing only on benchmark attendance at arts institutions, the authors evaluated engagement using a broader “multi-modal” approach—taking into account arts creation, electronic media use, and participation in community venues like schools and religious institutions.  Surprising in the face of declining attendance, they found that no less than 74% of Americans engaged in one of these artistic modes—the bulk participating not in museums or performing arts venues, but in their neighborhoods and homes.

All through the non-profit arts sector, this notion is rumbling the foundation of culture and widening the cracks in the walls of the ivory tower. It is not that Americans are not engaging in artistic activity – much to the contrary. They are simply choosing to participate in ways that do not include museums. From the theme of AAM to the shifts in funding priorities recently announced by several philanthropic organizations including the James Irvine Foundation, community engagement and pushing beyond the four walls of the museum are becoming urgent strategies for the continued survival of art institutions. Irvine’s new set of priorities is called “Exploring Engagement,” and apropos to the arts participation study, focuses on broadening audience demographics through an increased focus on non-traditional venues for art embedded in communities. This is not to say that these trends are a result of this data alone; rather the rise of social engagement in artistic practice, the urgency of budget crises, and the void of institutionalized arts education are all combining to make broad social engagement by museums a necessity rather than an afterthought.

The winds are shifting, and museums of all kinds are reacting—sometimes fundamentally shifting their missions and structures in response, calling into question what comprises the boundaries of the institution. At AAM I encountered many models, too numerous and multivalent to go into much detail here, but perhaps could be categorized as such: Radical Openess, Museum as Service, and Decentralized Museum. These formats are inevitably infused with socially-engaged artistic practice, a flexible and hybrid process of working that is naturally aligned with such participatory formats.

Open Field at the Walker

“Radical Openess” can be described as efforts to bring community-generated content into the space of the museum, opening the space for curation and artistic production by a broad swath of publics. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is programming the massive four-acre field outside of its building with museum-curated events (Machine Project did several projects there) but also with music, performance, and workshops programmed by a swath of public participants. The Queens Museum of Art likewise brings community events and programs into its space, and the Dallas Museum of Art dedicates an unprecedented 12,000 square feet of space smack dab in the middle of its galleries to participatory work and community exhibition space.

Immigrant Respect pin from Immigrant Movement International

The “Museum as Service” model is so named because it describes programs that expand the museum’s educational mission to encompass life skills and services beyond art. The Queens Museum of Art again has some of the most innovative programs addressing its unique and diverse immigrant constituencies, including the New New Yorkers program, which provides language, art, and technology classes to recent immigrants. Another fascinating ongoing project was artist-generated—Tania Brughera’s “Immigrant Movement” which now comprises a community-run revolutionary political advocacy group for immigrants including over 40 neighborhood organizations.

Trade City’s PopWagon

One of the most interesting models that deeply calls into question the future of the institution I am naming the “Decentralized Museum.” These strategies stem from concerns about declining institutional attendance and seek to leverage still-thriving local arts participation by embedding the institution within communities on an intimate smaller scale. One tactic is mobility – Maria Mortati has a mobile pop-up exhibition space in San Francisco that completely packs up into a single car, and the Los Angeles Trade City theater group just debuted its mobile community stage called PopWagon. Another tactic is the satellite space, which science museums seem to be utilizing more and more – the Buffalo Science Center has created temporary “Science Spots” that appear in storefronts across the city and offer educational science programming, whereas the Los Angeles California Science Center is experimenting with institution-sponsored neighborhood “science clubs” in partnership with existing community organizations (focusing on regions that are distant and may find visiting the center an improbability).

A satellite “Science Spot” of the Buffalo Science Center

What does this mean for the future of the institution? A huge challenge of this work is capacity – museums are organized to sustain an exhibition program, and working in a tactical, mobile, or radically open way necessitates a reskilling. Queens Museum has a community organizer on staff to form stable relationships as a foundation for the programming, and other museums are assembling ad hoc teams cobbling together working processes and knowledge from many departments and staff levels. There remains a dearth of appropriate evaluation tools to measure impact beyond basic attendance, which becomes meaningless in the face of an expanded model. How does one assess the feelings about a museum, the reach of a program, from participants who may never walk through the doors? And how does this shift the perception of the museum’s success from the point of view of donors, funders, and board members? Finally, what does this mean for artists? Perhaps a broadening of opportunity, and a need for developed organizational and participatory strategies – not to mention a coalescing of best working practices and a steadfast position that socially-engaged art will not solve the audience problem for museums, but perhaps help us shift our thinking about the future of museums in more layered complexity.