Watch the line between art and commerce blurring

Museums are reinventing themselves to find new audiences

Not so long ago, art museums were viewed as a domain of learning, privilege and exclusion. But several things have happened during the past few decades that have changed all that.

The ascendancy of contemporary art and design has been a factor, as has the need to remain relevant to audiences, especially the young for whom new technology is part and parcel of the experience. Then there's increased commercial pressures on publicly funded institutions to pay their way.

And last but not least, is the burgeoning of cultural tourism and what's been called the 'Bilbao effect', after the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim satellite that transformed an obscure Spanish town into a tourist destination.

According to Gay McDonald, a senior lecturer at UNSW Art & Design, museums are reflecting the demands of new audiences: "The gallery is viewed as a civic space and art is just one of the components within it," McDonald says.

In Australia, the hugely popular Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) in Tasmania, the product of gambling millionaire David Walsh's singular vision, is widely praised as creating a new template for the way art is viewed. Walsh has referred to it as "a subversive adult Disneyland".

Whether or not you're a fan of the artworks, there's no doubting that MONA has taken the cultural tourism trend by the horns. Situated on the beautiful Derwent River in Hobart, visitors can stay in high-tech, luxury pavilions, enjoy cellar door tastings at the MONA winery or boutique brewery, and attend a variety of music and cinematic events, as well as looking at the art. 

'The gallery is viewed as a civic space and art is just one of the components within it'


Primary community hubs

Purists may shrink at the notion that art has become a backdrop to a glamorous café or chic gift shop or that it has to compete on equal terms with other cultural events in the space, but Tony Ellwood, director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), believes it's a sign of how relevant art museums are in contemporary culture.

"The art gallery these days is one of the primary community hubs in any city and that's about being inclusive and open-minded," Ellwood says.

But some of these brave, new exhibition spaces are operating on a knife's edge.

Take New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, which reopened recently at a cost of US$422m in a fresh signature building from a big-name architect – the prize-winning Italian, Renzo Piano.

At the Whitney, the museum earns 70% of its operating expenses from admissions and membership – which makes it vulnerable. It has doubled its operational budget to US$49m a year and that has to be paid by increasing visitors and membership and enhanced endowment. It's also putting the entrance fee up.

And MONA, while widely regarded as successful (the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania estimates the museum contributes more than $100m a year to the state's economy), is only financially viable due to the income from the winery, brewery, restaurant and hotel that share the site.

 Once considered low-brow

Making the odds a little more even for museums is a focus on popular culture. It's in this sphere that they have witnessed the biggest growth. Exhibitions that focus on design objects, fashion and celebrity in particular are drawing large audiences.

Gary Sangster, a lecturer at UNSW Art & Design, believes that visitors today are "more comfortable with design, fashion and especially celebrity" which are part of consumerist culture. These industries aren't elitist or intimidating in the way that traditional art subjects can be.

Felicity Fenner, director of UNSW Galleries, agrees there has been a shift in programs "to exhibitions that are clearly more popular and ticketed and that might have been considered a bit low-brow a decade ago".

Fashion would almost certainly have fallen into that category. But today the industry has been one of the quickest to realise the potential of museum collaboration. The NGV paid tribute to fashion designer Jean Paul Gautier in 2014. Thirty years of Japanese fashion was staged earlier this year at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, while the V&A in London is presently showcasing Alexander McQueen.

The pop music industry hasn't been far behind. The acclaimed David Bowie exhibition has been a money-spinner for galleries around the world. 'Superfan' tickets for US$100 sold out in minutes when Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art beat other US galleries to stage the Bowie show.

If it demonstrates anything at all, it's that the line between art and business is becoming increasingly blurred. Are museums celebrating a popular icon or merely helping to sell their products? Or, in this consumerist age, with increased competition between museums for audiences – especially in the same city – should we worry about a line at all?

Ellwood thinks the question is insulting to design and designers, which he says have an equal place in the pantheon of contemporary culture:

"It's about diversity, balance and integrity of the experience. In the past two years the NGV has offered more contemporary art and design alongside our traditional and historical works."

It's a win-win situation, Ellwood says: "The gallery has seen a massive increase in visitors. There is a demand, and along with that comes an increase in philanthropy. We get to know our audiences better and the ways we might engage with them."

'We’ve used the gallery as a front to promote the city, just as a soccer team might use its stars to market the brand' 


Winners and losers

Sangster doesn't think there's a single magic formula for successful art galleries and "what works in one museum doesn't necessarily work in another".

The Brooklyn Museum in New York is an example of how changing tack to reposition as a broad community resource doesn't always come off. With a new and inviting glass entrance, it tried everything from Saturday night dance parties, installing a bar with food and staging funky shows such as a photographic history of rock'n'roll to entice visitors through the door. But it failed.

By contrast, the Bendigo Art Gallery in regional Victoria is one of Australia's most successful cultural spaces which not only attracts international exhibitions but has educational programs that address social isolation and has renewed civic pride in the city.

Its most successful show devoted to Grace Kelly sold 150,000 tickets. The city's population is only 110,000. As Stan Liacos, director of Bendigo's City Futures is quick to point out, "that's the equivalent of a Sydney gallery attracting an audience of five million".

Liacos is clear-sighted about the financial benefits in tourism that the gallery brings to Bendigo. "We've used the gallery as a front to promote the city, just as a soccer team might use its stars to market the brand. It's our way of differentiating ourselves from other cities," he says.

 Visiting online

Art galleries, whether regional or urban, now extend their collections and exhibitions to a global audience through technology. And social media has become a strong marketing tool as well as allowing museums to interact and build a loyal and engaged community.

Sangster believes it has the added advantage of allowing galleries to better understand and respond to their audience.

"The preservation of art is a very expensive business and galleries need a diversification of revenue streams to access money in different ways," he says.

And museums have to be more savvy: "I totally think museums' use of big data is appropriate and helps them to trail developments in culture and innovation."

But if galleries are opening themselves up digitally, is there any need to visit at all?

Fenner admits "it is a concern, but one thing that museums have is real artwork and they can create gateway strategies to enable people to have an authentic encounter with the art and artists, such as the use of iPads at MONA that guide people around the exhibition."

Galleries expect to be communicating through social media and have back stories on their websites and unique insights around the exhibitions. "But at the end of the day, nothing exceeds the experience of being there," Fenner says. 


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