The Big Questions

The Columbia Museum of Art

Q:  When it comes to a museum’s permanent collection, is it better to diversify or build up strength in a few areas?

This question has been dogging me ever since I started interning at the Columbia Museum of Art.  I think the problem is especially relevant to small, local museums.  Places like the CMA have to worry about gaining national and international notoriety (which larger museums already have) as well as getting the local public interested.

Large exhibitions do both jobs.  2009’s Turner to Cezanne was advertised in newspapers like the New York Times and brought in visitors from all over the country.  It also boosted the museum’s membership by half.  This is wonderful, but what about the permanent collection?  It doesn’t get nearly enough love.

I tend to think big, so I think it’s better to build up strength in one or two areas to gain recognition for that part of the collection.  The CMA happens to have an excellent cache of Asian pottery and European old masters.  We have a lot of treasures, especially for a museum of our size and budget.

I wanted to get an opinion other that my (somewhat untrained) view, though, so I e-mailed Dr. Maryan Ainsworth, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (swoon).  Here is her answer:

I think it is difficult to generalize.

It would depend, I think, on the given museum’s permanent collection and acquisition budget or donor funding for acquisitions.

A keen eye on the market and what can be acquired at good value is also important.

What is the strength of the Columbia Museum of Art collection?  How do you use these collections effectively in teaching about art to your community? Would an acquisition in a certain area help to develop new visitorship? What can you do in terms of featuring parts of your collection with modest loans from elsewhere?

What cooperation do you have with area museums, and how can you devise a strategy for collecting that doesn’t compete with area museums, but at the same time strengthens your own holdings?

The CMA has already incorporated “Art History 101” classes and lectures from University of South Carolina professors, but I think more could be done to highlight Renaissance and Baroque paintings in the permanent collection.  Even better, some of these could be targeted to K-12 students.

In the guestbooks for a “highlights of the permanent collection” exhibition, I read requests both for more old masters and more modern art.  It seems the conundrum is that diversifying the collection might draw a bigger crowd, but that building up strengths would gain more national notice.  Perhaps if existing strengths were offered to the community in new and innovative ways, it would make room for both.

Next up, how do small museums tap into the market for acquisitions and loans?

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