By now, we’ve grown quite accustomed to reading headlines and news stories announcing cancelled exhibitions and budget cuts in art museums around the world. When we read that our national and international cultural institutions are suffering from a lack of financial support, it’s almost as though we’re not surprised—they’re becoming the rule, rather than the exception. And yet the public outcry that arises in the aftermath of these announcements pales in comparison to that which stems from the controversy surrounding museum franchising efforts. When a museum closes its doors, we typically point fingers at the governing body for its failure to secure the legacy of our cultural heritage. Its their fault, not the museum’s. Why then do we so readily villainize museums that refuse to passively watch as their financial lifelines are cut off? The situation of the franchised museum is a peculiar and sensitive one: we’ve tasked these institutions with the responsibility of preserving our cultural heritage, but harshly question the intentions of these museums when they strive to becomes self-sustaining establishments. Where is the middle-ground?
Perhaps it lies behind the strategy recently adopted by the Centre Pompidou. In March, the Paris-based museum opened the doors of a satellite location in Málaga, Spain. The catch? Its a pop-up; a five year long venture during which the offshoot will host a series of temporary exhibitions as well as artworks from the museum’s permanent collection. Unlike the Guggenheim, the Pompidou has expanded into a foreign city that has proven itself capable of managing its own cultural institutions. Málaga is not the ‘empty cultural space’ that Bilbao was considered prior to the opening of the Guggenheim. The birthplace of Pablo Picasso and home to reputable art institutions like the Carmen Thyssen Museum and a Center for Contemporary Art, Málaga has a tangible cultural inheritance that exists independently from the Pompidou’s presence there. Additionally, the pop-up hinges on its sense of ‘Spanish-ness’, positioning Picasso as the cornerstone of the collection in effort to explicitly center the museum in a dialogue with the public—primarily the locals, rather than tourists. These artworks are not being horse-traded like traditional investment assets, as was the feeling behind the Bilbao endeavor. Rather, they are being used as vehicles for cultural enlightenment, moved from the confines of a dark storage facility into an innovative space that will help garner attendance, notoriety and, perhaps most importantly, funding for the both the flagship museum and the host city.
The Wall Street mindset has elbowed its way into museums, demanding hard numbers as proof of overall performance. Figures on attendance, membership, budget growth and exhibition funding have become the standard mechanism for measuring a museum’s performance. However, while this practice is perfectly sound for businesses, it hardly provides an accurate portrayal of the effectiveness of museum practices. Non-profits are agents of human change and thus, the results of their efforts don’t always come in the form of numbers and figures. Demanding numbers from museums only increases pressure to engage in activities that are reflective of solely short-term fiscal thinking. Museums are rendered inept when they’re forced to think commercially. Rather, the museum’s performance needs to be measured by creating standards and commitment, and strengthening the level of public trust. In this strategy, ’fundraising’ becomes ‘fund development’.
No one wants to see their nation’s most treasured museums sacrifice the narrative of the unique in exchange for a brand. We want to see them increase accessibility and gain notoriety, but we want to see it done in a manner in which money will follow the art, rather than vice versa. I believe the Pompidou is on its way towards developing a unique business framework for the modern museum; one that more successfully strikes a balance between a ministry for culture and a global franchise. The strategy has already proven so promising that the Pompidou has entered talks about opening a second pop-up location in China. However, the Pompidou should be wary of entering a territory so heavily scouted by competing museums like the Guggenheim. As Artnet News writer Christie Chu explains, “with Asian buyers fast becoming the most active collectors, it is no wonder why such important international institutions such as the Centre Pompidou and the Guggenheim have their eyes on the rapidly growing market”. Will the Pompidou’s subsequent pop-ups retain the cultural sensitivity and organizational novelty we’ve seen in Málaga? One can only hope.