get off my (museum) lawn!

Originally posted at my blog, Cabinet of Curiosities. It may or may not be a coincidence that my opinion of the articles in question is smack dab in the middle. Such is a Gen-X life. 

Maybe it’s just me but is it “dump on museums” month? First arts writer Judith Dobrzynski bemoans how participatory museums have caused “high culture” to hit the skids. Then CNN Travel senior producer James Durston makes a point of telling us why he thinks museums suck. All of a sudden, museums have everybody’s knickers in knots.

My first reaction was of the “Oh, no they didn’t!” variety. The museum industry is my baby and resisting my first instinct to tear into this conversation like a rabid mama wolverine was pretty challenging. So I took a deep breath, read both articles and the comments multiple times, and tried to unpack what was before me.

I’m showing my Gen-X stripes here but I read most of Ms. Dobrzynski’s “High Culture Goes Hands-On” in the voice of comedian Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man: “In my day, art museums were elitist and stodgy and nobody talked or had fun and we liked it.”

Grumpy old man

Take this passage:

In ages past, art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. Visiting one might be social — you went with friends — but fairly passive. People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.

True, museums are repositories and stewards of human material culture. But since when has visiting anything been a passive experience? Even a seemingly mundane trip to the grocery store involves multi-layered engagement. How do you expect people to find that beauty and inspiration without activating their senses? And to suggest that the “uplift” gained from quietly viewing so-called masterpieces has more inherent value than engaging in robust conversation surrounding contemporary art is the epitome of hubris. Is the experience worthless because it isn’t the way you prefer to engage with art?

Just for grins, let’s visit the other end of the spectrum with Mr. Durston’s “Why I Hate Museums” where he takes issue with museum funding:

Many of the world’s biggest and best museums are dependent on public money. London’s Natural History Museum needed £82 million ($128 million) to operate over 2012/2013, and nearly £46 million of this, 56%, came from government grants. The Smithsonian has been government funded to the tune of $811.5 million for 2013 — 65% of its total costs. Yet these are still cited as among their country’s best ‘free’ activities.

And while he admits he hasn’t given much thought to how museums contribute to economies, he goes on to say:

But the collect-and-cage policy that defines the visible exhibits, much of which is not even visible most of the time, is anathema to an engaging experience.

More experience, not less. Caged objects, no food/no photo policies, mismanagement, and museums that glorify their architecture over their contents give him the blues. Drama, excitement, and theater should be the order of the day. On its face, this is an argument I can agree with. Audience engagement is central to what I do as a museum employee. Unlike most of the commenters, I don’t assume that Durston, a self-described “museum-phobe”, is a dundering, uncultured idiot. He’s right. Some museums come off like their administrators are allergic to fun. But isn’t saying that museums are important while simultaneously insinuating that none of them are worth supporting financially the worst kind of backhanded compliment?

These articles present as thirsty click-bait, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is the rancid divisiveness that’s sprung up as a result. As others more eloquent than me have pointed out, applying an “either-or” mentality to this discussion is ridiculous. All humans aren’t alike, so there’s no way to craft a singular experience that appeals to everyone. Yet we continue to focus on the differences when we should learn from the commonalities. It’s a distracting shell game that accomplishes nothing except pitting one side against the other in a tiresome, age-old argument.

Despite the disparity of their arguments, Dobrzynski  and Durston are saying the same thing: Museums are letting me down. So instead of name-calling, let’s put our collective brains together to figure out how to create open, encouraging environments that allow the peaceful co-existence of a variety of experiences, from quiet contemplation to boisterous activity.

That’s the only way to serve us all.

Gen X Gets Political

As the 2012 United States Presidential Election season winds down, it occurred to me that in all the blustering and posturing that we have been subjected to, once again Generation X has been roundly ignored. I know we’re not as big as the Boomers and Millennials. I understand that apparently we’re complete failures in the procreation department and not old enough to have our opinions on Medicare and Social Security matter even while we work extremely hard to fill its coffers with little hope of there being much left for us when we reach our late sixties. Our concerns and issues are real but we’ve been relegated to Whiny Middle Child status, complete with condescending head-pats and frequent trips to the time-out corner.

Consider this: Barack Obama is barely a baby boomer yet if you examine his speeches, ads, and sound bites, he and his campaign advisors are squarely aligned with that camp. Despite the fact that during his previous Presidential campaign, he was swept to victory in large part based on the energy, enthusiasm, and support of Generation X and Millennial voters, it seems like this time around the courting is cursory at best: “Sure, get out the vote, go door to door, rally the troops, etc., but when it comes to actually spelling out my plans for you or actively discussing the issues that directly impact your lives in national forums? Later for all that. I’ve got Boomers to chase.”

As Obama squares off against Governor Mitt Romney to retain what is arguably the best and the worst job in the world, he’s dealing with a different kind of Boomer, one that isn’t associated with the typical 1960s coming-of-age cultural touchstones. Romney spent the years of flower power and sexual revolution performing Mormon missionary work (which exempted him from military service in Vietnam) and living an admittedly secluded, conservative family life on the Harvard University campus. Romney, as expected, plays this to his advantage. He seems to be saying, “Yes, I’m of that generation but I’m not of that generation. Therefore, you can trust me. I don’t have to say ‘I didn’t inhale’ because I don’t even know what that stuff looks like.” Still, he doesn’t have much to say when it comes to the children of that generation, although he did throw us a bone by nominating Senator Paul Ryan as his running mate.

Nobody seems interested in actively acknowledging it, but Gen Xers are all over the 2012 U.S. Presidential Race: Senator Marco Rubio, Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker, San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julián Castro, Texas State Representative Joaquin Castro, Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, and Senator Kelly Ayotte are but a few of the “slacker” generation representing all points on the political spectrum.

Since there’s just about two weeks to go and (according to some polls), it’s a dead heat between the Democratic and Republican candidates, there’s not much hope that any messaging will be tailored to my generation. But one thing is certain: if we fail to show up on Election Day, our concerns will never be addressed. So please vote!


Asshole 101: Boomer Privilege

Warning: angry, generalized rant ahead in response to the onslaught of ALL THE THINGS perpetuating the myth that Baby Boomers Rule the World and Will Do So Forever.

Dear Boomers: Through a mystical combination of genetics, propaganda, averages and pure, dumb luck your overpopulated cohort has managed to survive a long number of years on this planet. Because of this, The Universe owes you. Therefore, it’s perfectly fine to cut checkout lines, demand old-age discounts, insist that nothing has value unless you created it, and extinguish the leadership torch your children and grandchildren should inherit rather than passing it along.

You want all the privileges, all the time. You want the perks of being old, but you bristle at being referred to as such. You want your incontinence pads renamed “underwear.” You want a steady supply of pills to keep your fun bits engorged engaged. You want younger people to spurn the things you gleefully enjoyed. To everyone else, this ideology smacks of entitlement. To you, it is a right.

You think you’ve done it all. You think you’ve earned it all. You think you know it all. Well, here’s one thing you’re forgetting: none of us get out of this alive.

It’s only a matter of time. Your prophetic and talented peer James Brown said it best: give it up or turn it loose.

While you can.

Gen X Loves Museums. Do Museums Love Us Back?

*Hat-tip to The Pinky Show for completing biting their title

I wrote a post for my blog, Cabinet of Curiosities, bemoaning the lack of racial diversity (for the lack of a better word) in museums, particularly in leadership positions. It’s not like I expected things to miraculously change in the two years since it was written, but I confess that in my heart of hearts burned the desire that the collective ship would have at least begun to recognize that it was hopelessly off-course and begun the process of righting itself.

But in keeping with my sailing theme, it seems that not only has the industry failed to find its way, it has been magnificently obstinate about remaining lost at sea. Expand diversity to include ethnic, gender and age differences, and it’s even worse.

Museums Need to Admit They Have Image Problems

My former museum gig involved (among way to many things to list here) sitting in a very public space and discussing educational programs, how they actually allow us to have art Kansas City (“Wow! I can’t believe this is the Midwest!”), and helping them find the bathroom (right next door). It was also a prime spot to observe visitors’ perceptions of that museum in particular and the industry in general.

I often heard variations of the following:

  • “I’m so glad to see you here.” This from black folks who appreciated the fact that I was in the building and operating in what seemed like a “professional” capacity (not food service, security, or maintenance.)
  • “Why is there nothing but old, white man art on the walls?”
  • “How come there’s no art by (insert ethnic/racial group here)?”
  • “I haven’t been here since the third grade. It just doesn’t feel like a place for me.”

The last bullet is particularly troubling. Why would someone feel this way? What vibe, overt or otherwise, is the museum projecting? Are museum leaders aware that people think this? Do they care?

Museums Need to Admit The World Has Changed

Much literal and virtual ink has been devoted to rapidly changing demographics, particularly in the United States.  It boils down to this: changes aren’t on the horizon, they are here. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • U.S. population tripled during the last century, with the fastest growth among “minorities.”
  • In 2012, 50.4% of children in the U.S. under the age of 1 are of a “minority” group.
  • “Minorities” are expected to become the majority by 2042. Do the math, people. That’s 30 years.

Anyone who truly believes that the status quo can be sustained is misguided at best and delusional at worst. Your current and future visitors, students, and donors will expect to see themselves reflected in your trustees, staff, collections, and exhibitions. This may be a good time to revisit (or create) that diversity policy.

Museums Need to Admit They Give Gen X the Gas Face

The National Endowment for the Arts released a report called “Age and Arts Participation.” While it narrowed its focus on the Baby Boomers Cohort, their data showed that “Baby Busters” (defined as those born between 1966 – 1976) ranked second highest in art museum attendance. Obviously, you have fans in Gen X but as a whole you’re not checking for us, especially when it comes to hiring for leadership positions. If you want your museum to be truly progressive, consider the following:

  • Gen X is an untapped pool. We are highly educated, with 60% of us having some college education, yet we value experience as highly (if not more so) than formal education. We work more hours as a whole, love flexibility, and base our career choices on the potential for skill development and continuing education.
  • Gen X is your next board of trustees.  We are the most diverse generation alive, with less than two-thirds of its population reporting as White non-Hispanic. The U.S. Census reports that 29% of immigrants are aged 29 to 40.
  • Gen X is adaptable.  We are independent, adept at problem-solving and securing coalitions of the willing. While our foundation is in the early pre-information era, we came of age during the rise (and fall) of the dot-coms, and are well-versed in technological innovation. Connectivity is a key value, and given the proper due, we will become your biggest cheerleaders.

I  believe there’s more than enough room for Gen X at the table. Museums just have to offer us a seat.

There is Hope for Us All

I’m not a huge fan of labels, but I know that people crave categories like bacon. So here I am, whether I like it or not, squarely in Generation X. This term has been around for a while, having been used to describe various disaffected youth subcultures like mods, rockers and punks during the 1950s and 1960s.

However, when applied to those born between 1965 – 1982, it’s snooze-worthy. It’s not an empowering placeholder for an oppressive moniker, like when Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X. It’s certainly not adventurous like “Millennial.” It doesn’t evoke images of setting the world on fire like “Boomer.” Those generations are respectively dubbed “digital natives” and “game-changers.” What do we get? “Slacker” or my favorite, “forgotten.”

I’m sure it was rough for Boomers to hear about their parents being part of “The Greatest Generation” ad nauseum but it seems that disgust has been cast away with glee as they assumed their role as rulers of the roost and never let go.

Jeff Gordinier describes it thusly in his book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking:

Generation X has marinated in the fat of boomer mythology for so long now that we’re like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix when he’s hooked up to all those tubes and wires in a tub of gelatin. We don’t even notice. And yet the relentlessness of the juggernaut— really, it’s amazing. Pick up Newsweek and you’ll come across a series called “The Boomer Files,” which presses that creaky rewind button one more time to tell us—to teach us—about all the astonishing changes the disco-and-Brie generation has wrought upon the American lifestyle. Fashion, music, money, food, shopping, parenting, sex—there is no realm of human conduct, Newsweek avers, that remains unboomerized.

But wait! Here come those pesky Millennials, right on Generation X’s heels, ready to claim their rightful inheritance which has been earned without merit because their Boomer parents force-fed them a consistent diet of special sauce and gave everyone trophies just for showing up.

In a study published by the American Psychological Association, lead author Jean Twenge concedes that this group is essentially mired in selfishness:

Popular views of the millennial generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, as more caring, community-oriented and politically engaged than previous generations are largely incorrect, particularly when compared to baby boomers and Generation X at the same age. These data show that recent generations are less likely to embrace community mindedness and are focusing more on money, image and fame.

See why I hate labels? If you believe the hype, we’re all boned. But that’s a good thing because at least it means we’re  in this together.

If you’re in the arts and culture game, you know that it’s inherently generational. Parents introduce children to museums, who grow up engaged with those organizations, ultimately bringing their own children into the fold. It’s an extremely important cycle. Ignoring or courting one group for the sake of any other is a fool’s game and programmatic suicide.

I urge you to cast all of the stereotypes aside, take charge of your collective destinies and do something completely radical: have real conversations about what you want, what drives your creativity, what fuels your desires, and how cultural organizations can assist you with those efforts.

That’s how change worthy of all generations is made.