Culture Summit 2019: How millennials can help museums attract new audiences

A panel on the third day of the summit discusses the importance of engaging the public

The Culture Summit panel 'How are the new publics shaping our new museums?'. From left to right: Suhanya Raffel, Director, M+, Hong Kong; Aaron Seeto, Director, MACAN, Jakarta; Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation; Kulapat Yantrasast, Architect, WHY; and Madeleine Grynsztejn, Director, MCA Chicago.  Courtesy Culture Summit
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Could Generation Y be the key to growing museum audiences?

It's a question that formed the basis of a panel on the third day of Abu Dhabi's annual Culture Summit, where discussions continued to centre on issues around cultural and media engagement of new audiences, and specifically on the museums sector.

Guggenheim Foundation director Richard Armstrong moderated the panel, which included Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the MCA, Chicago; Suhanya Raffel, director of the M+ Museum, which will open in 2020 in Hong Kong; Aaron Seeto, the director of the new Museum MACAN in Jakarta; and Kulapat Yantrasast, principal of the architecture firm WHY, which has worked on museum wings.

Two key themes emerged: firstly, the importance of millennials among museum audiences, and secondly, the utmost significance of audience engagement in museum's thinking.

“Thirty years ago we wouldn’t have cared what audiences thought about [US performance artist] Chris Burden lying on the floor,” said Grynsztejn, who is also the president of the Association of Art Museums Directors. “Now we do.”

The MCA, she continued, has taken as its motto “artist-activated, audience-engaged”.

Grynsztejn’s discussion of the twin facets of millennials and audience engagement underlined the notion that museums exist not just as repositories of artworks but as institutions with a civic mission.

"Millennials want their personal values and institutional values to Venn-diagram 100 per cent.

For her institution, with its Chicago location, this means reaching out to the city’s large black population that has typically been underserved in the cultural infrastructure. The museum has taken the idea of publicness into its building itself, creating a room called the “commons” for public events that are programmed by the museum and by other city non-profits who have fewer resources.

“Museums have to commit themselves to art and to civic life in equal measure,” she said. Not discussed at the talk was another architectural change at the MCA Chicago in 2017, which in a previous conversation she had mentioned as an example of how the museum is fighting what she calls the “extreme polarization” of the United States: they turned the former pump room for a bygone water feature into a prayer room, equipped with taps for cleansing for Muslim users.

Raffel, of M+, also underlined the public role of the museum, in her case in opposition to the Hong Kong art scene's market-led development. “Over the past five years there’s been a huge explosion of the market in Hong Kong,” she said, particularly with the burgeoning importance of the art fair Art Basel Hong Kong. “London and Hong Kong now vie for second place behind New York. But the museum world is till nascent. We need to think about value, and shape the story around understanding.”

This idea of the museum as serving public knowledge rather than the private market also dovetailed, perhaps surprisingly, with the rise of the millennials among museum audiences. Both Grynsztejn and Seeto noted that a significant proportion of their visitors were millennials, whom Grynsztejn suggested place higher moral and ethical demands on museums than did previous generations.

“Millennials want their personal values and institutional values to Venn-diagram 100 per cent,” she said. This includes demands for greater representation – and participation – in the museum: “nothing about us without us.”

The panel's ability to gauge how museums are being affected by new publics was set slightly adrift by the fact that only Grynsztejn and Seeto had museums to speak of. M+ had not opened yet and Yantrasast could likewise only speak in potentialities about the projects his film is undertaking. Armstrong, who moderated the talk, also noted that he is “hopeful that we will have another branch of the Guggenheim near [Manarat Al Saadiyat] very soon”.

MCA, Chicago director Madeleine Grynsztejn. Courtesy Culture Summit. 
MCA, Chicago director Madeleine Grynsztejn. Courtesy Culture Summit. 


Grynsztejn, in response to an audience member's suggestion for crowd-sourced exhibitions, was able to offer more specifics, with changes to how the museum generates its shows.

“The typical process for an exhibition is that a curator takes three years and researches the subject,” she said. “We’re flipping the model, with three years of public programming in advance of the exhibition. We’ll get the information out in front before,” creating a community who can greet the final product with a greater amount of expertise, and who can help refine how it appears.

But, if the winds of the Culture Summit are pointing anywhere, it is against the homogenising mode of art collections and museums that have the same roster of blue-chip North American and Western European artists.

Collections-sharing, such as MCA Chicago’s loaning of its entire collection currently to MASP in Sao Paulo, or the importation of Greece’s National Gallery of Contemporary Art to Documenta in Kassel in 2017; a great emphasis on performance and live events; and museums as research sites all point beyond the model of the collecting institution – particularly as modern and contemporary art grows in price and museums have fewer resources with which to buy.

Rather than greater outreach, museums need to think about how their own model is shifting itself: to include not just new publics but the disparate cultural languages that were formerly left out of Western-centric discourses.

“These museums have a capacity to start from scratch,” said Grynsztejn about the institutions on the panel that are still in development. “It thrills me to think of the intelligence we’re going to have.”