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Art Museum Partnership Directors forum: "Expecting the Unexpected"
Participants were offered a tour of El Museo’s Bienal.

By: Joyce Beckenstein

MATTITUCK, N.Y.- For the 2011 Art Museum Partnership Directors Forum (October 23-October 25), AMP co-founders, John Nichols and Katherine Crum again assembled a stellar roster of speakers to tackle an eclectic range of issues, all of them pulled together under the thematic banner, “Expecting the Unexpected.” AMP was established in 2006 to meet the needs of the approximately 1800 small to mid-sized museums that do not qualify for the American Association of Art Directors, comprised of the 200 largest museums.

“The conversations are germane to the issues we face,” commented Audrey Kauders, Director, Museum of Nebraska Art. Those issues included: The IRS says your tax-exempt organization owes Uncle Sam; there are authenticity problems with a Baule mask; who will manage Facebook… YouTube…and do we really need an app? Participants exuberantly ricocheted among venues as diverse as the ensuing conversations -- Christies, The Morgan Library & Museum, and El Museo del Barrio, with evening stops at Swann and Franklin Parrasch Galleries.

Dinner at the newly renovated National Arts Club provided a lush setting for keynote speaker Maria Ann Conelli, Founding Dean of the School of Visual Media and Performing Arts, Brooklyn College. In her address, “Budgets, Boards and Bad Decisions,” the former executive director of the American Folk Art Museum dealt candidly with the decision to sell the West 53rd Street facility to its next door neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art. She related how hindsight flushed out unfortunate choices and unrealistic expectations, and how no one planned for a recession. But the crisis decisions leading to a painful sale and a move to smaller quarters had two great payoffs – the collection was saved, and so were the staff’s pension funds.

Dr. Conelli’s talk was prologue to Monday morning’s workshop, “Your Power Base: Real Life Solutions for Boards and Committees,” at Christies. After a continental breakfast and a tour of iconic 20th century prints, directors settled into two hours of intense, humorous, and highly productive discussions.

“A board is to a museum as a _____is to a___,” was the first riddle posed by workshop leader, Anne Ackerson, Director, The Museum Association of New York. “… bank to homeowner, goose to gaggle, cyanide to ice cream,” came a chorus of responses. Clearly, no two directors shared the same relationship with their board members.

Nevertheless, the session provided a comforting blanket of guidelines. They all concurred: “get the right people on the bus.” Specify the job description and seek people with critical skills, especially those with leverage among others who can help your museum. Don’t waste precious meeting time with reports about yesterday’s news. Look forward. Most important, make board members feel they are in the loop -- use email; invite them to join you at other art events; have dinner after an opening and invigorate meetings by holding some of them at unexpected venues beyond museum board rooms.

Attention turned from boards to curators during the afternoon session. William M. Griswold, Morgan Library & Museum director welcomed the group with tours of the original library and current exhibitions that included works by Ingres, Delacroix, and David, Islamic Manuscripts and “Dickens at 200.” Katherine Crum chaired the panel discussion, “The Curator’s Perspective: What Directors Should Think About Now.” It included speakers Patrick Amsellem, Christa Clarke, and Klaus Ottmann with respective expertise in photography, African art, and modern art.

“I was especially interested in Mr. Ottmann’s comments about the interpretation of artwork we provide,” commented Kenneth Foster, Executive Director, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. His remark reinforced Mr. Ottmann’s concern that the educational role of museums often comes at the expense of the intuitive art experience. “Authenticity counts,” said Ms. Clarke who emphasized that documentary evidence is particularly hard to trace with collections of African art. Reminding the audience that “Africa is not a country,” she urged a global perspective and suggested acquisitions of works by known and emerging artists throughout the continent. Also addressing authenticity, Mr. Amsellem explained that the market created photography “edition” prints. “More than ten and people lose interest,” he noted. He also spoke to the importance of condition and proper archival framing – a skill that means something different to the museum archivist than it does to the framer in a shopping mall.

A rare event – the IRS was not the elephant in the room. Their representatives were instead among the group welcomed by Margarita Aguilar, El Museo del Barrio director. After Tuesday morning breakfast and a tour of El Museo’s Bienal: The (S) Files, a sizzling show of works by emerging Latino artists, directors listened to a panel discuss “Staying Out of Trouble: Legal and Policy Concerns in Museum Administration,” Chaired by Joseph Ruzicka, Appraiser for the IRS, the panel included IRS experts Mariacarmen Cuello, Herbert Dietrich, and Rosemarie Ryba.

During an animated Q&A many wondered how to refuse a questionable donation from a gem of a supporter. It’s not that difficult because the IRS will reject the value of a donation that doesn’t conform to your collection’s rigorous standards. That reality curbs lots of generous enthusiasm. But a museum must also be vigilant about its own tax-exempt integrity. If those hot-selling T-shirts in the gift shop are unrelated to the museum collection, the revenues are taxable.

The final session, “Turning Your Messages Into Conversations: Social Media, Blogs, and Apps,” included media experts Mairelys Alberto, Cassandra Oliveras, Robert Schaufelberger, and Metropolitan Museum of Art research associate, Wendy Stein. Ms. Stein presented a compelling case for blogs as an interactive and educational device. Her PowerPoint presentation demonstrated how viewers could zoom in on the incredible detail of a 2” medieval illuminated image. Visitors offer feedback, the site gathers followers, and education expands exponentially as visitors bounce from page to page.

The youthful presence of Ms. Alberto, Ms Oliveras, and Mr.Schaufelberger hinted that institutional use of Facebook, YouTube, and Apps is a generational work in progress. All cited these developments as potentially powerful, but long term projects for building social networks. In time, these technologies will likely be the new normal. And who knows what else is on the horizon? As the AMP theme states, expect the unexpected.

Written By Joyce Beckenstein

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