D.C. Council Member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) joins Kojo and Tom Sherwood to chat about her upcoming fight for re-election.
Museums in and around D.C. house historic collections and great works of art that simultaneously draw tourists and support local community programs. But many leading arts and learning institutions are confronting difficult financial and governance challenges, such as how to survive as an admission-charging museum in a city full of free exhibits and how to navigate the intricacies of politics and arts funding, while remaining relevant and cutting edge. We consider the challenges and opportunities of operating a museum in a unique cultural landscape and explore implications of recent shakeups on the museum scene.
- Philip Kennicott Culture Critic, Washington Post
- Elizabeth Merritt founding director, Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums
- Dorothy Kosinski director, The Phillips Collection
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We go to museums to contemplate the past, find beauty in the present and learn about creatures that roam the earth. But when you're standing back to admire the composition of a great work of art or marveling over dinosaur fossils with your kids, do you ever stop to wonder what's going on behind the scenes, how is the museum funded, what is its mission, who are they trying to reach?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou might not, but you can be sure that the staff thinks about those questions all the time. It may be especially true in this town where there are so many options for museum-goers -- big, free collections down on the Mall, small house museums tucked into neighborhoods and carefully curated mid-sized collections -- that each organization must be tuned into its audience and adept at fundraising.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us consider the D.C. museum landscape and what it takes to survive and thrive in this town is Dorothy Kosinski. She is the director of The Phillips Collection in D.C., which is, in the words of its founder, an intimate museum combined with an experiment station. Dorothy Kosinski, thank you for joining us.
MS. DOROTHY KOSINSKII'm thrilled to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Philip Kennicott. He is the chief art critic for The Washington Post where he covers everything visual in the nation's capital. Earlier this year, Phil was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Phil Kennicott, thank you for joining us.
MR. PHILIP KENNICOTTIt's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIElizabeth Merritt also joins us in studio. She is the founding and current director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums. Elizabeth Merritt, thank you for joining us.
MS. ELIZABETH MERRITTThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe'd like you to join the conversation, too. You can do so by calling 800-433-8850. How do you think the area compares to other cities, national and international, when it comes to the museums housed here? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Phil, we're not necessarily trying to spark a D.C. versus New York or London debate here. But -- well, maybe we are -- but how do you think D.C.'s museum scene compares to what's on offer in other cities, both nationally and internationally?
KENNICOTTWell, it's hard to compare D.C. with New York or London or Paris. Those are bigger cities. Those are national capitals where the cultural capital is also located in the same jurisdiction. The Metropolitan Museum of Art attracts about twice as many people, I think, as the National Gallery. But given our size, and given the fact that many of our best museums are free and open to the public and have been that way for a very long time, D.C.'s pretty darn exceptional.
KENNICOTTWe have a very solid and an amazing museum infrastructure, and, relative to our population, I think it plays perhaps a bigger role than it may in even cities like New York.
NNAMDIBut what you also say is that what we may not have is the kind of connection to the broader intellectual currents like we see in New York City. What do you mean by that?
KENNICOTTI think that's the challenge for Washington. We've got the people, we've got the building, we have the collections and we even have the government support, which is very important for keeping them free and open. But we're not in New York. We're not in London. And the challenge always in Washington is to think in the big leagues, to realize that we should be playing in the biggest game of all with museums.
KENNICOTTWe should be attracting the exhibitions that are going to London and New York, and we need to kind of constantly remind ourselves that we're not a provincial city. That's been kind of the reflexive thinking in Washington for many, many years, but the growth has been amazing. And so the challenge really is to always be playing up.
NNAMDIElizabeth, same question to you.
MERRITTWell, I think one of the important things to understand about D.C. is the fact that we have these marvelous, enormous federally supported museums shapes the rest of the D.C. museum landscape too. So it creates a different climate in which other museums have to exist. So in a city like New York or Chicago, you have a playing field where all the museums are searching for their own format of support.
MERRITTHere, a museum that wants to open outside the Smithsonian system has to deal with the fact that there are these huge, immensely attractive neighbors where anyone can walk in for free. It makes it that much more pressure for other museums to find their own specific niche with an economic model that supports it.
NNAMDIDorothy Kosinski, you've worked in other cities, both in the U.S. and abroad. Given that experience, what's your take on the museum landscape here in D.C.?
KOSINSKIWell, first of all, I think it's an absolutely extraordinary rich and varied museum environment. I think the nation seems to forget that. I always say to people, oh, it's not just about economics and policy and government. It's a hugely important cultural capital. Now, at The Phillips, we're not part of the Smithsonian Institution. We are not the recipient of our tax dollars. I always like to remind people that those museums aren't free. They're federally supported, as Elizabeth said.
KOSINSKIBut I think that there's a certain advantage. There's a kind of entrepreneurial edge that we need to bring to our work every day. From my experience in Europe over many years, I think that the robust federal support of cultural institutions in Europe tends to dampen down a kind of competitive edge in the work.
KOSINSKIAnd I think that -- that's not to say that it isn't daunting every year to raise something in the area of $6 million to keep The Phillips open and thriving on the level that people expect. But it's certainly -- we have, I would say, nestled half a block from the Dupont Circle Metro, we have the advantage of being nimble, reactive, reliable, real partner in a thriving urban environment.
NNAMDINot to mention being the first museum of modern art to open in the city almost a century ago in the 1920s, correct?
KOSINSKI1921. Duncan Phillips threw open the doors to his home and began that project that you described, with his own words, from the '20s: an intimate museum combined with an experiment station. Wow. What a gift to me as the director in the 21st century. And that's our mission. We want to actualize that exciting, open-ended experiment risk-taking that he was so keen to achieve.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about the D.C. museum landscape and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you take full advantage of the museum scene here in the Washington region? What draws you in or what doesn't? 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDITo some extent, Elizabeth -- I'll start with you this time -- it seems that with museums, as with any real estate of any kind, a big part of the equation is location or, as real estate people like to say, location, location, location. Just how much does where your museum is located and the building that houses it matter?
MERRITTOf course. It shapes both your strategy for attracting people, and it shapes the way that you frame your image. I am a member of The Phillips, and one of the things I love about it is that when I go, it feels intimate, and I'm sure you don't want it to be a secret to anyone. But in some ways, it feels like my special place where I bring people that they may not have been before. And part of...
NNAMDII think that's intentional.
MERRITTAnd part of that is because of where it is. If it were on the Mall, it wouldn't have that same feel. So you have a different perception if you were at a huge building where people walk past you every day and think, oh, I should be going in there and when people need to seek you out, which makes it almost feel like a quest. And when they put that much effort into it, it's that much more of a reward when they find it.
KENNICOTTThat's certainly true, but I -- you know, one of the real advantages of Washington is we do have this cluster of museums around the Mall, and you don't really have to plan a lot. You don't have to work that hard thinking about what you want to do when you go to a museum in Washington. You can go down, get off the Smithsonian Metro, look around and pick something. And that's really wonderful, and not a lot of cities have that.
KENNICOTTBerlin, to a certain degree, has it, but New York doesn't. They're really spread out. It's a remarkable advantage for the Smithsonian and the National Gallery that they're there and they're clustered and there's that kind of concentration of cultural activity in one place, and I think that's a real -- a really wonderful asset of our city.
NNAMDIDorothy, Elizabeth tells me that The Phillips is not really my personal gallery. I always thought it was.
KOSINSKIIt's fabulous that people have that emotional reaction to their experience at The Phillips collection. The fact that the -- that it was Duncan Phillips' home, it's -- it has a domestic scale that, I think, visitors find very attractive. It was never intended as a house museum by any means, but that sense of being welcomed in a building that fits.
KOSINSKII think the experience on the Mall, it -- where it is more mass tourism, lots of families and people moving through at a high pace, you know, the requisite eighth grade trip, that sense of volume and the spaces speak to that. They're huge, civic, maybe even corporate kinds of architecture that create a totally different experience than in a smaller institution where you have the feeling of a very direct connection with the work of art.
NNAMDIPhil Kennicott, to what end -- or to that end, what did you make of the idea that the Corcoran floated for a possible move out of the city earlier this year? And do you think that ultimately it'll stay put?
KENNICOTTI think at this point it will stay put. It's fascinating, given your previous question about location, that the Corcoran, when they were talking about a move, they were saying that their location, which was really maybe a block or two off the Mall on 17th Street, was a disadvantage, that they weren't getting the traffic of people that were going to the Mall. And every time they made that argument, I was sort of astounded by it.
KENNICOTTIs the pattern of museum visiting really so set that you won't turn, you know, right and walk half a block or a-block-and-a-half? I think their plan to move out of D.C. was incredibly ill-advised, and they came to realize that too. It wasn't just that they were looking for a new location. They wanted out from under a pretty big financial problem, which was the maintenance and renovation of the building they were in.
KENNICOTTBut it would have been, I think, a disaster for them. They hope to save the more lucrative part of the hybrid institution, which was the Corcoran school, and perhaps move out to the suburbs into a building that would be more affordable to them. But I think very quickly, having left Washington, having left the kind of core of downtown, sort of halfway between the Mall and The Phillips Collection, they would have seen a real market drop-off in attendance, and slowly, I think, they would have died.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Katie in Herndon, Va., who wants to underscore a point that I think Dorothy made earlier. Katie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATIEHi. Well, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to point out that, you know, everyone keeps referring to these wonderful institutions as free, and it's important to remember that they're not actually free. We've paid for them with our tax money and with the way that the government has funded them and, of course, with the institution itself has funded it.
KATIEAnd so it's -- I feel like it's really important that when people say, oh, when you go to the Smithsonian, it's free, and I always say, well, it's not actually free. You know, we've paid for it. And I feel like with the sequester and elections coming up, it's really important to remember that these museums are part of our cultural identity as a country, and we have to elect people who will continue to fund them and give them the respect that they deserve.
NNAMDIKatie, thank you very much for your call. Elizabeth, when we talk about museums that are not a part of the Smithsonian, both locally and more generally speaking, what are some of the main sources of income that keep the doors open and the lights on in those institutions?
MERRITTYes. Museums have four main sources of income, and in decreasing order of size, those are earned income -- sorry, private giving, which accounts for about 35 percent of most museums' operating budgets when you generalize. And that's people giving individual gifts. That's foundation support or corporate support. Then earned income, which is about 32 percent, that's what they get from charging admission or selling memberships or selling wonderful things at the store or their cafe.
MERRITTThat's followed by government support, which, for the -- if you're looking at the median amount for all museums in the U.S., it's only about 24 percent, and that's been dropping steadily over the past 20 years. And then museums that have an endowment get a draw off the endowment, and typically for museums, that might about 10 percent.
NNAMDIHow have you seen the organizations that you work with adapt to funding challenges over the last few years during the economic downturn?
MERRITTWell, it's very interesting that everybody's response has to be very specific to their circumstances. There's no one answer. But what you do is you find that the museums are -- that are rebounding from the recession have taken a very subtle look at their surroundings and figured out a strategy that works for them. For some museums, that might be aggressively pursuing earned income. It might be building a better and more attractive restaurant.
MERRITTIt might be building new spaces for rentals, for people's graduations or weddings. But some museums have doubled down and said to their supporters, look at the wonderful benefits we provide you. Wouldn't you like to give more in order to help us survive in these tough times? And I've seen both those strategies work, but it has to be very specific to who they serve, where they are and what their mission is.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation on the D.C. museum landscape. But you can still call during the brake, 800-433-8850. Are you a member of a local museum? How do you decide where to donate your dollars? You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing museums in D.C. with Philip Kennicott. He is the chief art critic for The Washington Post, where he covers, as we said earlier, everything visual in the nation's capital earlier this year. He was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Elizabeth Merritt is the founding and current director of the Center for the Future of Museums. That's an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums. And Dorothy Kosinski is the director of The Phillips Collection.
NNAMDIWe mentioned earlier the words of its founder describing it as an intimate museum combined with an experiment station. You can call us at 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com. Dorothy, your tenure at The Phillips Collection began in 2008, a less than stellar year for the economy. How has the down economy affected you and what are you hearing from you colleagues, near and far, about how funding cuts are affecting them?
KOSINSKIYeah. No one gave me any warning on that in 2008, and it's been very exciting. Certainly, The Phillips Collection in every museum has suffered from the economic downturn. Certainly, as Elizabeth pointed out, government grants, small as they ever were, have gotten even tighter and smaller.
KOSINSKIPeople, I think, you know, were more cautious in their personal philanthropy. And, you know, it's always a challenge. I think the best-kept secret -- actually, I guess there are a lot of -- when we were off the air, I mentioned we are actually open, Monday through Friday, to our public for free...
NNAMDIExactly. That is the best-kept secret.
KOSINSKI...to see the permanent collection. We charge on the weekends but all for our special exhibits that are so costly to bring to our visitors. I think that there have been challenges all across the board. So many of my colleagues, our sister institutions across the nation, are still facing furloughs, layoffs, cutting back hours. I think that the severity of the economic challenge to museums and other cultural institutions probably is not sufficiently appreciated.
NNAMDIPhil, a lot of the museums in this town are indeed part of Smithsonian. What, to you mind, are the pluses and, for that matter, the minuses of being part of such a large, taxpayer-funded institution?
KENNICOTTWell, the pluses are stability and brand recognition. You know, the Smithsonian is still a really sterling brand out there where people come from out of town. The fact that it's a Smithsonian museum, I think, gives them a great deal of confidence that when they go there, they can trust what they see. They're going to see something interesting. It'll be well-curated and presented. And then there's the financial stability of having the government funding the institution.
KENNICOTTThe downside is the bureaucracy of the Smithsonian. It's the Castle. The Castle is, you know, there are a lot of people there who have strange job titles that sound pretty complicated and bureaucratic to me, and it is not clear that they necessarily are contributing to the nimbleness and smarts and the ability of their independent museums to adapt. I think we saw some of that conflict come out in the debate about the Hirshhorn's effort to be build a fairly innovative new structure for looking at art and politics and policy and...
NNAMDIWe'll talk more specifically about that later.
KENNICOTTWe will. So I'll leave that to the side for the moment. But it's, you know, when you have a lot of employees and you have a superstructure that is existing over them, I think that's the downside of the Smithsonian.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk about it right now 'cause you've written about the Hirshhorn's decision not to blow up the bubble. Questions about the future of the Corcoran and recent headlines of Chronicle financial woes the museum is facing, do you think the challenges facing those organization and others are outliers, or are they indicative of a broader shift in the museum culture? I knew you did not like the Hirshhorn decision at all.
KENNICOTTRight. So you listed a number of controversies that have been played over the last few months. And I'm not sure that they're connected in a deeper, philosophical way, though, I think many of them may ultimately relate because of the financial difficulties. The Hirshhorn one, which I mentioned briefly, was a plan to build a temporary inflatable structure in the interior of this cylindrical museum.
KENNICOTTAnd they were hoping to put it up maybe once or twice a year and use it for a few weeks to hold events, panels, discussions, lectures, performances, the kinds of things that are a little difficult to do in the existing space at the Hirshhorn. But it's also very much about kind of throwing up a big flag on the mall in the center of one of the preeminent museums there. It was an attention-getting effort. I think it was an effort to put the arts front and center.
KENNICOTTAnd, unfortunately, it was going to require a substantial amount of money, more than $10 million. And the leadership at the Hirshhorn struggled valiantly to get it done. They didn't succeed in convincing the Hirshhorn's board to be unanimously in favor of it and the Smithsonian and the Castle ultimately killed project. It was an effort. As I mentioned earlier in our conversation, you know, Washington struggles to keep its museum culture kind of first rate at the international level.
KENNICOTTAnd the reason I supported the Hirshhorn bubble was I thought this was an effort to kind of jump in to those leagues and be a part of the international conversation. So I was quite sad that it didn't happen. It's left the Hirshhorn, I think, wondering what's next. There's a good deal of disarray in the board. This is not uncommon when a large institution throws its weight and resources behind a speculative project, and it doesn't happen. So we'll see what the future holds for that institution.
NNAMDIElizabeth Merritt, back to the issue of the challenges and controversies facing some of the institutions here. Same question I asked Phil, do you think those challenges that they are facing are outliers, or are they indicative of a broader shift in the museum culture here?
MERRITTI think they're indicative of a broader shift in American culture. I think there are a lot of forces that are transforming the ways we look at nonprofits in general and different ways to achieve public goods. One of the things that's really disturbed me about our national debate since the recession is we've almost begun to do triage on the support we think government should give to public goods.
MERRITTAnd there has been a dichotomy between people saying, there are essential services, like health care and housing the homeless, which absolutely everybody would agree are things that need to be done. But then in that debate, sometimes the cultural and spiritual benefits that are supported by the government have been cast somehow as not necessary or frivolous, and they're not. They're deeply imbedded in our human nature.
MERRITTThey're part of what makes us a great and civilized country. And to say that retrenchment means ditching our public support for those cultural goods, I think, is a very sad statement. So I'm hoping that as we rebuild in the coming years, we won't find that we permanently reset to a lower willingness to support the arts and culture generally.
KOSINSKIWell, I think that one also has to acknowledge how keenly aware, I think, every museum is of our service to community and the public value that we contribute, whether it's at The Phillips Collection, our work in the D.C. school system or our alliances with universities bringing artists to go and do crits in the artists' studios at GW, our work with the elderly or infirm at Iona. This idea of wellbeing, of education, of a full life of learning, it's -- there's a spiritual uplifting value. But I think that every museum worth it saw -- is keenly aware of that rule that we have in society.
NNAMDIDorothy Kosinski joins us in studio. She is the director of The Phillips Collection in D.C. Philip Kennicott is the chief art critic for the Washington Post, and Elizabeth Merritt is the founding and current director of the Center for the Future of Museums. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you work for a museum, what do you wish people understood about your work? Now is your chance to tell them. Let's go to Joanna in Takoma Park, Md. Joanna, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
JOANNAHello. My question for the panel, I feel there are two very different constituencies using the museums in D.C., essentially residents and visitors, tourists. You mentioned earlier the Corcoran's location across from the Mall and just how significant an issue was that. The impression that I have is that we're a tourist base of visitors.
JOANNAThat's a very big issue. I think, from what I see in D.C., tourists are very heavily committed to the two, three, four main Smithsonian museums. People think that the National Gallery is part of the Smithsonian and don't necessarily go off that beaten track. I'd love to hear the panel's thoughts.
NNAMDIFirst to you, Phil Kennicott.
KENNICOTTI think the caller's right about that. There is a big dichotomy. And if you look at the visitor statistics for the museums in Washington, there are a couple of big gaps between the most visited and the least visited, even within the Smithsonian. You know, the National Gallery may be getting $4 million a year, but some of the smaller Smithsonian ones are getting 60-, 70-, $80,000. And I think the caller is absolutely right that probably those museums are going to be more of the local visitors.
KENNICOTTMuseums like the Natural History, American History, Air and Space, those are clearly heavily tourist draw museums. And they feel very different when you go into them, and the kind of programming they do is very different. It's -- there are tears here and that is, you know, that's inevitable in a city that is both a capital and a tourist draw and a place where we live. And it's -- I think the -- it's a challenge we live with, but I'm not sure it's necessarily a big problem.
KOSINSKIWell, if you walk through the galleries at The Phillips Collection, you'll find a lot of languages spoken other than English. So there are lot of -- we have always had a very strong international reputation because we lend very generously to institutions across the world. And I think we're known across the world as well. So we have Japanese and Chinese and European tourists. But we're very, very committed to be a reliable partner to our immediate environment.
KOSINSKIWe are nestled into a residential area, and that's part of what makes it wonderful. But I think that it's a tough juggling act to be able to communicate on all those levels effectively, you know, to find the dollars to get multiple and layered messages out to all of the communities that we desire to serve.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Neddie, (sp?) who says about her favorite museum The Freer, "I'm amazed at their collection of ceramics, and I love the peacock room." Lorenda and Neil both tweet that The Phillips is their favorite museum. Richard in D.C. emails about what makes D.C. unique as a museum town. Richard says, "First is the cluster of museums on the mall. No city compares with what is available here, all within walking distance of one another. Second is the other jewel that is The Phillips. I always take visitors there. No one fails to fall in love with it."
NNAMDIDorothy, your museum and many like it is a nonprofit organization. I read one quote from Eric Siegel of the New York Hall of Science saying that "museums are built to survive, not to succeed." How does the museum, The Phillips, earn money, and do you think that business model plays into the very definition of what a museum is?
KOSINSKIWell, as I mentioned earlier, we start from zero pretty much every year. We've been building up our endowment so that we have a more reliable base upon which to draw. And, you know, that was something that was, you know, woefully small. So The Phillips has historically had pretty mighty financial challenges. But if you are attentive to the quality of your programs and the relationship that you build with everyone who walks through that door, we depend on our donors, our trustees.
KOSINSKIBut we value every member, whether you're giving us $60 a year or 6,000. That's a kind of investment -- a moral and emotional investment that we take very seriously in terms of making sure that you feel the value and that you feel valued during your visit. I see it as very much of an exchange and a very profound contract that we draw with every one of our visitors and members.
NNAMDIElizabeth Merritt, what defines success for a museum, mere survival?
MERRITTI think what defines success for a museum, and I would say the same for any organization or individual, is what difference it makes in the world by existing. When I talk to museums about their missions and they're saying, we're trying to convey what it is we do, I say, try and describe the world if you didn't exist in it. How would it be different because you're not there? And every successful museum has made a compelling story of how the world is better because they do what they do.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. This time to Robert in Chevy Chase, Md. Robert, your turn.
ROBERTHi, Kojo. I greatly enjoy your show.
ROBERTI was born and raised in Detroit and know families that have donated art to the Detroit Institute of Art. There's an emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who's been appointed, and he just hired Christie's Auction House to appraise the art with the idea of selling art from the museum to pay for our municipal mismanagement. I'm curious as to what your panel would say about that.
KENNICOTTWell, the caller alludes to the absolute, most burning crisis story in the museum world right now. One of the preeminent collections of art in the country, even in the world, and it's -- potentially, depending on how the legal issues are sorted out, it could go on the auction block. It's not clear that that will happen, but nobody is counting that out. It's forcing, I think, everybody to think about some of the issues that Elizabeth mentioned and that is, really, what is the public good a museum, and what are we committed to?
KENNICOTTWho does that art actually belong to? Why do we believe it should be kept there in Detroit? It's going to be hard if that argument comes down to on one side, people who may have their pensions taken away or keeping the art in a building and under the rubric of the DIA, the Detroit Institute of Art. We're going to have to think more deeply about it. We're going to have to realize, I think, that in many ways, if Detroit is to survive, institutions like the Detroit Institute have got to survive. That's the best hope for the city.
KENNICOTTAnd I think the caller was right that there is an implicit contract even though that art may technically be a city asset. The sense of the people who gave it, who donated it, was that they were giving it long-term perpetuity to the public, not necessarily to the politicians or the actual legal entity of the city. This is going to be huge. It's going to really force everyone who thinks and cares about museums all around the country, maybe even around the world to think deeply about what museums -- what good they actually bring to people and to the society.
NNAMDIWhat are you thinking, Dorothy?
KOSINSKII'm thinking that it's a very crude kind of reductive argument to say that the choice is between the work of art and a pension. Isn't really the underlying issue -- first of all, I go back to that sense of trust and contract with the donors of the works of art to future generations. Why should they not have the opportunity to learn?
KOSINSKIBut also, isn't the fundamental question of -- you could have, whether it's now or 50 years or 100 years from now, issues of fiscal mismanagement, economic crisis. If you sell off your substance as a people, you'll end up with no substance. I think that, instead, there should be an examination about better management, the affordability of, you know, benefits. And also, there's a keen tension in that city.
KOSINSKIJust last fall, there was approval by three communities of putting additional tax dollars, millions and millions of tax dollars, in order to support the Detroit Institute of Arts. So I think that there is a fundamental philosophical difference, but I think that there are more subtle ways of teasing out meaning and solutions from this rather tragic situation in one of our nation's great cities.
NNAMDIAnd it's still not clear whether or not the proposal to sell the Detroit Museum of Arts collection is nonstarter because it's apparently held in trust, and collections may not be considered an asset. So we'll have to see how that is resolved. But, Robert, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Steve in Bethesda, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
STEVEYeah, wonderful discussion. I just wanted to bring it back to a local level again and talk about a museum that my family and I had fallen in love with. I think, primarily, because it's a museum, it seems to be of ideas and history, and that's President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldier's Home. It is off the beaten path, and I think they struggle with being away from the Mall, and yet, they do attract, you know, Lincoln lovers and history lovers and Civil War buffs.
STEVEAnd they've done a wonderful job of preserving the cottage where Lincoln lived other than the White House with his family. It has a lot of historical significance because it's in this house in which he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and planned the Civil War. And it's on a beautiful high bluff overlooking the city. At one time, I guess, you could have seen the White House from the cottage. You can't anymore. But South 16th Street then you turn right up here and there you are.
STEVEBut it doesn't get the visitors, say, the Ford's Theater gets. I think they get about 1 million a year, and I think the cottage gets about 100,000 a year. But it is a small museum. Another wonderful one is Woodrow Wilson House over on S Street. These -- for those who love history, they are house museums, but they have a lot of historical texture to them. I would highly recommend them to anyone who's thinking of going somewhere where you're off the beaten path, away from the Mall, away from the crowds.
STEVEThey have plenty of parking. So it's OK when you get there. So...
NNAMDIThose are museums that people tend to think of as their own. Once they found them, you get in to the Soldier's Home, they -- I'm not telling anybody else about this. This is too good. But those are great museums. Phil, what kind of responsibilities do we, the visitors and perhaps members, when it comes to being aware of the mission and the financial structure that backs the institution we visit or we support? If it's not supported with tax dollars, that is.
KENNICOTTGreat question. I just want to back up and say in regard to the previous caller's call.
KENNICOTTFrederick Douglass house. That's actually...
KENNICOTTThat's the greatest. That's the one that every Washingtonian sort of has as their secret place or they should. And the great thing about the city is that, you know, you can put together a tour for your friends who come into town and you can take them to the Lincoln Cottage, the Frederick Douglass house, the National Arboretum's bonsai collection, and they'll see amazing stuff that nobody who just comes as a tourist is going to see.
KENNICOTTBut in terms the responsibilities that visitors have, you know, I think that probably a really healthy museum, maybe 80 percent of what it does is invisible to the average visitor. Visitors seeing collections or seeing the result of, you know, years and years of work to put on an exhibition, they don't see the preservation of work. They don't see the curatorial process, the scholarship, the study of collections.
KENNICOTTSome museums have tried to make that a little bit more visible by, for instance, putting work into glass cases where they can walk by it, giving people a little bit of a glimpse into the kind of behind the proscenium part of the museum. But I think it's important that visitors realize that there's a big difference between, say, an attraction like the Spy Museum or the Crime Museum where there's interesting stuff. And it's fun to go through, and you learn something.
KENNICOTTAnd a museum like most of the Smithsonian museums where there is this enormous kind of scholarly component that goes on that, you know, the catalogues aren't just pictures. The catalogues, when they're well done, are major contributions to the scholarship and the understanding of the work that's on display, and that can take years to do.
NNAMDIElizabeth, the Spy Museum that Phil just mentioned is a for-profit museum. Is there a fundamental difference that we should be aware of between for-profit and nonprofit museums?
MERRITTThere are so few for-profit museums that it's hard to generalize. There's the International Spy Museum here in D.C. There's the Museum of Sex in New York. There are a couple of others. But other than that, museums that aren't nonprofit tend to be for-profit only in the sense that they're so small and volunteer-run, they haven't bothered to incorporate. I think that the fundamental difference seems to be that nonprofits operate in the public trust.
MERRITTSo they always are asking, how are we using these funds for the benefit of the public? Having said that, I'll say that we're -- we seem to be entering an era where there's a real blurring of the boundaries between for-profits and nonprofits because so many idealistic young people running for-profit companies want to do good in the world, and they see themselves as doing good in a for-profit enterprise. So I'm not ruling out the fact that there can be for-profit museums that are also serving the public good in their own way.
NNAMDIWe got to take another break. We'll come back and rejoin our conversation. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to email@example.com, or a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Elizabeth Merritt joins us in studio. She is the founding and current director of the Center for the Future of Museums. We're discussing the D.C. museum landscape with Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection in D.C., and Philip Kennicott, chief art critic for The Washington Post. And you, those of you who call 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIPhil, the National Gallery -- which is not, as one caller already pointed out, a part of the Smithsonian though a lot of people seem to think it is -- they have an exhibit on view now that made some headlines. It's the first time the organization is hosting an exhibition of the work of a living African-American artist. What is your take on the timing of this display?
KENNICOTTYeah, that was a surprise when we realized that. I think they had done a Martin Puryear exhibition a few years back, but it's the Kerry James Marshall exhibition that's in the tower in the east building is, in fact, much to shock of people who pay attention to these things, a first for the National Gallery. I think that the National Gallery is -- if they have been late to these sort of things in the past, they're not likely to be as late in the future.
KENNICOTTThe curator of the Kerry James Marshall is a very dynamic, smart, young curator of the National Gallery, James Meyer. The National Gallery has some really good people, younger curators who, I think, are driving it in more interesting directions, the Andy Warhol and the new show that came out a few years ago. I think there's examples of a kind of cultural change within the gallery, and we're likely to see the benefits of that going out even if we might have lamented some of the time it took to get to paying attention to incredibly substantial artist like Kerry James Marshall.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Joe in Baltimore. "Why is there not one online or app guide to museum shows and events for the D.C. and Baltimore region? I have wanted to pop down to D.C. from near Baltimore to see shows, but trying to figure out what show is where is nearly impossible. Soon, the very cheap commuter rail from Baltimore to D.C. will run on weekends.
NNAMDI"Now that we will no longer have to drive in, non-D.C. people will want to D.C. and Baltimore from D.C. more than ever. The museums need to partner and put up an easy, fast, simple guide to shows." Some entrepreneur listening to this, even as we speak, is probably going to be creating an app for that. Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it, Dorothy?
KOSINSKII think it does. You know, I mean, certainly, every museum has an app. We were one of the first out of that gate. And so you can visit our app and our website. It's so important to have all of those different platforms of communication, and we're very active with that. But I think it's an excellent idea to coordinate the cultural offerings. So, you know, some -- but we're all shaking our head, yes, so somebody out there is going to run with it.
NNAMDIEither that or you can listen to our "Art Beat" here on WAMU 88.5 on a regular basis. Here is Janica (sp?) in Temple Hills, Md. Janica, your turn.
JANICAHi, Kojo. And thank you so much. I always enjoyed your show. I've been listening on and off for years. I actually just moved back from Richmond. I'm a native of the area. I was in grad school. And my roommate there worked at a small museum in Richmond. And, of course, I'm sure all of your guests know that museum people talk amongst themselves.
JANICAAnd I think it's interesting to note that the VMFA, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond actually made itself a 365 year -- 365 day a year museum in order -- made their hours open later until nine or 10 p.m., depending on the day, in order to compete with the museums in Washington, not just to compete with other museums in the Richmond area, which is (unintelligible).
NNAMDIYou're breaking up on us, Janica, but I don't know if anyone wants to respond to what you're saying. Phil.
KENNICOTTI would point out that there's some -- there are lot of wonderful museums that are not in Washington. In the area, we have Baltimore, we have Richmond. The Chrysler Museum down in the Norfolk area is a great little museum. There are plenty of resources to explore. And I think the caller is absolutely right about the VMFA. They've managed to really create an identity that attracts people.
KENNICOTTThey even attract people coming down from Washington because the exhibitions they get have been great, interesting, important exhibitions. So going back to the location, location, location thing, you don't necessarily have to be in the Mall or in Washington or New York City. Our Richmond museums are incredible asset.
NNAMDIOn now to Leslie Buhler here in Washington, D.C. Leslie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MS. LESLIE BUHLERWell, thank you. And thank you so much for addressing this subject. And thanks to Philip and the one caller for bringing the attention of historic house museums. I'm the director of Tudor Place, which is a 5.5 acre estate in the heart of the Georgetown community but one that serves the whole city. And it -- we find that this site has been able to be successful and do serve the community in many, many different ways.
MS. LESLIE BUHLERAnd I think that the rich fabric of the Washington community is enhanced by these smaller museums, such as The Phillips, such as Frederick Douglass house, and also serve the community but also are an economic engine for the national and -- to encourage national and international visitors to get into the neighborhoods in a way that would not be available. Certainly, that's true in larger cities, like Paris, less so frankly in American cities.
MS. LESLIE BUHLERBut in cities like Paris and Florence and other areas, there are these smaller sites that do draw people to them. And Tudor Place and other historic sites, I think, really need to be considered in terms of the larger sense of what makes Washington a vital city that can be quite exciting and offer not only from the arts but from the amenity standpoint, different ways of connecting people to their own stories in the community in which they live.
NNAMDIWithout a doubt. Leslie Buhler, thank you so much for joining us.
BUHLERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe have an email from Madeline, who says, "I'm an undergraduate student studying art conservation. I wonder if your guests have any thoughts on how museums can use public outreach through conservation to draw in visitors and educate the public." Dorothy.
KOSINSKIOh, that's such a brilliant idea. It's such -- so important. I think that the museum audience is so curious. It's like a detective story of how the painting is made and, you know, what its support is and analyzing it. And, for instance, at The Phillips, almost every exhibition we've done in the last five years is -- even the starting point is from discoveries, the new knowledge of our conservators. And it is our goal -- that's a fundraising goal I guess -- to bring that out.
KOSINSKII mean, every exhibit includes, you know, digitally based investigations of the conservator working and the X-rays and all of the other newest technological advances in terms of discovering the process of the artists. But it's my goal to really somehow bring that to a place within The Phillips where people can see it and understand more. Just as Philip was saying, all of that profound scholarly and technical work that goes behind the scenes.
NNAMDIElizabeth, arts advocates have long bemoaned cuts to funding for programs in public schools. What role do you think museums should be playing in that educational arena?
MERRITTWell, I think that one of our biggest challenges is people don't appreciate what we're already doing in the education realm. We invest more than $2 billion annually in educational programs, K-12. And we have more than 90 million visits a year from school children and providing more than 18 million instructional hours for K-12.
MERRITTI don't think we've been getting credit for what we do already. I hope that as the U.S. educational system grapples with its current challenges, it finds a way to integrate museums more deeply into what they do, so that we're not just seen as optional field trips. We're seen as essential resources because we have so much to bring to the table.
NNAMDIAnd I think that's going to be a whole separate conversation that we're going to do here on this broadcast at some point. We're running out of time, but I'd like to hear from, well, Nancy in Washington Grove, Md. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYThank you, Kojo. I just want to say that I have worked at first full time and now part time as a gallery educator at The Phillips. And it is a wonderful place to work. And for those of us who work in the museums in the Washington area, I think we're very lucky people. And my first acquaintance with The Phillips is when I was a student at the Corcoran in GW. And it has been a very long love affair.
NNAMDIThank you very much for saying that, Nancy. Let's see if Judith in Greenbelt, Md., agrees with you. Judith, you only have about 30 seconds left.
JUDITHWell, I was -- I'm -- was a teacher for 35 years. And I often took my whole class down to The Phillips, especially when they were showing the Jacob Lawrence painting.
JUDITHThey were wonderful. And I think it leave, and we're able to see the ones that are from New York.
KOSINSKIWe're going to do that again.
NNAMDIOne of the highlights of my own professional life was interviewing Jacob Lawrence while he was alive...
NNAMDI...at The Phillips when he was...
NNAMDI...yes, when he was displayed at The Phillips. So thank you very much for bringing that up and reminding me about that. I'm afraid we're out of time. Dorothy Kosinski is director of The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Dorothy Kosinski, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIPhilip Kennicott is the chief art critic for The Washington Post, where he covers everything visual in the nation's capital. Earlier this year, he was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Phil, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIElizabeth Merritt is founding and current director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums, and wearing the hottest kicks in the world. Elizabeth Merritt, thank you for joining us.
MERRITTSee you in the future, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
D.C.-based writer Paul Goldberg recently published his first novel, "The Yid." We talk with him about the story, how living in D.C. shapes his work and his 'day job' overseeing the influential Cancer Letter project.
Julette Saussy was hired by D.C. government less than a year ago to oversee reforms in the city's troubled fire and emergency medical services department. But she recently announced that she'd be quitting the post - and she says the department's failure to change is putting lives in danger.
Concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus have escalated - both among those who may be traveling to affected areas, but also now locally, where three cases were recently identified.