Six suggestions to help SAM survive

It’s eerie being right. Two weeks ago, I worried openly about the state of the Seattle Art Museum’s finances, specifically about its relationship with WaMu. As those of you who read the news now know, JP Morgan has kindly told SAM that they won’t be paying $4.6 million dollars in annual rent, but they will give them $10 million to tide them over while they find new tenants.

That. Sucks.

(There’s been lots of great coverage of this, including all the messy details: see Jen Graves’ article, Regina Hackett’s coverage, this thinly-veiled real-estate ad, and blog commentary. )

So, what can the Seattle Art Museum do? Some ideas:

DON’T start selling pieces from the collection.
Tyler Green would have their ass in a minute. Besides, SAM insists that the entire point of the expansion was to gain new acquisitions from donors. (This post isn’t about debating de-accessioning, anyway. I’ll try and talk about Brandeis, the Rose Art Museum, and my thoughts on this later this week.) Instead, work with other museums to arrange “art swaps” or arrange to loan pieces for an exhibition in return for the exhibition making a stop at our museum.

Make the most of what’s in the permanent collection.
During an early orientation as a volunteer shortly after the museum re-opened two years ago, I was told that SAM took great pains to make connections between the various parts of its collection across the museum. For the viewer, this would mean a more cohesive viewing experience. (For example, on the third floor, you can see the Tiffany glass window from the contemporary glass gallery on the opposity side of the building.) This is good in theory, but rarely works in practice, especially if little effort is made to explicitly connect diverse pieces.  SAM gets so stuck in the periodization of art (when was the last time you looked closely at Mesopotamian pottery?) that it’s even harder to connect these disparate pieces into a cohesive viewing experience.

I would propose following the model of the Tacoma Art Museum, or the Frye: re-curate the collection in smaller themed exhibits, then put together a flyer about the show as if it were a travelling exhibition.

In this scenario, imagine if the Seattle Art Museum had pulled pieces that drew on themes of looking, seeing, watching, and being observed in response to their Edward Hopper show? They could assemble a show that includes everything from Mesopotamian pottery to 19th century portraiture to contemporary photography. Add an essay and some blurbs on the changing nature of realism, observation, perception and self-awareness, and you have a whole new way of thinking about a large number of pieces from the permanent collection.

The drawback here is that this would require more homework on the part of SAM — it’s not an exhibit in a box. But, there’s no insurance or shipping fees to pay, and what else are curators for?

Streamline the size of visiting shows.
They’ve done this well with the current Edward Hopper show, but Roman Art from the Louvre was madness. The contract on that exhibit forced the SAM to fly over several curators from the Louvre, as well as station a guard in the Special Exhibition galleries 24 hours a day. I shudder to imagine what the insurance cost.

I saw an article a while back in The Guardian (I think, I can’t find the link) about how one- and two-piece shows were very commercially successful for UK museums struggling to pull in new patrons. These shows give the viewer a deeper understanding of a single work of art, rather than a bloated show of fifty paintings. They get marketed the same way as a big show, but the overhead costs are much lower. SAM did something similar with Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and I would love to see them do this again.

Make it easier for the right volunteers to do your work for you.
If it would be expensive and cost-prohibitive to re-curate what’s in the collection, consider using grad students from the UW’s Museum Studies program. I’m sure some already work at the SAM, but, umm, I’d intern to do research in the library and write up little decals, especially if I got work-study credit. Hands-on training in setting up exhibitions? Yes, please!

Get more personally involved with your patrons.
SAM has a Facebook page, but they haven’t jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. SAM does a great job with teens, they have some decent family programming, and they also do really well with the older, sit-in-a-lecture patronage. The museum tends to fall short with its 20-35, adult and childless demographic — people who are urbane and love art, but aren’t going to pay for membership to be on an Arts Council.

SAM has lots of good programs, but they are poorly advertised. Those that are popular – lectures, film screenings – could be made more popular by more aggressive advertising and running on two consecutive nights.

Also, make membership feel more like belonging to a club. There are 40,000 SAM members, and the museum doesn’t do enough to reach out to them. Open up ticket sales early to them for special performances. Once a month, have a “members-only” plus guest free entry night, and pair it with live music and a bar.

Collaborate with other institutions across the city.
When I was at the Bellevue Art Museum last week, I picked up a flyer for their Intertwined: Contemporary Baskets from the Sara and David Lieberman Collection show. It was a list of suggested further reading, all of which had been set aside on a reference shelf at the Bellevue Art Museum. What a radical thing to do! SAM will let strangers into its own library, but the hours are such that you can’t visit on the weekend. A suggested reading list coordinated with the downtown Seattle Public Library might convince some people to patronize two cultural institutions on the same day! (And, if the rumors about audio-tours are right, patrons will need to do their own research on shows anyway.)

Or, consider collaborating (thematically) with upcoming shows at other museums. The Tacoma Art Museum is currently running a biennial of Northwest artists; if SAM put together a show focusing on the art of the Pacific Northwest, maybe you could use your SAM ticket to get a 25% discount on your ticket to the TAM (and vice versa).

The Seattle Art Museum has a variety of other big fundraising tools to use to get it out of the current financial mess, but none of those impact the fundamental ways in which the museum has been operating. Short of a check large enough to pay off the mortgage, there’s no easy fix, and SAM needs to change its behavior to see long-term gain in profitability. None of my suggestions will bring in $3.6 million dollars annually, not even together, but they would suggest a change in attitude about how the SAM sees itself in relation to the rest of the Seattle art community. Mimi Gates will leave to the Seattle Art Museum a legacy of fantastic space, wonderful acquistions, and crippling debt. The SAM’s next director should be someone with the creativity to make the most of all of their assets — art and patrons.

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~ by ecp on January 30, 2009.

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