Thoughts on Museum Success I: Museums Nurturing Artists

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Originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 3 November 2014, this is the first in a series of ruminations on how museums measure success.

Those who work in and around art museums often turn their minds to the thorny question: how do we measure our success? It is a challenging and stimulating question which can lead off into unexpected avenues. I thought I’d share with you some of my own brief ruminations on this question. I do hope that I hear from you with your comments and ideas on this. Feel free to e-mail me at peter.nisbet@unc.edu — I hope to report on interesting ideas. Collectively, we may come up with some good answers!

Let me begin with a simple anecdote. The very first exhibition of my professional career was a show of drawings by the radical and experimental German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), an artist I deeply admire. The details of the show aren’t relevant here; I want to focus on a dinner party conversation shortly afterwards. I found myself seated next to a sculptor, who, without knowing who I was, spoke movingly and at length about how this exhibition had changed her work, not only inspiring new productivity but also challenging her to raise her game and aim higher. This moment from over three decades ago remains a touchstone for me, as it exemplifies the key, but unpredictable, role that art museums can play in profoundly nurturing the next generation of artists. No statistics can capture this effect, but museums would clearly not be succeeding if they were not playing a vital and active role in this cultural transmission. Art museums engage with contemporary creativity not just by showing the work of young artists, but also by considering how their programming can encourage those artists (and the rest of us) to rethink, recalibrate, and strive for excellence.

Whatever else I have learned about measuring success in art museums in the intervening years, the story of that sculptor has not faded. Indeed, I fondly hope that, amongst the many visitors enjoying our current, widely praised exhibition PhotoVision, amongst the many who are stimulated, instructed, entertained, and intrigued, there may also be that sculptor’s 2014 descendant. I’d be very proud to add her to the list of the Ackland’s successes.

Peter Nisbet
Ackland Art Museum Chief Curator and Interim Director

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