Inspiring new leadership in the museum world

I’ve been reading a bunch of forward thinking blogs from the museum world, all of which find themselves discussing the future of museums and technology and posing some insightful questions on where it’s all going. A common theme seems to be the question of how to bring change into the museum world and build leadership that is not only familiar with technology but inspired by it and likely to incorporate social media and other platforms into their institution. In all this talk of how to make this happen I feel there’s a pretty obvious factor here that’s not being addressed.

I hate to be a Debbie Downer here, but a big reason it’s hard to attract digital natives and social media savvy art lovers into the museum sphere, is well, the money.

You’ve got a generation of changemakers excited about the future of museums and technology and more and more students graduating with a mix of humanities and technical backgrounds. Interest in coding is up, UX has become one of the most in-demand professions, entrepreneurship programs are growing and everyone is trying to find the next industry to disrupt. The art world is ready for the taking, and startups like Artsy, and initiatives like the Google Art Project may be heading this way. And yet, those with the skills and background to foster innovation in the arts are not being encouraged to work in museums, and that’s a problem.

Part of that stems from budget constraints and limited funding (and here I’m thinking more art than math and science museums) which stand in the way of incentivizing digital natives to bring their moxie to a seemingly dying institution. (Of course, the comment is hyperbolic - museums aren’t dying, but they aren’t exactly known for being the hippest kids on the block, either.) Unfortunately, while there are tons of smart, plugged in young professionals who could do some stellar work in the art world, they’re  not going to give the art world a fleeting glance unless salaries start going up, or at least unless stipends for projects go up. Not everyone can afford to work for free as Wikipedians in residence to museum, much as they might like to and much as gigs like those are exciting for the art world, and so we risk losing out on a pretty dynamic group of thinkers who could really hustle museums into something great. The skills are there, and with the growth of groups like NYC’s ArtsTech Meetup (2300 members and going strong), it’s safe to say the interest is there as well. But having a solid understanding of social media platforms, knowing how to build a simple webpage or to speak to developers even if you’re not one yourself, understanding how to run usability tests - these are skills that will put any 20something in demand, and if museums really want a piece of the action, they’re going to have to get more competitive in their salaries. 

Of course, the art world is notorious for it’s lower-end-of-the-scale salaries. (PS1MoMa’s recent NYFA listing for a full time “fellowship” at a mere $20,000/YEAR is unfortunate evidence of this, as is Hyperallergenic’s report on an unpaid blogging internship offered by art world fave Maurizio Cattelan and former New Museum director Massimiliano Gioni struck a chord. (Esp. in NYC, where cost of living isn’t exactly cheap.)

Low salaries in the art world aren’t news, but it certainly doesn’t help steer us in a more innovative direction. It’s maybe not the most interesting question, but it’s certainly a relevant one.