Museums Look Locally for Growth and, Sometimes, Survival

This article is part of our Museums special section about how art institutions are reaching out to new artists and attracting new audiences.

TEMPE, Ariz. — A cigar store Indian “princess” stands alone in a corner here at the Arizona State University Art Museum, gazing toward gallery walls, not the viewer. Ten miles away, the Phoenix Art Museum is preparing a rare show of the Cuban contemporary artist Juan Francisco Elso. The Baltimore Museum of Art recently opened an expansive multimedia exhibit celebrating 50 years of hip-hop. The Plains Art Museum in North Dakota is honoring an Indigenous tribe.

While these shows would appear unrelated, they all reflect a realization among museums around the country that visitors want to see more than just paintings by American and European artists, most of them white, most of them male and many of them dead. As metropolitan areas grow in racial, ethnic and cultural diversity, museums are increasingly adding exhibitions to attract a wider audience by showing a broader array of artists and explaining why their work is worth appreciating.

“There is a widespread effort by museums of all types, particularly smaller museums, to increase their audiences, both in the number of people and the racial and ethnic diversity,” said Laura Lott, chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums. “They recognize that there are people in many cases who haven’t felt included.”

Improving attendance is hardly a new concept, but the effort has accelerated since the pandemic reduced museum hours and kept visitors away. The pressure is especially acute for museums that operate without a steady stream of out-of-area visitors, prompting them to reach for local residents, including those who haven’t seen their culture reflected in the art.

“It’s harder for museums to keep reinventing reasons for local people to come back,” Ms. Lott said. “But it does allow them to dig deeper on their exhibitions and push the envelope a bit more to continuously stay relevant.”

And it’s not just smaller museums that are digging deeper. The same social and economic pressures are pushing some of the nation’s destination museums to change, mindful that new strategies are essential to return visitation to pre-Covid levels.

“We’ve definitely had to lean on our local communities,” said Jeremy Mikolajczak, director and chief executive of the Phoenix Museum of Art, the largest in the American Southwest. “Through the pandemic, we’ve all learned how important they are. It’s not necessarily about bringing in the blockbuster but how we are supporting these communities.”

And so museums are shifting gears — seeking artists of different backgrounds, arranging works in new thematic groupings, reinterpreting pieces they already own, or, in the case of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the one institution that has something for everyone, highlighting amenities.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, hard hit by a triple whammy of Covid, inflation and troubles in the tech industry, has embarked on what the director, Christopher Bedford, calls a “seismic shift” to increase its audience. Underway is a multiyear plan to add new voices to museum leadership and reimagine a vast collection that “in all its glory,” he said, “is 98 percent white male.”

The goal? “Putting diversity, equity and inclusion at the core of every decision while not relinquishing a drive toward revenue and attendance.”

As an example, he cited a planned repositioning of Gerhard Richter’s majestic “Stadtbild Madrid,” a 1968 oil prominent in a gallery of Richter’s work. Viewed up close, it looks like random blotches of blacks and grays; from farther back, the tones fall into a well-articulated aerial view of an urban landscape.

“You would no longer see that gallery of exclusively Richter paintings from 1968,” he said. “What you would see is a view of 1968, local to global, all media, with an emphasis on diversity at the core.”

The Phoenix museum displays Asian works, Geoffrey Beene couture, Arizona landscapes, American abstracts from early last century, old masters and the occasional Picasso and Warhol. But in a city with a large Latino population, it is devoting several galleries to the Elso exhibition, which opens May 6 after a five-month run at El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan.

Curated by Olga Viso, it includes Elso sculptures and works on paper from the 1980s that reflect his interest in Afro-Cuban and ancient Indigenous cultures. Nearby will be pieces from the Arizona State University Art Museum by Elso contemporaries, who explored some of the same ideas, and other works from the Phoenix Art Museum on themes of migration.

The show was organized, in part, to engage more of the 43 percent of Phoenix’s 1.7 million people who are Latino, numbers likely to grow with the steady influx of immigrants. Since late 2021, nearly 700,000 people have crossed into Arizona from Central and South America and the Caribbean, including 110,000 from Cuba, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

The Arizona State museum takes on a “disruption in the desert mentality,” said its director, Miki Garcia. It’s a strategy embodied in a current exhibition, “Making Visible,” which honors Native cultures of the Southwest by exploding popular myths about the American West. Doing so, she said, helps comfort visitors who recognize misconceptions portrayed in some of the art displayed. The Indian “princess” is typical.

Sculpted in the late 1890s by Samuel Anderson Robb of New York, it causes the viewer to contemplate its unusual positioning.

“It was important for the curatorial team to understand the work as continuing to perpetuate harmful representations,” said Ninabah Winton, a curator at the museum. “As a monolithic depiction, the ‘princess’ would historically have stood as a visual symbol for tobacco, reducing Indigenous peoples to a singular motif, a mental image that still stands.”

“Also,” she pointed out, “princesses don’t exist within Indigenous communities.”

In Baltimore, a city with a majority Black population, “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” which runs through July 16, is a natural fit with the art museum’s growing collection of work by African American artists. But it comes with a twist, confirming how hip-hop culture has influenced contemporary visual artists. It includes stars like Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu and Carrie Mae Weems along with works by local artists, a hat worn by Pharrell Williams, a tribute to Nike sneakers and clothing made for the rappers Lil’ Kim, Dapper Dan and Gucci Mane.

“What we’re trying to do is continue to shift the needle in terms of what kinds of voices are valued and how knowledge is produced,” said the museum’s director, Asma Naeem. “I know they are two abstract things. But by including voices of the community, by showing that knowledge is flowing from our community members into this museum, we’re hoping that will bring in more of our neighbors.”

The show was organized with the St. Louis Art Museum, where it opens on Aug. 25.

The Baltimore museum and the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, another predominantly Black city, collaborated to bring together 12 Black artists with family ties to the Deep South, including Mr. Bradford and Ms. Weems, to create “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration.” Each artist explored the experience of leaving for another part of the country through the 1970s, an overall shift of more than six million African Americans.

After runs in Baltimore, Jackson and its current home, the Brooklyn Museum through June 25, it will travel to the California Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, opening Aug. 5.

In Mississippi, the exhibit ran for five months and helped the museum regain attendance lost to the pandemic, said Betsy Bradley, the director.

“We’re still building back up to those levels of attendance,” she said. “But certainly, ‘the Great Migration’ brought a regional audience as well as a local audience that was more inclusive and diverse than those we had in the past.”

Kehinde Wiley, whose vibrant portrait of President Barack Obama hangs in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery, is helping several other museums rebuild their audiences. His “Saint John the Baptist II,” a huge canvas of a contemporary Black figure, hangs among much older paintings by European artists at the Nasher Museum in Durham, N.C. The deYoung Museum in San Francisco is currently showing a large exhibition of his paintings and sculptures that includes searing representations of systemic violence against Black people. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the galleries were packed.

An exhibit of modern Native American art from the 1940s through the 1970s began a six-city tour last year at the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Cotuit, Mass., on Cape Cod, minutes from a community of Wampanoag. Organized by the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., the exhibit is currently at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa.

“We were definitely looking for opportunities to be more inclusive,” said Sarah Johnson, the Cahoon Museum’s executive director, adding that a current exhibit, “Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America,” had helped triple attendance over a comparable period last year.

The Plains Art Museum in Fargo, N.D., and the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla., each has an exhibition by an artist with a connection to the region.

The Plains features work by the Native American artist Gerald Cournoyer exploring lifestyles of the Lakota people; it continues through September. The Philbrook is showing portraits by Robert Peterson, a prominent Black artist from Lawton, Okla. That exhibit runs through June 11 and includes a painting of the author Ernest J. Gaines that inspired a U.S. Postal Service stamp.

Then there’s the Met, with an entirely different approach. As out-of-town tourism returns, museum officials are concentrating on luring back pandemic-weary tri-state residents who have been working at home more and wandering New York City less.

“The focus is on the experience, not the exhibitions,” said Ken Weine, the Met’s chief communications office and senior vice president, including Date Nights, extended weekend hours and discounted drinks. “If you’re a New Yorker, there are many indignities we’ve all endured. Certainly, it’s been a very tough few years. So come, get off your couch and stop streaming. Enjoy the city.”

And, of course, the art.

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