Bolz Center Blog
Museum as business model by Andrew Taylor
In the endless search for evocative metaphors for business management, arts organizations seem to provide popular fodder. Way back in the olden days, the orchestra was promoted as a symbol of effective management -- with expert practitioners coordinated through ensemble culture and the gentle waving of a conductor's baton. Then, a decade or two ago, theater was the thing to be in business -- front-line staff members were the actors, our built business environments were the sets, and the successful manager was the director (or choreographer, or set designer, or dramaturge, can't recall exactly).

The unifying problem with these management metaphors was that the people writing them had never actually experienced the organizations they were idolizing. They built their theories on idealized conceptions of what orchestras or theater companies might be, without knowing how desperately messy and complex the reality was.

Now, it appears, the museum (and specifically the museum curator) is a model for successful business in the modern age. In an age of unlimited choice, the theory goes, experts (like curators) can select and assemble the most relevant options for a consumer. And perhaps, that expert opinion is more valuable and relevant than the emerging user-generated reviews that filter through crowdsourcing.

As with most management metaphors built on the arts, this one has some useful nuances. But it also glosses over the inherent tensions and challenges embedded within it. Curators, as it turns out, serve many masters -- including their scholarship, the integrity of the discipline they're curating, the critical eye of their peers, and the larger curatorial mission of their institutions. Often, the visitor is low among these priorities, particularly when a more welcoming and resonant experience runs afoul of the other priorities (Comfortable seats in the galleries? Signage in plain English inviting visitor interpretation? Amateur content mixed with masterworks? Are you mad?).

Arts organizations are by necessity and nature sloppy, complex, conflicted, and confounding. By those metrics, they are, indeed, resonant metaphors for any other form of human endeavor. There's a lesson in there somewhere, but it requires a deep look behind the scenes rather than a glance at the front of the set.