Five Trends Changing Cultural Institutions

10.16.14

I have had the pleasure of speaking with many leaders of arts organizations this year through attendance at various national and regional museum conferences. Several trends have emerged from these conversations, many of which I see playing out in our projects and communities. Below are five topics that should influence the conversations we have with arts organizations in order to help them navigate the complex issues driving change in cultural institutions.

Demographics

As isolated as we sometimes feel, we are living in an increasingly global world. The traditional audience that museums attract and cater to is changing. Our clients are reinterpreting their collections to tell the story of how a broader base of humans shaped the world or were shaped by it. As architects, we can help our clients reach out to diverse audiences so they stay relevant. 

Swedish-Americans and Oromo-Americans

Funding Strategies

With a change in demographics comes a change in philanthropic trends. Reduced public funding for the arts and changes in donor tax advantages have created economic challenges for many nonprofit organizations, as many are asked to do more with less. In addition, driven by history's largest ever transfer of wealth--from the baby boomers to a younger, more global-minded and technologically savvy generation--nonprofit organizations need to adopt much more accountable, outcome-based models to demonstrate their impact. Younger generations want to see measurable results, delivered in sustainable and replicable ways; this approach can be seen in the form of impact investing. Think about your last experience with a nonprofit's fundraising request: "Your donation will create 25 healthy meals, allow four classrooms to have their first visit to a museum, buy 10 books for the library." These are measurable outcomes that allow donors to feel they have made a difference.

Anytime/Anywhere

Despite reduced funding and wider audiences, museums are expected to meet visitors where they are--where ever that is. Mobile devices are becoming ubiquitous, with apps and social media content expected to be free and on demand. Opportunities to engage visitors with enhanced content are a great way to expand a museum's educational premise and reach a record number of visitors. Want to learn more about this painting? Click here. Want to understand the ancient practice of bronze casting? Watch this reenactment. In fact, I met several people who told me their favorite museum was a facility they actually have never been to physically. If museums want to expand their visitor and supporter base, they need to develop this interface and find a way to pay for it. 

This anytime/anywhere trend has broad implications across many of our market sectors, most obviously in higher education, where it is causing some major disruption in the form of open source online education courses, such as Kahn Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare.

Alternatives to the White Cube Museum

Museums are quickly becoming much more than repositories of fine objects. There is a fast and deliberate move away from perfect and precious spaces to non-traditional and "please touch" environments. Opportunities to learn about the world and how it shaped us can occur in a garden or city street just as well as in a gallery. Fine art museums are no longer just showing traditional fine art; today you can find exhibitions on everything from fashion to motorcycles at major institutions like MOMA and Guggenheim. 

This also relates to the pop-up trend in retail, restaurants, etc. Can pop-up museums create that just-in-time/perfectly on-topic exhibit at the right location? How can partnerships with business and other nonprofits benefit both organizations? A pop-up museum could appeal to a broader demographic, thereby increasing support and funding while allowing the museum to reach far outside its physical building.

Hampden Village Merchants Association Pop Up Museum

Human Centered, Not Object Centered

Finally, cultural institutions are moving away from being object-centered toward being human-centered. This appears in programming, outreach, and the types of spaces our clients are requesting, such as classrooms, workshops, conference rooms and large functional lobbies. These are spaces that foster dialogue, experiential learning, and serendipitous conversations. The maker movement is having a strong influence on our institutions. In our manufactured, highly automated, technology-driven world, museums visitors desire a hands-on, homemade, craft-centered experience.

Santiago Maker Space

Our cultural institutions are looking to play an increasingly important role in helping us understand the world around us and find connections across the boundaries of race, time, class and culture. Understanding the trends our clients face and providing new ways to respond to these changes is critical to the increased value HGA brings. Our understanding will allow us to help our clients fulfill their mission and excel at doing this important work.