LA Museums: In trouble? Got solutions?

So I (over)heard a conversation recently between some relatively high-powered ad-type people, and the topic was LA’s museums. And how they were suffering from record-low attendance. The situation was so dire, in fact, that these ad-type people were working with a cultural organization of some sort (I have no idea which one) to possibly create a giant ad campaign that would raise awareness about LA’s museums, and that would drive people back through the gallery doors.

Of course, this is all hearsay, and prudence requires I not go into detail about the idea or the campaign, but it did make me stop and think–why don’t (most) people go to museums any more? What could get people back in the door?

My first suggestion is to drop membership fees. I mean, I used to work at LACMA and even with my disturbingly detailed awareness of that institution’s holdings and the importance of its collections, I still don’t have a membership–let alone the Muse membership I wish I could afford, that would grant me access to all the museum’s coolest events.

Clearly LACMA’s hungry for members: just take a gander at all the carrots they’ve added in to this membership pitch I recently found in my inbox (click to embiggen). But in this economic climate, it’s unrealistic to expect folks to drop a cool $90 for the basic membership–and an additional $50 for Muse. Muse events, like their costume ball, Young Directors’ Night, Muse ’til Midnight and more–are designed to appeal to a younger, hipper crowd and innoculate the museum against the attrition caused by the rapid graying of its members; (click thru to continue)

…but it’s important to remember that the majority of the young, hip crowd does NOT have much in the way of disposable income. LACMA, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

There’s other issues playing into the museums’ conundrum as well: the impact of “blockbuster exhibitions,” some of which nowadays are “curated” by behemoth event-production companies like AEG; the conflict over what role a museum plays in a city (archivist? educator? entertainment? family destination?); and the balance between wooing crowds with sexy exhibits like Van Gogh (LACMA) or Murakami (MOCA) and the institution’s commitment to the more prosaic, less flashy elements of its collection; it’s all a huge challenge.

What do you think? Would you get a museum membership if it came with all these perks (see image)? Or would they have to lower their fees? What could get you in the doors and get you to really care about what the museum’s doing?

16 thoughts on “LA Museums: In trouble? Got solutions?”

  1. Great post. You are correct, the first thing they need to do is drop prices. Not everyone, especially a family with a few kids can afford a trip to LACMA.

    I believe its really important we take our kids to museums and gallery’s to open their minds to art and what all is out here to explore. I haven’t taken my kids to LACMA as its too freaking expensive for a family of 5 (or 6 if they bring along a friend). However, either Getty will get my vote for family friendly venues to explore great art, especially their rotating exhibits. Aside from the nominal parking fee its FREE.

  2. Fraz, your family should be able to attend for practically nothing. LACMA has a program called NexGen that gives kids under 18 FREE memberships, and each kid gets one adult visitor in with them, also for free. It doesn’t cover special exhibits, but it’s a huge savings. I can’t understand why they don’t advertise the program – I only know about it because I have a friend who works there.

  3. I am not a fan of LACMA. I think what museums should do is focus on getting good art. Focus on fostering relationships with innovative artists. LA’s art world tries to pretend like it is New York. It is not. We have a great art scene. We have great art out here. We have people doing some groundbreaking things, but the problem with the arts in LA is too much nepotism. Nepotism is fine in NY where they have the quality and foundation to back it up, but in LA we need to build a good foundation then we can start plugging people just because we went to school with them or they are dating our best friend. We had an art show in LA by an art critic that was covered in that art critics paper AND the art wasn’t good and no one dared called bs on that, which they really should have.

    That’s the problem with LA’s art scene. The most money goes to the Emperor has no clothes type of BS. And why should the public support a private party among the elite’s friends?

    And also where is the hard hitting political type art you see in New York in LA, even in galleries its all of this fluffy nonsense…I don’t know. I think an ad campaign, yeah, but also at some point you have to look at the quality of what is being presented.

    My solutions would be close LACMA down and give it the money to MOCA which to me is a vastly superior institution.


  4. I used to be a member and then they started upping the price and I wasn’t that entralled by some of the ‘blockbuster’ exhibits. They changed the classical music program on Sunday from 4 pm (very practical) to 6 pm (often schedule conflicts).
    I found I couldn’t interest friends into going to the museum with me (or using my card) and when they took on the new HUGE fundraising for the new buildings/design plan AND the process was not really fairly presented, I decided they had their own agenda and I didn’t feel like I was part of it anymore.
    They’ve recently sent me an offer to subscribe at a lower rate, and I might consider it just for myself. Of course I am spoiled: When I lived in SF in the 60s & early 70s there was no admission fee for the de Young and Legion of Honor (nor at LACMA at the time, when the main building was being built)…and I can remember when the Temporary Contemporary was free…
    I know that because I am a BofA customer I can use my card for free access to some museums, and I think there are some free times every month for most museums but so many people aren’t even museum-conscious, and I don’t know how to change that.
    One other comment: I used to do a fair amount of shopping at the bookstore/giftshop. Since they relocated it I like neither the layout nor the selections.

  5. I love museums, but I have to admit I’m not into the art as much. Call me an uneducated fool if you like, but when I go to the Getty, I really enjoy the architecture, the gardens, the historical and photographic exhibits. Which is probably why I haven’t been to LACMA in forever. Maybe never. I don’t remember what I did as a kid.

  6. And the thought of Eli Broad touching MOCA is very disturbing. LACMA was bad enough by itself, now thanks to him it gets all of this publicity in regards to being the art place in LA and it is not. And I thought that bait and switch thing he pulled was way uncool. I don’t understand what they are doing over there at LACMA. Are they a museum or a film studio? It’s the epitome of artless.

  7. Excellent post Luce. In addition to the expense of the museum itself, I have to factor in the traffic and parking hassles (and expense) of coming into town in the first place. It’s a further obstacle that makes it less likely that I’ll go without a really good reason (the Magritte exhibit was the last such occasion, but that was nearly a year ago). I think that this is an issue for most L.A. area residents who don’t live near the place or neighborhood they’re considering going to, and affects not just LACMA but virtually every business in Los Angeles.

  8. Browne, you hit the nail on the head with Broad. I still am flabbergasted that he pulled out, after the monumental amount of work & money (some of it taxpayer money) that went into BCAM’s designing, building and publicity. You just don’t DO that. Ugh.

  9. Chicago has success with its Young Professional program and the events are sponsored by restaurants/liquor companies to keep the costs down.

    Why not build on the highly creative workforce out here by offering an affordable YP program with a stream of networking events that highlights up-and-coming artists? The point is to get them into the museum, artists can be inspired by others and might get inspiration for their project, and may return to see it on their own.

  10. As a former Getty employee, I get all warm and fuzzy seeing all the kinds words about that institution.

    Anyway, I agree the price of admission is a big deterrent. Maybe if cultural institutions that charge admission came up with a campaign where one affordable membership gets you into LACMA, MOCA, NHM, JANM, Autry, Hammer, etc. for one year it might entice people to visit more.

    Coordinated exhibitions among all the institutions could also encourage people to visit multiple museums. Remember 2005’s “Master of American Comics” that was split between Hammer and MOCA? I’d love to see more collaborations like that. And actually, it’s going to happen in 2011.

    As for blockbuster exhibitions, I don’t think they’re a horrible idea as long as they don’t become the museum’s driving force. And of course the art needs to be high quality and make sense for the institution. But if they can bring in people that might not normally visit a museum, why the heck not?

  11. My wife and I collect “art”, but of course we could never afford the art that is shown at LACMA. We do appreciate it, but we could never afford it. Part of what makes art interesting is the relationship you form with art itself, and nothing helps to cultivate an appreciation for art than by owning some. My point being is that LACMA / MOCA, etc. should seriously consider how they can bring the concept and reality of art and personal ownership/support of art to a larger audience. I’m talking about really good art priced under $100. And the artists should be available to mingle and tell stories about their art to help demistify the “magic” and bring it back to the meaning and relationship to human themes and feelings that many people can relate to but never really connected with like an artist can. I don’t know, that just one idea I thought might help.

  12. ” I’m talking about really good art priced under $100. And the artists should be available to mingle and tell stories about their art to help demistify the “magic” and bring it back to the meaning and relationship to human themes and feelings that many people can relate to but never really connected with like an artist can.” Silver Echo

    That is a great idea. People who go to museums like art. I don’t know why that relationship is not fostered. I don’t think the way to go is to make the museum more people who don’t like art friendly. That is what almost killed Vegas. Think what would people who like art, like that is visual art related. I certainly don’t want a subscription to Vanity Fair. I also don’t like all of these parties with no substance. Art first, then social, not main stream appeal social first then art.

    If a piece of art that I really like is within my budget (under 500) I will buy it. The economy is bad, I want to spend my money on something that I can still have in 10 years, I have little interest in going to the spa.

    Also the art council meetings should be held at more reasonable times (I’m not sure what they are now, but at one point it was at some oddly early times,) maybe they are trying to appeal to the trustfund set, but I can’t be somewhere before 6pm on a weekday to volunteer or to take a class to volunteer. And the one year training, I haven’t looked into that, but can’t that be online or something. If you make it difficult for me to be a part of something and you have these big shows that seem to be more about drawing in people outside of the people who appreciate art, well what do you want. People or more willing to support something that they feel some ownership of.

    And the concert atmosphere of the events, I don’t like crowds which is why I don’t go to concerts. I get pretty irritated when I go to the museum and have to stand in line with a bunch of people talking really loud about reality tv shows or the latest jack ass movie. Maybe if I had a membership I could avoid that, but I’m never going to find out, because I’m not standing in that line to see if it’s worth it. I don’t remember ever having to stand in an insane line at MOCA. I think that is called planning.

    I think LACMA should look at LAPL to find out how to draw in their audience. The Central Library in downtown is great. The have great events. The volunteer opportunities seem really fun. While they do have more mainstream events they often focus on more niche events. And the events they have for the public everyone is invited. They also have a great little marketing thing going on down there. They are pulling in younger people into the more professional ranks of the library. They regularly have really nice events that even the most broke person in the LA can enjoy. And they do this all without providing alcohol, not that I am anti that, but social is secondary, quality event and getting people to love literature (not LAPL, but literature) is first.

  13. About Broad.

    I think it’s a blessing in the long term that LACMA and BCAM isn’t tied to Broad’s overwhelmingly conservative, blue chip collection. Even though the whole affair stinks, the outcome of BCAM may be ideal for LACMA’s future.

    On the MOCA side, it’s natural for him to be involved in any actions taken to save MOCA – he was the founding chairman of the museum, and we wouldn’t have ever enjoyed MOCA had it not been for the leadership of Broad and the original board that made the museum possible. I’m usually not enamoured with Broad’s various moves, nor am I happy about LA’s complacency about having Broad as the only individual arts funder of substance, but I think he’s uniquely positioned to force MOCA to get its shit together.

  14. Browne–I totally agree with you about the importance of not “dumbing down” the museum–those niche events, and as you implies teaching people how to love ART, not how to love the museum–this is great advice. I hope someone at LACMA takes it.

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