Museums need to be braver. Here’s how college and university art galleries can offer the sector as a whole a roadmap for reinvention

Art museums need to be braver.

For decades, the more than 700 campus-based museums across the United States have modeled this courage, playing an outsized role in making the visual arts ecosystem more equitable and accessible.

Almost always praised exclusively for having served the learning and teaching of the liberal arts, quietly and largely far from urban centers and the coasts, the galleries and museums of colleges and universities have done other critical work: they have served as refuges against rigid canons for sub-artists seen and alternative art stories; they zealously prioritized the needs of their audiences, often in ways a conventional museum would not dream of; and they are committed to showing visitors How? ‘Or’ What knowledge itself is constructed, including the proper roles of museums in such constructions.

Through their missions, their practices and their deep commitment to the public, they offer seeds for the reinvention of the entire industry. Here are five ways college and university museums are shaping a braver future for the museum field as a whole.

Christina Olsen, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Photo: Leisa Thompson.

People first, things second

Unlike conventional art museums, most campus museums did not begin with missions centered primarily on collecting and storing works of art. They were designed to help educate people, especially students: people first, art second. This underlying philosophy has been central to the work of my own museum, the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), for several years. Arizona State University’s museum mission statement also makes it explicit by asking, “What if museums, designed to honor objects, changed their model to honor people?”

In practice, the university museums’ emphasis on student learning has translated into the priority given to broad access to their resources and a more equitable sharing of authority. Most of them are completely free, without entrance tickets for exhibitions or special programs. Many have student governing councils with decision-making power. Many also lend works from their collection for students to take home for months. The Weisman, in Minneapolis, is perhaps the oldest; its program began in 1934. The Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College extends the practice beyond students, inviting members of the community to borrow works each semester.

Non-university museums could follow this model by including community members and students on their boards. Partnerships with local organizations, colleges and universities also provide a powerful mechanism to demystify the board’s work and engage the public in decision-making, showing that these stakeholders, rather than the objects in storage, are the true constituency of the museum. .

A UC Berkeley student looks at a brochure for the university's Graphic Art Loan Collection, which allows students, faculty, and staff to borrow original framed artwork for up to one year.  (Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

A UC Berkeley student looks at a brochure for the university’s Graphic Art Loan Collection, which allows students, faculty, and staff to borrow original framed artwork for up to one year. (Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Give the audience a stake

At UMMA, giving the widest public meaningful participation in the institution has guided our decisions over the past few years. In 2019, we invited the public to decide which objects to acquire from a selection of 1,000 vernacular photographs, presented in our exhibition “Make your choice”. Over 100,000 votes were cast and 250 photographs entered the collection with the “Selected by Museum Visitors” credit line.

In 2020, we responded to an urgent public need by transforming our most visible gallery into a fully functional town hall office: 5,400 people registered to vote at UMMA and more than 8,000 ballots were cast in our walls. We start again for the midterm elections this fall. By involving the public in decision-making and leveraging the museum to meet broader civic needs, campus-based museums are disrupting traditional power dynamics and beginning the process of turning visitors into partners and collaborators.

Many museums have experimented with participatory curatorial and voting projects, but usually as episodic or artist-led projects. They could follow the example of university museums by committing to them in continuity. When the UMMA offered the public a vote on acquiring photographs, many chose images of BIPOC people at their leisure, a subject rarely seen in museums. In one fell swoop, we’ve significantly diversified who was seen on the walls of the museum and learned what many of our audiences wish to see more.

Installation view, “Take Your Pick” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Photo: Mark Gjukich.

Challenge the Cannon

With no trust councils to influence collecting, many campus museums have long served as a refuge from the bald discrimination and misogyny of mainstream canon and market forces.

Historically, Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have spearheaded this work, and for more than a century single-handedly championed Black artists that all other institutions have denied, “claiming them, showcasing them, hanging them to the wall, teaching about them, “as researcher Jessica Lynne wrote.

Other campus museums followed suit, championing unsung artists and art stories long before it became popular. Since its opening in 1985, the List Gallery at MIT has primarily shown artists who have not yet had solo exhibitions. The Nasher, at Duke University, emphasizes collecting works by artists who have historically been excluded from mainstream art institutions.

Many art museums now pursue more diverse programs, drawing on the example of HBCUS and others. But focusing all art museum activities on expanding the history of art, present and past, would go a long way to engaging a wide audience.

The exterior of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.  Photo: Dominick Sokotoff.

The exterior of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Photo: Dominick Sokotoff.

Go locally

Spread across the country in rural areas and small towns in every state, campus museums also provide much of the regional diversity that a healthy arts ecosystem needs. They staunchly supported local artists in the face of the field’s persistent focus on artists from New York and Los Angeles. ArtGym, which began under the auspices of the University of Marylhurst, has exclusively featured the work of North West artists since 1980.

Wayne State University in Detroit, meanwhile, has collected contemporary works by Michigan and area artists since the 1960s, many of whom are African American. Embedded in colleges and universities as they are, this commitment to local talent has an outsized influence: it introduces these artists to the historical source of gun-making itself, the academy, and exposes the next generation curators, collectors and museum visitors to work on them.

installation view, "wish you were Here" at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.  Pictured: Charlie Edwards.

Installation view, “Wish You Were Here” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Pictured: Charlie Edwards.

Show off your work, even if it’s imperfect

Additionally, campus museums have shown a consistent drive to expose how museums themselves construct and produce knowledge, including systemic racism, misogyny, and exclusive art histories.

At UMMA, this has been the guiding principle of “I wish you were there: African art and restitution”, an exhibition and research project that studies in real time and on the walls of the gallery 11 works of African art from our collection – giving visitors access to documents, photographs and correspondence to better understand the history of each object and prepare several objects for possible repatriation.

All museums need to honestly examine their own exclusionary practices and what enabled them, from governance structure to hiring practices to opaque decision-making, and be upfront about them so that all of the field can begin to act as true cultural stewards and meet the broad call for change.

Campus museums are not without fault. They are embedded in institutions with their own ingrained histories of racism and exclusion. But they have unique freedoms and missions they can leverage to bring about profound industry-wide change. They are positioned to do the bravest and most radical work in the field. And other museums should take note of the model they offer: people-centered, governed with the public they serve, broadly accessible to all, and transparent about their journey.

Christina Olsen is director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art and co-chair of the Arts Initiative at the University of Michigan.

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Mildred D. Field