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From Buffalo to San Antonio and Beyond, Museums Woo Members


OCT. 25, 2017

The New York Times

When the financier Jeffrey Gundlach showered $42.5 million on the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, it radically altered the museum’s long-term agenda.

The gift was predicated on the challenge that the museum raise $50 million more in just three months, with the money going to a major new building as well as an operating fund that would help guarantee its upkeep.

Such transformative gifts are unusual for any museum, but they are rarer in cities where wealth is not as high as in cosmopolitan behemoths such as New York, Houston or Los Angeles. Smaller cities generally lack the influx of newcomers who are willing to make a splash with a big gift in their adopted city, and their museums depend on luring repeat visitors.

Sometimes, to do that, museums are forfeiting admission fees. As Julian Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., puts it: “If a museum is free, you can come and go. You can come often and do one gallery at a time. A museum can be like a restaurant, you can taste one thing at a time.”

A moment from the “RedBall Project” by Kurt Perschke, in Toledo, Ohio. The ball is 15 feet in diameter. Credit Andrew Weber, via Toledo Museum of Art
Indeed, of the 242 museums that are members of the Association of Art Museum Directors, fully one-third are free, said the association’s director, Christine Anagnos.

That trend puts particular pressure on institutions to exploit their existing resources and to bond with other local arts organizations in original programs for the public. Whether these programs take place in the museum or outside, the strategy is to lure more visitors who may well become members.

And museums are doing just that. Erik Neil, who took over as director of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., three years ago, said that 75 percent of the museum’s visitors come from within 50 miles.

Mr. Neil has worked to involve African-Americans as well as personnel at the nearby Navy base and lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual groups. Among the efforts: an exhibit of “Women and the Civil Rights Movement” and “Thomas Hart Benton and the Navy.”

To make the Chrysler Museum more welcoming, Mr. Neil has done away with museum guards. Instead, he relies on paid employees to act as hosts to visitors. For example, he said, “If visitors have questions, the employees can get in touch with a curator for the answer.”

Directors are also breaking through museum walls to extend the art experience into the streets and on to museum lawns with cocktail evenings for young members or even art events that go beyond the museum doors. That paid off handsomely at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio two years ago when it displayed a red ball 15 feet in diameter that riotously broke free from its moorings. The “RedBall Project” was the brainchild of artist Kurt Perschke. While the ball was originally set between a jeweler and a restaurant, wind dislodged it and it rolled down Toledo’s streets, attracting the attention of both residents and the media.

The museum was founded in 1901 by Edward Drummond Libbey, a pioneer of the glass industry, and his wife, Florence Scott Libbey, an art lover. “Since that time, we have had a mission to remain free,” the director, Brian Kennedy, said in a telephone interview. “Thirteen times since 1912, the board considered charging, and didn’t do it,” he recalled.

To integrate the museum better with the community, Toledo has worked with a variety of local arts groups, including the Toledo Ballet. In one collaboration, the ballet held rehearsals for “The Nutcracker Suite” in the museum galleries during the exhibition of paintings by Edgar Degas. The museum also hosts an annual 24-hour “Bach Around the Clock” program with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.

Julian Zugazagoitia is the director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which is free for visitors. “If a museum is free, you can come and go,” he said. “You can come often and do one gallery at a time.” Credit Steve Hebert for The New York Times
But perhaps the biggest efforts by museums such as the Toledo Museum of Art involve social gatherings that bring in hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors to a museum and its grounds.

In Toledo, the entire museum is kept open during its annual block party. Last July, during an exhibit of the ancient Mediterranean artist known as the Berlin Painter, museum officials said 7,000 people attended the event and 4,200 of them entered the museum. The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla., holds an evening event each month during the academic year, where bands play in its enormous courtyard, while it serves drinks and opens a single gallery.

Those broad-brush appeals are one way to go, but tight targeting of specific audiences is another strategy. Mr. Zugazagoitia moved to the Nelson-Atkins in 2010 from El Museo del Barrio in New York. He has created events around various local cultures, but one that particularly resonated for him was the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican celebration. The museum hosts other free festivals to connect with other cultural groups. The American Indian Cultural Celebration, for example, came into being in part because the Haskell Indian Nations University, a school for Native Americans, is in nearby Lawrence, Kan.

The importance of the Hispanic audience is even more significant in San Antonio, where 65 percent of the population is Hispanic. Richard Aste, who took over the leadership last year of the McNay Art Museum, is its first Hispanic director. “I think my coming to the museum is a matter of pride for everyone,” said Mr. Aste, who before was a curator at the Brooklyn Museum. “I want to include the Latino community in our conversation,” he said. Among his efforts is “Pop América 1965-1975,” a show of Pop Art from the United States, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Mexico and Peru that is scheduled to open next year.

Here are some exhibition highlights from the museums’ listings:

“Dust Tail” by Elena Damiani, on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. Credit Elena Damiani, via Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm; Photo: Carl Henrik Tillberg
Chrysler Museum of Art

On view until Feb. 4, 2018 ‘In the Box: Elena Damiani’s Dust Tail’

Contemporary Peruvian artist Elena Damiani’s multimedia practice incorporates the disciplines of geology, geography, cartography, archaeology and astronomy in order to reinterpret the world.

On view until Dec. 31, 2018 ‘Adeline’s Portal: A Conceptual Installation by Beth Lipman’

This conceptual art installation by Beth Lipman, a Chrysler Museum Glass Studio artist in residence, was created live in front of a studio audience and was inspired by Norfolk history. It’s on display at the Moses Myers House.

“Carousel” by Ronald Ventura, on view in the exhibition “Out of Sight! Art of the Senses” at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Credit Ronald Ventura, via Tyler Rollins Fine Art
Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Nov. 4, 2017-Jan. 28, 2018 ‘Out of Sight! Art of the Senses’

“Out of Sight! Art of the Senses” brings together contemporary works of art that actively engage with how humans meet the wider world through the five basic senses.

Nov. 4, 2017-Jan. 28, 2018 ‘Takashi Murakami: The Deep End of the Universe’

This monumental series of panel paintings, one of the most ambitious Takashi Murakami has ever created, is debuting for the first time in its entirety at the Albright-Knox in the artist’s first installation in Western New York.

Feb. 17- May 27, 2018 ‘We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85’

Focusing on the work of black women artists, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” examines the political, social, cultural and aesthetic priorities of women of color from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.

“Large Still Life on a Pedestal Table” by Pablo Picasso. Credit 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via Musee National Picasso, Paris
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Oct. 20, 2017-April 8, 2018 ‘Through the Eyes of Picasso’

This major exhibition will explore Pablo Picasso’s lifelong fascination with African and Oceanic art, as well as works from the Americas, uniting his paintings and sculpture with art that fueled his own creative exploration.

“Fired Up: Contemporary Glass by Women Artists,” at the Toledo Museum of Art. Credit Justin Camuso, via the Toledo Museum of Art.
Toledo Museum of Art

On view until March 18, 2018 ‘Fired Up: Contemporary Glass by Women Artists’

More than 50 objects showcase the women who now rank among the most innovative and celebrated glass artists. Drawn from the Toledo Museum of Art’s renowned glass collection, with notable loans from private collectors, the works document nearly six decades of underappreciated influence, from the art that helped women forge a path in the Studio Glass Movement of the ’60s to the ingenuity of 21st-century installations.

“Dia de los Muertos From Seven Days” by Chuck Ramirez. Credit Estate of Chuck Ramirez, via Ruiz-Healy Art, San Antonio
McNay Art Museum

On view until Jan. 14, 2018 ‘All This and Heaven Too’

Multimedia works by the local artist Chuck Ramirez, including his photographs of single objects as well as video and installation work.

On view until Dec. 24, 2017 ‘Across Borders: Crosscurrents in American Art’

An exhibit that points to the fact that citizens of the United States, Brazil and Mexico all live on the American continents.

A version of this article appears in print on October 29, 2017, on Page F10 of the New York edition with the headline: Luring New Members.