Should Dallas’ Museums Invite More Artists Onto Their Boards?

Art world watchers have surely noted the recent resignations of a number of notable artists from the board of the artist-founded Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. The flap over the resignations, which follows the dismissal of chief curator Paul Schimmel (credited by the artists on the MOCA board with bringing “intellectually ambitious and visually compelling” programming to the museum), highlights the fact that artists have always had an influence in steering the MOCA. As Christopher Knight writes in the LA Times, the artists on MOCA’s board were vital to its mission:

Certainly no institution comes into being or grows into an entity of international stature without a host of important contributing parties. But artists reside at the core of MOCA’s being. They’re the soul inside what sometimes seems to be a soulless institutional life.

The changes in Los Angeles reflect a deeper trend in the art world, a movement of emphasis on the part of museums from understanding their institutions as places that show work by artists to venues that stage shows for audiences. This audience-conscious approach is not all bad. To see it done right, take a look at this New Yorker profile on Nicholas Serota (pay wall), the director of the Tate. Serota spearheaded the construction of Tate Modern, one of the most popular museums in the world. But there is a sharp difference in tone and language between Serota’s re-thinking of the museum and the approach of MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and his board. Listen to this quote from Serota about how the Tate went about imagining what the wildly successful Tate Modern should be:

We did a survey of about forty artists before began this. We thought that if we could make spaces in which artists like to show their work, then the public would respond to them–we wanted spaces that the public would feel comfortable in.

Serota’s approach is audience-conscious, but it grows out of artists’ understanding of what makes a good home for art. To bring the conversation back to Dallas, I’d like to ask the question, to what extent are artists involved in the imagining of our our local museums?

None of our local institutions include artists on their board, which is not suprising for American art institutions (the MOCA’s artist slots on the board were somewhat unique, which makes the resignations all the more troubling). Most art institutions use their boards, in part, as fundraising mechanisms. The Dallas Museum of Art, for example, consists of more than 50 members and includes some of the most prominent civic patrons and art collectors in town. Missing, though, are artists.

While the Nasher Sculpture Center’s relatively small board does not include artists, Nasher director Jeremy Strick has formed a committee that includes some local artists to advise the board. (Strick, afterall, is the former director of MOCA, having resigned after a financial crisis in 2008.)

Boards serve vital financial roles which enable art institutions to do the work they do. And as the MOCA flap has shown, artists generally don’t make life any easier for the patrons of museums. But as Knight’s comments remind us, art museums owe their existence to the art created by artists. It would make sense that artists would know a thing or two about what makes a good museum. Nicholas Serota certainly thinks so. So is it time for more  local institutions reserve room on their board for a handful of artists?

Image: Ed Rusche, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1968.


  • I thought the Nasher only had Teacher and Student Advisory Boards. Is there another one? Which artists are on it?

  • Bob

    No, it does not necessarily make sense that artists would know a thing or two about what makes a good museum. The fact that one cooks well does not mean that one know a thing or two about running a restaurant. I would think that operating a museum involves fund raising skills, financial management skills, facility operation skills, marketing skills, and merchandising skills. Artists are no more or less prone to possess these skills than anyone else. Their passion, generallly, goes to the creation of art, not so much as its housing, presentation, marketing, or dissemination.

  • Mike Morris

    I would strongly disagree that our passion goes into the creation of art that much more than the other considerations you mention, bob. Especially at the level of emerging artists, a great deal of energy goes into the creation of contexts for work to be seen in, especially in an environment where opportunities can be scarce. That is just as much what we do as make the work, and is difficult to separate from “creation” as a creative act.

  • Having artists serve on a board is pretty broad. First of all, because you’re an artist, doesn’t mean you’re not good at business…that’s like telling me that because I’m a business executive, I’m not creative or an artist. Wrong…I just don’t sell art professionally. I think like anything, when you think about placing an artist on a board, it should be like considering any other person for a board position…what are their strengths, what do they contribute, what is the objective of the position or role you are placing that person into? Who is the art going to be viewed by and where will be it viewed? I like the idea of having the artist perspective on boards so you get away from just the “business” aspect of it all. I think having artists on the boards could actually make it more appealing to the public because it would be more diverse…artists are more in touch with various communities, rather than certain board members who don’t even know about a lot of the Dallas communities, much less associate with them. Of course, those people don’t buy a lot of art…they just like it! So unless the art is in a space or environment that’s approachable and uninhibiting, they won’t see it regardless of if you have an artist on your board, or not.