Interview: Dallas Museum of Art Director Maxwell Anderson On Audience, Marketing, and the Role of the Museum (Part 1)

It has been about a year since Maxwell Anderson became the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, and during his young tenure, the museum chief has spearheaded a number of groundbreaking initiatives. From the Friends and Partners program, which opened the doors to free general admission while introducing a new way of gathering information about the visitors to the museum, to the DMX exchange program, which is poised to affect the way the entire museum industry treats antiquities and relations to other countries, Anderson has made headlines while quickly reshaping the DMA into an institution willing to take risks and eager to engage with – and lead – on an international level.

I sat down with Anderson just before the end of 2012 for a conversation about these initiatives and other topics affecting the DMA. Over the next few days, we’ll run this interview in three installments. In part one, Anderson and I discuss the nature of the museum and the goals of the new DMA Friends + Partners program.

To read all the posts in this series, go here.

FrontRow: It’s been about a year since you announced your initial goals for your tenure at the DMA. To start, I wanted to discuss what some of those goals imply about the museum and the broader question of museums these days — what exactly is the nature and role of the museum and has that evolved in the last few years? There’s a lot of conversation going on about what it’s supposed to do and what its responsibilities are, to audiences, to scholarship, to donors, to all these different groups. It’s a very broad sweeping thing, but where or how do you sum that up?

Maxwell Anderson: Well, I mean there are two orbits. There’s the museum field and there’s the DMA, so I don’t know where you want to start.

FR: Let’s start with the DMA and the role of being an encyclopedic, regional museum.

MA: Well, I guess I would start with asking why it’s regional? What is it about it that makes it regional? It’s in a region, but New York is a Tri-State Area. When I grew up it was called the Tri-State Area, and that was the region. I’m doing a piece for the Art Newspaper for their February issue in London about admissions and the reality of admissions and attendance based on our announcement [of the DMA Friends + Partners program]. And I guess regional to me implies, as in France, a regional museum means it’s not a national museum. It’s very clear departmental distinction within the French bureaucracy. And I don’t think we have that clear distinction.

I think the Kimbell is a national museum because it’s been involved with major exhibitions nationally, internationally – and we are too. I think it’s just a matter of episodes in the lives of institutions; they reach a relevance to people locally and elsewhere. And at times they don’t. So I’d like to imagine that we’re not a regional museum, but we’re part of the community of museums that’s trying to do good things. So that’s the first clarification from my point of view. It’s not a correction, but it’s a clarification, where I think that maybe we would describe ourselves differently from that.

And you know, so much of what art museums have been since the Tut show in 1978 have been trying to make themselves commercial destinations with additional value versus educational charities, which is what I think we are. And we have this peculiar mix of scholarship and glamour that makes us different from a university and different from other types of attractions. But I think they’re at the core of our identity, those two things. They work in parallel when they’re properly balanced and neither gets to be too recondite and you don’t become too populous that you lose your compass. So I’m very binary. That’s the only way to operate. I can’t think otherwise. But I think the Scylla and Charybdis are being too academic and too populous, and in finding a way that it’s both. And I think most of my colleagues struggle, as I do, to figure out how to keep this thing sailing along in the face of external pressures and claims on people’s attention and generosity and time. And I just have a lot more faith maybe than some of my colleagues in the capacity of the public to sustain and support us without necessarily bread and circuses.

FR: It seems like the word that comes up a lot is “relevancy” and how do you stay relevant, which implies that you are not just pursuing your mission as a museum, but that you need to go out and find your audience and give the audience what it wants. And there is that tension between giving an audience what it wants and giving an audience what it needs and yet might not necessarily know it needs.

MA: Right, because what the audience wants is civil part of the time, in that we have a mystifying mission to begin with. Are we a treasure house? Are we a party palace? Are we a research institution? And what the audience may want isn’t necessarily connected to what the professional staff is motivated by. To attract and attain top flight professional staff, you have to make sure there’s energy here that isn’t only connected with public appeal, but it’s also the capacity to innovate and take chances professionally in ways that are a bit risky and don’t connect with a business plan. Maybe they’re more that they connect with a personal agenda that’s completely legitimate, but not connected with the public interest, except down the road.

So when a curator or a conservator or a registrant is obsessing about something, I would never try to stop them from obsessing, but I would always ask them, “How’s your obsession going to move the mission of the museum?” As long as that’s part of what you’re obsessing about, I’m fine. So Roz Walker, who’s our brilliant curator of African art and is helping me with a lot of other parts of the collection – and we don’t have bench strength curatorially – she has this fantastic optimism about our potential relevance to our city, and it’s energizing. It’s great.

FR: That plays into what was a priority when you arrived at the museum and announcement of the DMA Friends + Partners. There are a few ways you can look at the reasons for gathering data about your audience through the new program. You can look at it in light of your predecessor’s work and its relation to gathering information about the market and knowing what kinds of people come into the museum, and I think that implied going to the audience and trying to respond to what the audience wants. Is there a distinction between that and how your data-gathering model is going to drive museum operations?

MA: Sure, you know, I would say [former DMA Director] Bonnie [Pitman] and I are in concert on all of that. The one feature that I’m equally interested in is that people change. They’re motivations change in the course of their lives or even their visit. So I think that it’s important to be flexible in presuming why somebody showed up and what they’re expecting to happen when they get here. That’s why [DMA Deputy Director] Rob Stein’s premise of badges has you self-identifying in as many ways as you want: a “sleuth,” you know, a “creative cat,” all these phrases that are tongue-in-cheek. And they’re meant to give people license to self-identify in a constellation of ways. And it’s playful, but it’s also, it gives us some clarity about why people are here.

And most of our peers are watching this with interest. I think we’re now in conversation with four or five museums about working with our program since the announcement. We sent out some feelers and, happily, quite a few major institutions wanted a play in this space. They wanted us to take the chances, but they wanted to learn about it and maybe adopt it there as well. So that allows you to get a lot more information about people’s motivations in different parts of the country and all these non-regional museums.

It will inform a couple of things. I don’t think it will inform our choices of what exhibitions to create and present, and I don’t think it will inform about how to research aspects of the collection, but it will inform how to make those things more interesting to people. So, a show that might be recondite or academic in somebody’s mind to me doesn’t mean it can’t be of interest to people. It just means that’s how it starts. It’s gestation is there but probably there are as many people who are curious about how a place like this operates and how somebody’s brain works here as they are about the familiar pablum that we’ve always trotted out for a generation-and-a-half of a particular kind of art or a particular brand of masterpiece, gold treasures, whatever it might be. Which I don’t think is wearing on the public, but I think that the public has a lot more choices today than they did when the Met started doing big shows in the seventies. There’s just so much more stimulation available that making a case for yourself to the public — intuitively, it should involve learning what their motivations are. Again, not with the eye of changing what we do precisely, but changing how we involve people in it — and how we describe it, how we engage them.

And I think that probably five years ago it would have been terrifying to a lot of my colleagues. It would’ve sounded like you’re giving the keys away, as some of our peer institutions have done. You’ve seen the crowd curated projects. To me that’s interesting online, to have crowd curated perspectives, but I’m not sure I would sucund to a plebiscite. Not that I don’t have faith in the American public, but that’s just a tough bar to climb up. Nor would I ask them to design our weapons system or a particular kind of x-ray machine for a hospital. I think those are expert decisions.

FR: The general public is one audience, another audience is the donorship and the patrons. What do you see as the motivations and desires from that group of museum constituents?

MA: Well, I think there are a couple of categories of patrons. There’s the board of trustees, which is the fiduciary board that I report to. And then there are people of means generally anywhere. We’ve had support from New York and San Francisco; I wouldn’t say it’s limited to Dallas in anyway. The core is here. The contract – not literally, but figuratively – for an art museum director is managing “up” and managing. And if you’re doing too much of either one you lose touch of a sensibility. And it’s punishing to really try to be fluent in the sensibilities of everybody in the world because there are a lot of people in the world.  But the DMA is very happy to have – very fortunate to have – a group of really committed trustees and supporters who, in many cases, rule off the board because of term limits. And then we hope will role back on in many cases.

And we are excited to have them involved in leading the senior leadership team – the associate directors and myself and others – because it’s such a rare thing to have people who are galvanized and excited about what your doing, but also have clear demarcations between governance and management and aren’t trying to influence your decisions about what to do and when to do. That’s rare. It’s rare in Los Angeles. It’s rare in New York. Here the culture is generous and enthusiastic and not micro-managing in anyway. So I find it especially exciting to be around people who believe in the museum, who have the capacity to move it forward, who are on-board with this general cultural shift here to a place of, let’s call it experimentation and ambitious striving to be relevant on a global scale. Those are two things that are a hallmark, I think, of museums — to your earlier point — that are relevant. They’re trying to do things that matter, that maybe hadn’t been tried before out of habit or fear, and maybe they’re striving to do them on a scale that’s visible. If you screw up it’s really noisy. But I have been in the saddle of museums long enough that I’m not as anxious about those two things as someone who’s new to the profession. And I’m a reasonably good judge of people, so I think I can tell if somebody’s anxious. I’ll say, “Are you okay with where we’re going, and if not tell me.”

There’s no question people sometimes aren’t happy with the direction the museum’s going in, but if you stay still, you can be guaranteed nobody’s going to be happy after a while. Maybe they’ll be sated and unafraid for a while, but if you don’t do anything that’s adventurous – this enterprise is so irrational to begin with: collecting precious objects and then holding them for some purpose other than cultural heritage preservation. There’s no rational basis for this enterprise, whether it’s for a hospital or a university. And that’s part of why museums go so far off the rails sometimes, because there’s no clear sense of “this is what you’re supposed to do.” If all you’re doing is the same stuff that’s been done – twelve week shows that are eye catching – and that’s it, that’s not sufficient. It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

Tomorrow: Museum transparency, the art market, the Arts District, and Museum Tower.