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How Can Museums Empower Communities?: TACA Perforum 14

This week, we’re publishing guest blogs from panelists at TACA’s upcoming Perforum on meeting community needs.  (You can stream the Perforum live Monday here on Art&Seek.) Elizabeth Merritt is Vice President of Strategic Foresight & Founding Director for the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums. 

TACA Perforum live stream starts at 9:30 a.m. Monday here at Art&Seek.

Others in this series:

Museums have the power to uplift and inspire our communities. But our communities have immediate practical needs as well—including access to education, economic development, and political empowerment—that museums can address through their work. Here are a few inspiring stories of museums going beyond traditional exhibits and programs to help people create sustainable livelihoods as individuals, households, and wider communities.

Museums can fill gaps in the educational landscape by providing training and credentialing that offers immediate, practical value. One great example: in 2017 the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, partnered with the architectural non-profit space, Assembly House 150, to create SACRA—a training program that imparts fine carpentry skills to men and women in need of employment. Staff at the Albright-Knox helped to create a business plan, secure funding, develop relationships with government partners, community organizations, specialized trainers and employers, and also played a role in interviewing the trainees. Now they are helping this artist-led non-profit to build the infrastructure it will need to stand on its own. Museums can be significant players in the emerging realm of digital credentialing as well. Building on its traditional training programs, the Cooper Hewitt Museum in NYC offers training and digital badging through Design Prep Academy. Through free programs, workshops, tours of design firms, college tours, free competitive scholarships, the program helps young people get the credentials and training they need to enter the fashion industry.

Museums can help their communities create an accessible infrastructure of economic exchange. In Santa Fe, the International Museum of Folk Art used its knowledge, reputation, and networks of influence to help found the International Folk Art Alliance, which envisions “a world that values the dignity and humanity of the handmade, honors timeless cultural traditions, and supports the work of folk artists serving as entrepreneurs and catalysts for positive social change.” The Alliance operates the International Folk Art Market, which takes place annually in Santa Fe and in Arlington, Texas.  Since it launched in 2004 the Market has hosted nearly 1,000 master folk artists from 98 countries; generated $28 million from artist sales (90% of which goes home with first-time artists); affected 1.1 million lives worldwide; and drawn 233,000 Market attendees—with an estimated economic impact of $142 million. Many museums are creating makerspaces and marketplaces around open data. The Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, and the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark) in Copenhagen nurture creative entrepreneurs and small business by making digital collections data open and accessible, and by sharing their reputational heft with people using these assets. SMK recently partnered with the 3D printing company Shapeways on a Collection Jewelry Design Competition. SMK provided raw materials, in the form of digital files on six collections objects, and reputational validation by having their curators select and display some of the entries in the museum. One winner and four runners up were displayed in the SMK and sold in the SMK-Shapeways online shop.


Museums can help equalize access to political and regulatory power. During the last presidential election, the Jane Addams Hull-House created a platform for the un- or dis-enfranchised to voice their opinions by hosting the Official Unofficial Voting Stations created by social practice artist Aram Han Sifuentes. The project launched in Chicago, and extended its reach via 15 collaborating institutions, leading to diverse installations and interactive voting in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Ithaca, Detroit, Mexico City, Acapulco, and Tijuana. Just last year, NEW INC—an initiative of the New Museum—organized Create and Advocate to democratize political power for marginalized groups. This weekend-long creative digital hack-a-thon, held at A/D/O in Brooklyn, partnered local social justice organizations with artists, designers, and technologists from the NEW INC community to develop creative solutions to key civic issues. Some of the resulting projects addressed prison reform, gentrification, environmental justice, and tracking and reporting hate speech and abuse.

The lesson for museums? Never underestimate our power to change the world. By shaping our practice around the needs of our communities, museums can play a significant role in building a bright future.


This post is adapted from a longer essay titled A Museum Manifesto for a More Equitable Future, originally published on the Center for the Future of Museums Blog.