Museum Matters: In Conversation with Dallas Museum of Art Director, Maxwell L. Anderson

This week, Artsy features our partner the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), which, last Sunday, opened Chagall: Beyond Color—an exhibition that showcases Marc Chagall-designed ballet costumes and rare works revealing the artist's engagement with Mexico and the American Southwest. A classically trained art historian, DMA Director Maxwell L. Anderson has also been a pioneering force in using digital technologies to further museum missions. In this interview, Artsy's Chief Curator, Christine Kuan, speaks with Anderson about institutional resistance to technology, the widespread obsession with contemporary art, and how he’s working to ensure that the DMA becomes one of the most progressive museums in the United States.

Christine Kuan: The Dallas Museum of Art just launched its new free general admission program: DMA Friends and Partners. What were the challenges to accomplishing this and what will be the benefits? 

Maxwell L. Anderson: The only real challenge to the change for us was perceptual, since general admission accounted for under 2.5 percent of our operating revenue, and we estimated that growth in attendance would spawn elective, as opposed to obligatory, spending by a large proportion of new visitors. With an average of 500,000 visitors annually over the last decade, we anticipate growth of at least some 100,000 visitors, and are optimistic that between this new spending, and increased philanthropic giving, we should come out about even.

CK: The new DMA program uses software to track and reward visitors for actively engaging in programs at the Museum. How do you envision technology becoming an increasingly valuable part of the visitor experience? 

MLA: For many visitors, we hope that technology will disappear entirely. For those who choose to cross the threshold of the DMA and have no interaction with staff or volunteers, that is absolutely an option. They no longer have to hand over cash or a credit card—so there will be no technology, just art. For those who opt in to participate in the DMA Friends program, there are lots of ways to learn more about works in the collection, about curatorial intention in grouping certain works, and about the museological goals we may have in building communities of like-minded visitors. That might include offering opportunities to socialize with others who have self-identified as interested in a particular category of art, or those who love jazz.

CK: You were a proponent of digital technology back when there was enormous resistance to making art images available online. Now museums have generally embraced this notion, but some of the old barriers remain. Why have those barriers not been overcome, and what do you think is the next frontier for museums and Web technology? 

MLA: Territoriality is perhaps the strongest instinct among museum administrators; it’s an extension of the survival instinct in the tackle sport of directing. I seem not to have that gene, favoring collaboration rather than chest thumping. Fear of irrelevance has also led to profligate spending on energy-consuming expansions, big exhibitions with minimal contributions to knowledge, and the proliferation of for-profit sensibilities in our ostensibly educational field. I hope that the evident fruits of collaboration can someday lead museums to put collective opportunity ahead of binging on curatorial junk food—and to experiment with a shared platform rather than a proprietary one whenever seeking a solution.

CK: You are a classically trained scholar and, in my opinion, also one of the most progressive museum directors of our time. What has been your leadership philosophy and what do you think boards need to look for in an art museum director? 

MLA: Very kind of you to say—wholly unwarranted, but kind nonetheless! I don’t think I could narrow myself to a prevailing leadership philosophy, but I do look at every museum through the unique lens of its history, its community, and its potential. And I’m best suited to museums whose search committees—i.e. boards—are seeking to identify the biggest challenges they face and look for solutions without excessive regard to tradition, the prevailing views of peers, or the possibility of criticism. The nonprofit world is hampered by our lack of clearly articulated measurements of success, as I’ve written, and this invites a world of hurt. If boards are prepared to acknowledge the truths of their situation, and ask of a professional leader that she/he make a case for adapting to the changing circumstances around them, then that administration has a chance at flourishing.

CK: According to recent studies, 80 percent of art history students study contemporary art. Many curators and scholars lament the lack of public interest in pre-modern art. What do you think museums could do to foster greater interest in other areas of art history? 

MLA: I offered up some observations about that at the College Art Association in 2011, including this thought: “Given the success of popular literature like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, we should insure that undergraduates are routinely exposed not just to a determinist narrative of art history or theoretical training, but also to the vast litany of exciting, unexplained phenomena in the history of art. They should be familiar with the underlying value, intent, and impact of an individual artwork, not just the explication of its likely function or its use in buttressing an overarching theoretical interpretation” (Read full paper.)

CK: The DMA was one of our first nonprofit partners and we now have 85+ nonprofits using Artsy to reach new audiences through The Art Genome Project, our social layer, and e-commerce service. What do you think is interesting about Artsy? 

MLA: The most sclerotic approach to learning art history is through memorization. The fantasy that successive movements and approaches to art can be reduced to episodes in a television drama is drastically out of date, inherited from the linear world of slide lectures. Today’s tools, including The Art Genome Project, promise new avenues of understanding, more akin to the flashes of inspiration in an artist’s head than to droning observations read from yellowed pages at a lectern. It’s a far more creative, exciting avenue than the one that led me into art history.

Maxwell L. Anderson is the Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art. He is the former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and is currently a trustee of the American Federation of the Arts (AFA). He has served as director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He is decorated with the rank of Commendatore in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Republic. Anderson is also a leading figure in museum technology, and helped to establish AMICO (American Museum Image Consortium) and ArtBabble.