This week, we provided our Grant Writer, Katie, the opportunity to share some insight about her position at TMA.
I have not been a Tucsonan terribly long—I moved here from the cold white north of Montana in September, and began the job as the Tucson Museum of Art grants manager less than 12 hours after driving over the state line. I worked and interned for many museums, historical societies, and other nonprofit cultural organizations back home, so believe me when I say that without any bias whatsoever out of all of them what TMA does in our community is by the far the most impressive. It’s pretty gratifying to know that the grants I write help make that happen.
When I tell people I’m a grants manager, I am always asked what exactly that means. The easiest answer is that it is my full-time job to research, write, and report on and grant applications for money to support the Museum and its programs and exhibitions. I like to say that grants are an upside-down way of raising funds. Instead of TMA asking for donations, potential donors tell us that they have money they want to invest for the good of the public. All the Museum has to do is tell them effectively why we deserve it. It is not as simple as it looks. First, it takes a special set of interdisciplinary skills to write applications that will receive awards. Second, there are always exceptions, conditions, and restrictions on who and what grantmakers will fund, and I have to make a valid case for why we deserve funding among so many other wonderful candidates.
But, let me tell you the hardest (and weirdest) part of my job – What all the answers I give and narratives I write boil down to is the fact that I have to convince funders of the worth of art. It’s a funny task, isn’t it? In the grant world, the buzzword for this is “outcome.” What are the expected outcomes of this project?, grantmakers always want to know. It is an easy question to answer if you are writing a grant for a social, medical, educational, or scientific nonprofit. You can measure how many individuals you will provide with vaccinations, measure how many acres of rainforest you can save, or how many at-risk children you may be able to send to college. In the arts, though, it is a difficult question to answer. How do you give concrete evidence for the worth of something whose very essence is anything but concrete? There are plenty of studies that try to explain art in these terms, studies that correlate art education to increased graduation rates, academic and career success, and overall emotional well-being, but we know that there is more to art than just these statistics.
The answer I always want to give to people who ask this question is Ars Gratia Artis, art is its own reward. It makes us human and provokes us to feel and think in our own unique ways, and to me that is the only outcome that is needed. I know meaning is there, and that the worth of a piece is there, even though I may not “get” all of it. It will mean something to someone somewhere, and that is what makes it art.
What is your answer the question of why art is important? What is it about a particular work that makes you look, and keep looking? What is the reward of art for you?
Over the years, there are several trends that emerged in museums that are believed to improve attendance and visitor experiences. Jargon used among museums, such as “participatory,” “engagement,” and “interpretives” are the buzz among museum educators, grant writers, and curators alike. These words are understood in immeasurable ways, varying from department to department, museum to museum. The overall message that is heard loud and clear is that the age of the ivory tower of museums is gone. White walls with rows of paintings or artifacts and the mentality of “if we show it, they will come” has all but faded away.
What do these “museum” words mean? Simply, museums look for ideas that are considered business “unusual.” Examples of this include pop-up museums which take the museum’s mission on the road, having night hours the galleries are open, or hosting beer festivals which bring in crowds that may not have visited the museum in the first place. After all, that is the goal for museums, right? The mission of the museum is the core, and with caution, these ideas must walk a fine line within (please excuse the jargon) “edu-tainment” or educational- entertainment realm that museums sometimes find themselves.
One publication I am continuously drawn to in my profession is Lawrence W. Levine’s Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Levine reminds us about the beginnings of museums and culture that emerged during the age of enlightenment. Charles Wilson Peale’s painting, The Artist in His Museum, 1822, depicts Peale himself revealing his collection of curiosities. Levine observes that Peale desired to make his museum a source of enlightenment and “rational amusement.” (147) This philosophy continued and still exists today. Over a century after Peale’s painting, museums continued to develop and were viewed as places with “higher things” and in essence are temples only seen by a worthy few. (155)
As a curator, I feel there is a balance that must be achieved in order for museums to survive and become accessible in the 21st century. A few years ago, I made an effort to elevate my knowledge of audiences by receiving a certification in interpretation. Organizations like the National Association for Interpretation (http://www.interpnet.com) teach the basics about providing multi-sensory experiences and reaching out to audiences on their own terms. In exhibition planning I employ this way of thinking. I look for creative ways to bring the works of art to life without ruining the aesthetic of the gallery.
In Tucson Collects: Spirit of the West which ran from June 16-September 23, 2012 at the Tucson Museum of Art, I worked with the Education Department in the incorporation of tactiles- things to touch. On the wall near the Navajo textiles was a small sample of a textile that the visitor could feel the weave; near a bronze was a piece of bronze that the viewer could feel the texture. This type of sensory experience overall was well received, with few negative comments. I feel it was worth the experiment. The multi- sensory experience was used again recently in Common Elegance: The Still Life Paintings of William Shepherd, October 11, 2013-January 12, 2014, where the painting, American Colors, had the actual objects that the artist painted displayed next to the painting. Visitors could see how Shepherd incorporated the shadows, colors, and texture of each object in his final work. Additionally, a desk was set up near the painting so visitors could sit and sketch the objects just like the artist. Feedback for this use of engagement was positive.
Just this past weekend, as part of the programming for Bob Kuhn: Drawing on Instinct, the Tucson Museum of Art invited the Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum to bring live animals as part of the Picture This! Art for Families: Wildlife Drawing. It was incredibly successful in joining the art of the exhibition which focuses on connecting wildlife art to the real thing.
These are just a few of the experiences that continue to bring the museum to new audiences. Victories and missteps will be recorded and tweaked; exhibition programs may be more popular than others, but the Museum will continue to go forward in this new century.