US fine art obsession in need of young blood

There is no question that the United States is home to some of the best and most highly revered fine art museums in the world, catering to a passion driven by an obsession with a history that  has fascinated a land that compared to the rest of the world is still in the process of forging its own sense of identity.
For example, Titian’s piece, The Rape of Europa has left countless visitors to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in awe at both the snapshot into Europe’s cultural history and its tip of the hat to mythology, both of which are arguably absent from the pages of America’s own story, which has been largely built on a foundation of modernity, manifest destiny and various interpretations of progress.

No changing of the guard

However, statistics have yielded a troubling trend for the arts in the US, with the enthusiasm among members of the younger generation proving to be a particularly problematic area for many of the country’s museums.
A recent Economist survey suggested that more than a third of the country’s museum directors are over the age of 60, many of whom are overseeing an ever-shrinking audience despite employing a number of measures aimed at boosting attendance.
Fine arts events have seen particularly significant declines over the last few decades, with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) suggesting that only 33 per cent of Americans attended a “benchmark” cultural event in 2012—down from 39 per cent in 2002 and 41 per cent in 1992.
The decline is evident across nearly every age group, with the sharpest fall found to be among 33 to 44-year-olds (down 10 per cent) and 45- to 54-year-olds (down 12 per cent).
Indeed, the only age group to have seen statistically significant increases in arts attendance has been Americans aged 75 and over.
It is not just galleries that are feeling the pinch. Even jazz, a genre of music many would claim to be part of the fabric of American culture, has seen concerts attended by an increasingly aged and graying audience, with the median age going from 29 in 1982 to 45 in 2008.

How to get going again

There are many that will claim these figures show that the US is at something of a cultural crossroads, choosing to embrace newer cultural trends that divert attentions away from its traditional identity.
Others will point to the alleged meagre levels of funding for arts across the country, which has arguably seen the role of museum director become increasingly altered over the course of recent years.
That has caused many directors to focus more on the business side of running a museum, which runs alongside the core duty of being an artistic director.
Such a situation has made the job all the more difficult, with the country’s top museums having to balance the books and capture the imagination of the American public.
And yet the perceived prestige that comes with such a role means that any free seats are unlikely to go unfilled for long.
Many onlookers believe there could soon be a wave of new directors taking roles in museums across the country and, hopefully, bringing fresh and dynamic ideas with them.
A recent article in The Economist claims: “The impending influx of new blood at the top offers museums an opportunity to rethink the job and question many of the assumptions that underlie traditional museum operations: the emphasis on splendid buildings, the primacy of curatorial authority and the balance between rich donors, for whom museums are often personal vanity projects, and the public, who see museums as shared common goods.”