Silent Backlash Update: Bet Me
Do you yet hear the nonpartisan whimper, or am I just being silly? Let's find out.
Since I wrote The Silent Backlash last December, the MFA Boston published its FY2022 attendance numbers, and at 632,000 they were indeed less than half of what they were in 2019. Credit where it’s due: the FY2022 forecast was for 600,000, and they nailed it. That same office recommends a FY2023 attendance budget for 900,000 visitors.
But I’ve since run across another item. SMU DataArts, which for some time has published a Top 40 Most Arts-Vibrant Communities list every year, skipped reporting in 2021. When they returned in 2022, it was with a decision to present the communities as an unranked aggregate. The reasons for this were buried under several feet of bureaucratic mush.
With widescale closures beginning in March 2020, organizations across the country saw steep drops in earned revenue from ticket and admissions sales loss. Enduring COVID-related behavioral patterns have shifted ticket demand among audience members by roughly 20%, with fluctuating case rates keeping the sector in a reactive posture as organizations face uncertainty about future demand for arts programming. The initial shock of the pandemic on employment in the United States laid bare inequities in how arts and culture organizations cultivate and retain workforces. Unemployment in the arts was double that of overall national unemployment and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as well as disabled individuals were disproportionately affected.
These workforce and audience shifts as a result of COVID-19 present to arts and cultural organizations the idea that traditional business models and methods of operation may need adjustment to endure in a world where COVID-19 becomes endemic. We feel that this moment calls for reflection on arts vibrancy from a place of gratitude for what communities have been through and solidarity in support of their resilience.
For “shifted” at the first link, read “plunged.” Said link goes to a June 2022 talk by Alan Brown, a principal in an “arts research and planning consultancy,” in which the key takeaways are:
The post-Omicron recovery seems to have leveled off in June
We are still looking at 15% to 20% long-term non-returners; positions have hardened
Less than half of non-returners cite health concerns as a reason for not returning
Increased volatility and reduced demand for lesser known artists and artistic works may be the new normal
I direct you to Page 17 of this PDF of the slides in Brown’s talk. It shows monthly polling on the question “Why haven’t you returned to our [organization’s] programs?” from January to June of 2022. From the first month to the last, “Have concerns about getting or transmitting COVID-19” dropped from 54% to 35%. “Cost concerns/limited budget” rose from 15% to 23%. But by far the biggest reason, rising from 37% to 48% of respondents, was “Not yet found a program I want to attend.” Me in December:
What may happen instead is that former museumgoers decide quietly that the museum is not for them. The impetuses could range from progressives finding the historical objects too problematic to conservatives growing weary of getting harangued by wall labels. Maybe the normies will tire of culture war. Maybe visitors with fond memories of docents will miss them. When, not if, the recession comes, they will forego $27 museum admissions and do something cheaper and less vexing with their time.
The FY2023 calendar at the MFA was and is dedicated in great measure to waging culture war. “Philip Guston Now” was a curatorial abortion in which the idea that the Jews exemplify whiteness collided with the idea that whites are not significant victims of racism.“The Obama Portraits Tour” sought to beatify the former president and first lady with the dull stylings of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, proving Pascal correct that “Since losing his true good, man is capable of seeing it in anything.” With the 2022 renovation of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine galleries, the MFA now implicates Europe and America for involvement in slavery, but no nation past or present in the Middle East or Africa. “Who Holds Up the Sky?”, which purports to “provid[e] testimony of Russia’s crimes and a glimpse into many Ukrainian citizens’ lives,” might as well have been organized by Antony Blinken.
Their efforts at black inclusion have been intense. Many of these have been ingenuous: “Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” et al. One of them was entirely cynical: the involvement of Terrance Washington in “Philip Guston Now,” which sent the unmistakable message that Jews need black permission to have an experience. The rest are some mixture of the two. Musa Harar obtained his MFA from Boston University two years ago and it’s not clear how urgently his commentary is needed regarding Joseph Mallord William Turner. One gets the sense that Harar could say anything at all (not that he would, his remarks were astute) so long as the MFA gets to present itself as the kind of institution that would solicit a black artist’s commentary on a white artist.Perhaps museum scholarship has always been tinged with public relations, but once the latter grows so overt it’s hard to buy into either.
My contentions are that the museums are not pivoting quickly enough from the priorities of 2020, that the pandemic response exposed persistent and fundamental weaknesses in the arts organizations more than it created short-term difficulties for them, and aggressive signaling in the institutional presentation spaces tends to cause people to smell a rat whether they agree with the associated message or not. Therefore the threat of a silent backlash as I described it in December remains in effect.
Encouraged by the example ofand his regard for the power of the bet, I offer one: When the the MFA Boston FY2023 Annual Report comes out (probably in early 2024), it will reveal visitor numbers less than than the 900,000 projection from FY2022. You win if it’s that or higher, in which case I’ll donate $100 to the charity of your choice. I win if it’s lower than that, in which case you’ll donate $100 to the charity of my choice.
In your favor, the MFA budgeting office made one hell of a call last year and I’m generally too pessimistic. In my favor, we live in times in which pessimism has become significantly if not perfectly predictive.
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They seem to have decided that a hierarchy would have inappropriately hurt some feelings. This merits a whole essay.
The first proposition is uncertain, the second is provably wrong, the two contradict each other, and the resulting exhibition slighted the artist in an incoherent display full of condescension and politically motivated blithering.
My suggestion: You have museums for white people, like the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and museums for each and every other group. You can have Jewish museums – which are already going aren't they? You have your Museum of African American History and Culture, which is there on the Mall right now as an upside down ziggurat. Next up is the Women's Museum, maybe vagina-like; and shortly a Latino one in the shape of an Aztec pyramid.
I think the other groups wouldn't like a white male culture museum though would they? Might start giving Europeans bad thoughts.
Still, all these non-white-male-groups are working hard pushing for this aren't they? Dear, dear.
As for non-returners, I was one well before COVID hit and wokeness went rabid. Also, "non-returners" is too vague; I prefer "fed-up people." The perversion and debasement of the art establishment have been evident for quite some time, though perhaps they were less offensive and off-putting to people less "difficult," not to say less aberrant, than myself. In other words, I've been fed up for a long time.