The Role of Museums in a Globalizing Economy

It’s not news that economic trends affect cultural institutions: the Great Recession and its aftermath have highlighted the often vulnerable economic position that cultural institutions like museums occupy. However, these events have not led to widespread discussion of the wider role that museums play within a rapidly changing economy.

As a museum visitor, I rarely considered the economic role of museums, but I recently began a Master’s in Museum Studies and my coursework has raised questions over the way in which museums are coping with globalization. Along with globalization is the notion that monetary value is the driving force of all economies, including the creative economy in which museums have been positioned. In other words, an economic value has been increasingly attributed to the arts, thus they are now measured in economic terms. According to my professor, former SFMOMA assistant curator John Zarobell, since the arts generate billions of dollars in commerce every year in the United States, they have become framed within a larger structure as opposed to having their own. Globalization results from a relentless growth in international organizations, and museums are inevitably included in this growth.

My question then becomes how museums not only cope with the concept of a globalizing economy, but also with the fact that they have to participate in the process of globalization. Is the branding, collecting, or programming of a museum affected due to a globalizing economy? If so, in what ways?

As far as recognizing that we are living in a globalizing economy, museums need to think of ways to sustain themselves economically as nonprofit organizations. Museums need to continue to fulfill their mission in their communities, and they also have to maintain relevance within the context of the greater art market. For instance, the gift shop in a museum now holds great significance because revenue that is made can be applied to more programs and to administration and day-to-day expenses, which are often overlooked by traditional funders. The de Young Museum in San Francisco is an example of how the gift shop can be used to the advantage of the museum. During my time as an intern at the de Young Museum, I noticed that the Marketing department collaborated with Ghirardelli Chocolates, a local company with an international reputation, to promote Girl with the Pearl Earring. Having partnered with a recognizable brand made Girl a more marketable exhibition.

Museums have to remain aware that they are now part of a globalizing economy and that they are key participants in the rapidly evolving creative economy. Museums have to re-evaluate themselves and decide what kind of museum they are, if one of their purposes is to reach out to greater audiences abroad. As a result, the branding of a museum becomes extremely important: their image is the initial message that is communicated to its various audiences and constituents. Kara Whittington, assistant director of marketing at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, states that both the de Young and Legion of Honor Museums will likely go through a rebranding exercise. Whittington explains that “one of the main reasons to do this is because of the unique position the Fine Arts Museums are in- with that name (FAMSF) and the fact that it is really a “parent” organization- does it resonate with the community? Does it have brand value? Should it?” The significance of rebranding is hoping that the museum becomes stronger as a brand, more recognizable, but it should always align with the mission of the organization as well.

We are in the midst of an economic globalization that is affecting not just for-profit corporations, but also cultural organizations like museums. As a result, museums now need to address the fact that globalization encompasses culture and the creative economy. The arts are now viewed in economic terms, and whether this is something good or bad, museums must keep up with these changes and innovate stay alive. Museum participation in globalization is required to show that they are organizations that are committed to reflecting the changes in our society and maintaining relevance in an increasingly globalized economy.

Nalini Elias is the Plinth contributor for the Western Region and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of San Francisco.