Museums… So What?

In August last year, the ethicist and contemporary philosopher Peter Singer wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that struck a nerve with me and with many in the arts community (Singer, 2013). In it he compares the relative value of giving to the arts with giving to charities that are actively working to cure blindness. Singer asserts that, “… it seems clear that there are objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more good in one of these areas than in another.” Furthering his argument, Singer offers a thought experiment implying that those who are willing to fund the construction of a new wing of your museum are, in essence, choosing to allow thousands to become blind. To Singer, this simple value comparison clearly favors a moral imperative to fund the tangible and immediate needs of global health and poverty over relatively frivolous cultural endeavors like museums.

Contemporary Philosopher Peter Singer at the MIT Veritas Forum. Photo Credit: Joel Travis Sage

You can imagine that the response to Singer’s article from the cultural community was swift and loud. Dozens of articles and blog posts were written to highlight the logical flaws in his argument and to malign his brand of social philosophy; in essence dismissing the argument he presented. Certainly, I was mad too. His provocation was offensive to me. It is an affront to those of us who believe that art and culture do make an important difference. But somehow, many of those ardent responses from the cultural sector ring a bit hollow to me. While Singer’s argument is directed squarely at art museums, its easy to see how he would extend this critique to the broader cultural heritage sector as a whole.

Singer’s logic is clear, compelling, and important. He brings data with him that supports his conclusion and with it; he documents a tangible benefit to a global public. This doesn’t change the fact that I find his idea to be deeply flawed and easily refuted. I don’t believe that he’s right, but others do and that’s what has me worried. Singer highlights an emerging international movement called “effective altruism” whose proponents invest in charities that can deliver the biggest tangible benefits, believing that a disciplined method of investing in these causes will result in the greatest human impact for good.

Among these proponents is none other than Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and among the most influential philanthropists of our generation. During a recent interview with the Financial Times (Waters, 2014), Gates echoes Singer’s op-ed and asserts that support of the arts and culture is “… slightly barbaric” using again the same flawed comparison of arts support versus curing blindness. Again, my initial response to the interview was to be angry and dismissive of these points, but as I reflected more on what was happening, I now have quite a different impression.

Bill Gates, philanthropist and technology pioneer. Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson

I have to admit some bias on my part. Bill Gates, the technologist, has not been among my favorite people. However, I must admit that Bill Gates, the philanthropist, has earned my admiration in ways I didn’t expect. When one day we reflect on Gates’ impact on the world, I’m quite certain that the lasting and permanent good he has done through his charitable foundation will far outstrip the impact he made on the technology industry. Gates brings a methodical, visionary, and principled approach to his philanthropic choices and it’s no wonder that a philosophy of “effective altruism” and its data-driven approach to giving appeals to him. Herein lies the problem. If a well-reasoned, well-meaning, and generous philanthropist like Mr. Gates is predisposed to believe that giving to the arts might be “slightly barbaric”, we’ve got a problem.

The effective altruism movement is not in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, a community of serious investors who are committed to seeing true and demonstrable impact from their giving can hardly be faulted. The problem lies with the cultural sector’s inability to mount a compelling case of evidence to convince these “effective altruists” that tangible and meaningful benefit does indeed result from investing in the arts and culture. Our impassioned arguments about how museums can change lives and bring communities closer together are all well-and-good, but they mean very little to a data-driven philanthropist if we cannot bring supporting evidence with us to prove our point.

Proving the Point, What Makes a Museum Good?

Given that the year is now 2014, why is it acceptable for museums to tolerate such a lack of evidence for why we matter to the world around us? According to the American Alliance of Museums, the museum sector contributes $21 billion to the US Economy every year. Considering that robust number, doesn’t it seem strange that we still have difficulty putting our finger on the data that explains what important outcomes result from those efforts?

Stephen Weil raised the clarion call regarding the need for museums to define for themselves why they exist nearly 17 years ago, but I feel that we’ve still not taken him seriously. Why should our public even care if museums are succeeding or failing if we can’t prove to them why we matter?

Museums… So what?

The good museum is neither a survival-driven institution nor a process-driven one. The good museum is a purpose-driven institution. Its leadership understands and makes manifestly clear that other, more conventional measures of success — a balanced budget, approbation of peers, high staff moral, acquisition of important collections — all have to do with means and not with ends. They may be necessary to the good museum — adequate resources certainly are — but in and of themselves they are not sufficient to make a museum a good one. The things that make a museum good are its purpose to make a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives, its command of resources adequate to that purpose, and its possession of a leadership determined to ensure that those resources are being directed and effectively used toward that end. (Weil, 1997)

Weil goes on to poke his finger more deeply into the wound we’re all afraid to walk up to. What if Peter Singer is right? What if there are some museums who don’t matter, or those that matter less?

The first necessary step — the bold one — requires that we publicly face up to the reality — and face up to it with a forthrightness that has hitherto been lacking — that all museums are not equally good and that, in fact, some museums that manage to remain solvent and go about their day-to-day business might really be no good at all. (Weil, 1997, pg 56)

If we care about the change that good museums make in the world, we should be scouring the field for the tangible proof-points of museum impact. We should be among the first to volunteer our museums for studies that can begin to test whether we are actually making the impact we claim to be. Why do museums spend millions each year to host temporary exhibitions that will be gone in a matter of weeks, but only a fraction of that amount to study how we might do a better job of changing the world? Now that museums are beginning to have the tools and expertise at their disposal to monitor, track, record, and analyze all the various ways that the public benefits from their work, the real task begins to redesign the process and program of museums and to embed impact-driven data collection into every aspect of our efforts.

The evidence is out there

While the important impacts sought by museums are more difficult to observe and record than simply billions served or dollars at the till, the difficulty of the process does not excuse us from understanding how and why we make (or fail to make) a difference. As non-profits, museums are red-ink businesses with our most important outcomes often not well reflected in our financial bottom line. Unlike the corporate sector, museums that succeed financially may be just as likely to fail in generating meaningful impact as their cash-strapped counterparts. While the healthcare sector can count the number of lives they save, counting the number of lives changed by museums is a different task entirely.

As the value and relevance of museums is increasingly being called to question, the challenges of how best to document museum impact are questions worth answering. Increasingly, technology is allowing us to know our audiences in ways never before possible. I believe the time to model and monitor the intangible successes of museums with technology is right now. The possibility that we might crack the code in answering these questions about museum impact would be tremendously important to our field and the people who walk through our doors.

An important word of caution is required at this point. As cultural non-profits, we should be very careful to choose the right measures to document our truly unique impacts, or risk being bitten by a snake of our own making. Perhaps the most common knee-jerk reaction when Museums are pushed to make the case for their own existence is to turn to studies of economic impact. The hope is that our local constituents will embrace us with open arms if they only understand how good museums are at “pulling their weight” financially. I think we ought to be very careful not to put too much stock in this economic raison d’être.

Despite how true the supporting evidence may be about the economic impact of the cultural sector, the economic contribution of culture to a city does not reflect the true reasons why such a vibrant cultural community is important. By tying the value of museums to their financial footprint, we dodge the real issue at hand regarding the best and most important reasons museums should exist at all.

So what?

Museums are ideally suited to generate social impact — uniquely so. Whereas every business can compete with the museum in respect to its economic muscle in the community, very few could hope to compete with the potential social impact museums are capable of making. Besides, why would we care to win a game that isn’t central to our reason for being? What happens when our city booms around us and the fiscal imprint of our museum is no longer significant to the same degree it once was? When our city is in financial trouble, does it see museums as primarily economic assets or cultural assets? When the next recession strikes and our revenues dip, does our commensurate value to the city dip as well? I hope not.

We need culture to solve global problems

To be sure, issues of global poverty, chronic disease, human trafficking, and climate change are just a few of the serious challenges to our generation. The need for new solutions to these problems is ever-present. Spend long enough making lists of these pressing issues and you could easily be persuaded that the arts aren’t worth your time and investment, but you’d be wrong.

To neglect the role of culture in the process of innovation, inspiration, and creativity is tremendously shortsighted. Consider the fact that no matter how brilliant the science or ground-breaking the discovery may be, the need to put these future innovations into practice requires working together with diverse people and cultures whose needs, concerns, and emotion demand a tolerant and empathetic camaraderie in order to make good on the promise of lasting change.

Harvard economic historian David Landes addressed this apparent dichotomy between finding solutions to these global problems and the appreciation of culture in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are Rich and Some So Poor (Landes, 1998). In it he emphasizes the intangible factors surrounding the economic challenges present in developing nations and surmises the following, “if we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.” In this simple observation, Landes has keyed in on one of the very tangible impacts that the arts can bring.

To solve chronic global problems we need out-of-the-box creative solutions. When IBM surveyed 1500 CEO’s about the skills they most needed in the next generation of leaders, creativity topped the list as the most crucial skill required for future success (IBM, 2010). As repositories of the world’s greatest creative endeavors, museums provide a tremendous workshop for exploring creative genius both past and present. If one were to look for a place where creativity could be learned, studied, examined, and replicated in all its forms, you could scarcely do better than by exploring the collections at your local museum.

Albert Einstein was a devoted musician in addition to his accomplishments in science. Photo Credit: Oren Jack Turner

Need proof for such an audacious claim? We need look no further than the famous scientists and scholars of our time. Max Planck, father of quantum mechanics and a devoted opera composer observed. “The pioneer scientist must have … [an] artistically creative imagination” (Plank, 1949 pg. 8). Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg were musicians when they weren’t challenging our concepts of the universe, and Richard Feynman was creating art in between rewriting the laws of physics. In fact, Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein studied the effect of cultural participation among the world’s great scientists and found a striking correlation between arts participation and game-changing innovation in other fields (Root-Bernstein, 2008).

Almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences actively engaged in the arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. (Root-Bernstein, 2009)

In one of my favorite examples, noted science fiction author Neal Stephenson famously chided his fellow scifi authors in an essay for the World Policy Journal. He noted that generations of scientists had been inspired by the work of Arthur C. Clark, William Gibson, and others, but that the current generation of science fiction authors had given up on imagining a positive future world in favor of more dystopian tales.

“Good [science fiction] supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place … The fondness that many such people have for [science fiction] reflects, in part, the usefulness of an over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision… The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.” (Stephenson, 2011).

Later in the essay Stephenson quotes Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, who prodded, “scientists and engineers are ready and looking for things to do. Time for science fiction writers to start pulling their weight and providing big visions that make sense.”

Consider what could happen for a moment if Museums were able to document — like universities do — our creative alumni? With the technology currently at our disposal, why are we only so focused on patron management systems (CRM by another name) that track the money people donate to us? What if we focused instead on keeping a catalog and evidence of the creative imprint our audiences are exposed to and the impact they make on the world. Such a catalogue could effectively illustrate the museum’s imprint on the formation of creative ideas and creative professionals and their resulting innovation across a multitude of fields. This alumni creativity database could be a proof-text for the role of museums in the formation of creativity and a boon for fundraising linked to this important outcome.

A place for culture in the social framework of global communities

Putting aside for the moment the litany of global problems, we cannot neglect to consider the human framework these problems reside in and the dramatic ways in which it is changing. Driven in part by the pace of global population growth, a report from the Guardian’s Cities project tells us that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in an urban area. (Guardian, 2014) To reach that place, a city of one million people will be built each week from now until that date.

The Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area recorded the largest population increase in the nation from July 1, 2011, to July 1, 2012, adding 131,879 people for a total population of 6.7M, according to U.S. Census Bureau (March 14, 2013). Flickr Credit ~Daxis

The Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area recorded the largest population increase in the nation from July 1, 2011, to July 1, 2012, adding 131,879 people for a total population of 6.7M, according to U.S. Census Bureau (March 14, 2013). Flickr Credit: ~daxis

Clearly, the urban dynamic of this future-world will bring with it a whole host of new problems as people learn how to live in harmony so closely together. The need for engaged and tolerant future citizens is urgent, but as we look at how our own cities are evolving, we seem to see exactly the opposite taking place. A study by American’s for the Arts looked at the important role civic dialog plays in the emergence of healthy democracies.

Civic dialogue plays an essential role in the workings of democracy, giving voice to multiple perspectives on challenging issues; enabling people to develop more multifaceted, humane, and realistic views of issues and each other; and helping diverse groups find common ground.

Yet there is growing concern that opportunities for civic dialogue in this country have diminished in recent years. Polarization of opinion along ideological, racial, gender, and class lines; exclusive social structures separating rich from poor and majorities from minorities; a sense of individual disempowerment; and the overwhelming nature of many of society’s problems are all factors contributing to this sense.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the crosscutting nature of today’s complex issues often places them outside of the traditional structures and settings, such as civic organizations, labor unions, and political parties, which have served in the past to organize civic discourse.

(Americans for the Arts, 1999)

The report goes on to suggest the many ways that arts and cultural organizations can play a role in encouraging civic discourse that defies these socio-economic differentiators and instead embraces the similarities we all share.

“We go to social gatherings, hoping that somehow, with somebody, we can have the real intercourse of mind with mind” — Jane Addams

Jane Addams (second from the left) aboard the MC Noordam with other delegates to the 1915 Women’s Peace Conference in the Hague.

I met Lisa Junkin from the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago at the 2012 Museum Ideas Conference in London. Although she probably doesn’t know it, she really opened my eyes to all the opportunities we’re missing regarding civic engagement in museums. I was struck by the way that civic dialog and social justice was knit deeply into the fabric of the Hull-House Museum and with the programs that Lisa was designing and hosting there. The Hull-House Museum honors the legacy of Jane Addams, the pioneering feminist and social worker from the 20th century, and continues to live out her ideals.

In describing the museum’s approach to civic engagement and social justice, Lisa makes the following observation in an interview for Museum ID from 2012 (Chamberlain, 2012).

“… museums have always been an active part of civic life, helping to shape or confront cultural and political ideologies. This responsibility should never be taken lightly. The more radical museums today use their unique assets as trusted cultural institutions and repositories of history to inform and create dialogue and action around critical issues. The radical part of museum practice comes when institutions rethink their positions of authority. Staff must see their work as intensely ideological, political, and relevant to today’s society.”

Today, museums have so many opportunities to embrace civic dialog as it integrates with their online presence, and many are doing so. But, the attitude and evidence for how this online discourse can change the fabric of our communities is mostly missing. Certainly, the face-to-face dialog that happens in real life at the museum is critically important, but I keep thinking about all the ways we could enhance and improve this dialog digitally and online. What if we considered how we might detect when meaningful discourse happens in our social media and online activities? How many of us are cataloging and archiving those discussions? Why not? Rather than settling for a “we’ll know it when we see it” strategy, museums can easily design systems into our websites, Facebook pages, mobile apps, etc… that surpass the simple analytics common to the web today and instead seek evidence of real attitudinal change. Why not use sentiment analysis to characterize the tone and nature of these discussions? Doing so could provide a quantitative index to the attitude shifts that occur in museum audiences over time. How about designing systems that solicit lightweight survey data to tell us whether our online visitors are changing their opinions, impressions, and passions along the way. Sure this is hard, but isn’t is far more important and interesting than time on page, pages per visit, and session depth? Why are we abdicating digital metrics for museum impact to whatever Google Analytics decides it should provide to us? We might fail the first few times we try, but if we got it right those answers would change the field of museums.

Creating a Better Community

Many of you reading this article will bring with you first-hand experience for the way that the arts can bridge cultural differences, but the cultural sector is still incredibly bad at making this case with data. Luckily a variety of recent studies have shown how arts participation can result in increased altruism, tolerance of others, and increased civic engagement.

If you sing, dance, draw, or act — and especially if you watch others do so — you probably have an altruistic streak, according to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

People with an active interest in the arts contribute more to society than those with little or no such interest, the researchers found. They analyzed arts exposure, defined as attendance at museums and dance, music, opera and theater events; and arts expression, defined as making or performing art.

“Even after controlling for age, race and education, we found that participation in the arts, especially as audience, predicted civic engagement, tolerance and altruism,” said Kelly LeRoux, assistant professor of public administration at UIC and principal investigator on the study.

(Ranallo 2012)

In another study, University of Pennsylvania researchers have documented that a high concentration of the arts in a city leads to higher civic engagement, more social cohesion, higher child welfare, and lower poverty rates. (Americans for the Arts)

While our nation continues to struggle to provide a quality education for all students, a lack of funding and support for the arts flies in the face of the fact that arts participation has been linked time and again to increased academic performance.

In her examination of NEA data about student academic performance, IMLS Senior Statistician Deanne Swan recently published findings that indicated children who visited museums during kindergarten had reliably higher achievement scores in reading, mathematics, and science than children who did not (Swan, 2014). Furthermore, studies commissioned by the NEA show that “Students with an education rich in the arts have higher GPA’s, standardized test scores, and lower drop-out rates regardless of their socio-economic status. Students with 4 years of arts or music in high school average 100 points better on their SAT scores.” (Catterall, 2012)

In Dallas, I’ve been so excited to partner with a local education nonprofit called BigThought. BigThought is exploring education innovation in a variety of ways including through partnership with dozens of local arts organizations. Part of what they’ve shown, is that students who participate in out-of-school arts activities here in Dallas exhibit more dedication to learning and better achievement scores than those students who do not. (BigThought, 2013)

BigThought is such a valuable partner to us because they have relationships with the Dallas Independent School District that individual museums and cultural organizations cannot. Those relationships provide BigThought with the data to measure and prove the real educational impact of cultural nonprofits here in Dallas. This summer, the DMA is partnering with BigThought and 50 other organizations in the city to pilot the Dallas Summer Learning Initiative. Modeled on the Chicago City of Learning project, the effort will track the participation of thousands of school-aged kids in Dallas as they participate in a wide variety of activities.

By using the BadgeKit opensource toolkit ( created by the Mozilla Foundation, the Dallas City of Learning project will record detailed data about cultural participation this summer. Can you imagine the power of coupling school achievement data with data about out-of-school participation? As pilots like these spring up across the country, Museums have a unique chance to participate in gathering real and meaningful data about how their program contributes to student education and well-being.

Putting the Muse in Museums

Let’s be clear, the evidence that museum participation can result in significant and tangible benefit to society is present and well documented. Still when compared to other non-profit sectors, the cultural sector is not doing a good job of making the case. Compared to curing blindness, or saving babies, we would have a tough time convincing the Peter Singers or Bill Gates of the world that investing in museums is worth their money.

Students observing the Jim Hodges exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art

Why do we have so few studies initiated by, or partnered with museums that seek to put data to some of these crucial contributions we can and do make? I looked for significant longitudinal studies about the social impact of museums and found only a few, while similar searches in the medical sector would drown us in data.

Since we know that museums — regardless of discipline — derive so much of their annual revenue from philanthropic contributions, why do we invest so much time and money seeking box office revenues and comparatively little money on evaluation to prove and improve our long-term impact? Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend more time (and money) studying how museums can generate more, better, faster, and deeper change?

The time has come for museums to get very serious about a clinical examination of their effectiveness at generating value. While the measurement of the intangible elements of museum participation remains challenging, advances in technology and the ability to analyze complex systems in ways not-before-possible have changed the ways we can understand our audience. The commercial sector is taking advantage of these advances to build and mine sophisticated consumer profiles with the purpose of understanding your buying patterns and future purchasing behavior. Predictive analytics based on these profiles is being applied with increasing accuracy for much less laudable purposes. The time has come for museums to join the fray and to use these methods to better understand our own practice and efficiency at generating our sought-after impacts.

At the Dallas Museum of Art, we have started early experiments to gain a better understanding of our visitors and our own performance at a very individual level. In 16 months we’ve welcomed more than 65,000 people in Dallas and around the country to join us as DMA Friends. In doing so, we are growing a dataset of user profiles with actual behaviors and discrete points of data and are approaching a moment when this data will become suitably large to tell us not only who comes, but what behaviors and factors predict whether or not they will engage with art on a deeper level. As we continue to develop this dataset and understanding of its implications on our museum’s practice we will develop at least one longitudinal dataset about cultural participation. If we continue to grow at our current rate we will exceed 262,000 members in the program over the next 5 years and will finally know how THIS audience in Dallas relates to our museum and what specifically they choose to do with us. It is ridiculous to me that many museums have operated for 100 years or more knowing how many people showed up, but not a lick about why they came or what might entice them to come back. (Stein and Wyman, 2013, 2014)

While any company that operated in this fashion would quickly go out of business, museums have had the luxury of continued existence based on the good graces of well-meaning donors. As we learned during the economic recession of 2008-2009, and more recently with the tragic bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, unpredictable economic forces can dramatically impact the financial fortunes of museums. Those museums that can demonstrate their impact with data will stand a much better chance of thriving in uncertain economic times. Even more, those same museums can accelerate their impact by improving efficiency at producing these outputs.

Unless museums can adapt their staffing and decision-making processes to move more quickly than our local cultures, we will invariably lack the ability to address the important issues facing those cultures. In order to do this, museums need to get better quickly at understanding the vast amounts of data that are available to us now as never before. Museum executives need to think of the museum as a vast interconnected system of activity, facility, and program that can be monitored, tweaked and tinkered with. Our museums already take this call and response relationship into account when we plan for exhibition attendance and box office revenue, why not apply similar stochastic modeling to more important efforts like participation, engagement, and learning? We’re good at design; so let’s design the WHOLE system, not just the parts that make us money.

As museums begin to gather sizable and complex datasets, we will need to employ data modeling, data mining, and statistics experts to help us. Existing museum professionals will need to augment their professional skill sets with a baseline proficiency at understanding data and using it to drive decision-making. Most importantly, serious museum professionals need to reject the glorification of and meaningless boasting about attendance and economic performance. As a field, we can no longer accept raw attendance alone as a valuable indicator of “making an impact”.

Likewise, financial performance without social impact does not make a museum good. We should strive to know whether any lives were changed during the run of this exhibition. We should care enough to count whether any children who visited the museum gained confidence in their own ability to create and innovate. Do they seem themselves and their creative agency differently than before they visited? We should know whether two neighbors from our city came to understand each other in a new way while they visited this week. Only by measuring and counting the difference we make in people will we live up to our potential to change lives. Without it, we risk being relegated to the periphery of contemporary society as mere treasure houses for the wealthy in need of a tax-break.

If we give up on the idea that we can know for sure that our museum makes a difference, then Peter Singer is right, we’re not worth supporting.

Putting aside the statistics for a moment, I feel sad for Singer and Gates. While I appreciate their desire to invest resources in methods that advance the greater good more quickly and more efficiently, their dismissal of the intrinsic value of culture makes me think they’ve missed out on the way art can touch a part of the human experience that no piece of data can ever measure.

“Beauty is an ecstasy, it is as simple as hunger.” — Somerset Maugham

It seems to me that the connections between art and innovation, creativity and genius are inextricably linked. Is it possible they’ve missed entirely the Muse in Museums? A story about a young boy named Ben reminded me of this recently during a recent visit to our museum in Dallas.

Ben was born very premature and almost didn’t survive. His mother and father, wrestled with the fact that their baby boy might not ever leave the hospital. His mother hoped simply for a chance to hold him and say hello and goodbye.

Thankfully, Ben survived this rough start and grew into a vigorous and curious 9-year old who loves to read and explore much like your kids and mine. While Ben overcame most of those early challenges, his eyes were damaged in a way no one could predict. While Ben has grown up with sight, he is slowly going blind.

As you can imagine, knowing for sure that someday soon you will never be able to gaze on another sunset would be a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a 9-year old boy. Ben’s parents and family are a great support to him, but he clearly struggles with the fact that someday soon he won’t experience the world visually any longer.

To try and make as many visual memories as possible during the time he has left, Ben and his parents have made a list. This visual bucket list is Ben’s last chance at capturing memories that will last him a lifetime.

Sheaves of Wheat
Vincent van Gogh
July 1890
Dallas Museum of Art

Along with seeing mountains and beaches, the Eiffel Tower, and the Pyramids, Ben wanted to seize the chance to see paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. The DMA was privileged to know about Ben and to welcome him and his family to visit the Museum before hours so that they could spend some quality one-on-one time with our painting of Van Gogh’s Sheaves of Wheat.

Ben and his mom at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo credit: WFAA

Watching Ben drink in the sight of that painting for what may be the last time is a powerful experience. Through his tears, the museum provided a memory and experience that money can’t buy. Who can say how that might impact Ben, his family, or those museum staff who were there with him? This simple kindness will have a profound and lasting impact. I know I won’t ever be able to see this painting again without thinking of Ben. This binding of emotion, memory, and meaning to a piece of art is fascinating isn’t it?

What if we could know how to succeed like this more often?

Wouldn’t it be worth the effort?

Don’t you want to figure it out?

When Singer or anyone else reduces the value of museums to a simple equation or efficiency rating, we risk missing out on something truly special.


Americans for the Arts. Animating Democracy — a role for the arts in civic engagement. 1999. ISBN 1-879903-00-8

BigThought. Enriching Minds. Growing Our Future. 2013. . Consulted June, 2, 2014.

Catterall, J. S., Dumais, S.A., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2012). The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies, Research Report #55. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.

Chamberlin, G. An interview with Lisa Junkin. MuseumID, Issue 10, pg 15. 2012.

Husock, H. Peter Singer’s Seductive — And Dangerous — Anti-Charity Reasoning. August 15. 2013. Consulted May 20, 2014.

IBM. Global CEO Study: Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success. 2010. Consulted June 1, 2014.

Landes, D. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. New York: W.W. Norton. 1998. ISBN 0-393-04017-8.

Plank, M. Scientific Biography and other Papers. (F. Gaynor, Trans.) New York: Philosophical Library. 1949.

Ranallo, A. B. Interest in Arts Predicts Social Responsibility: Study University of Illinois at Chicago. August 16, 2012.

Root-Bernstein, R., et al. Arts Foster Scientific Success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Scociety, and Sigma Xi Members. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology. 2008.

Root-Bernstein R., M. A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus: Hobbling Arts Hobbles Innovation. Psychology Today. February, 2009. Consulted June 1, 2014.

Singer, P. Good Charity, Bad Charity, Published August 10, 2013. The New York Times. Consulted May 20, 2014.

R. Stein and B. Wyman, Nurturing Engagement: How Technology and Business Model Alignment can Transform Visitor Participation in the Museum. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 31, 2013. Consulted June 1, 2014 .

R. Stein and B. Wyman, Seeing the Forest and the Trees: How Engagement Analytics Can Help Museums Connect to Audiences at Scale. In Museums and the Web 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 1, 2014. Consulted June 1, 2014.

Stephenson, N. Innovation Starvation. World Policy Journal. 2011. Consulted May 20, 2014.

Swan, D. W. (2014, April). The Effect of Informal Learning Environments on Academic Achievement During Elementary School. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Philadelphia, PA.

Wainwright, O. Guardian Cities: welcome to our urban past, present and future. Jan 2014. Consulted May 30, 2014.

Waters R. An Exclusive Interview with Bill Gates. The Financial Times. 2014. Consulted June 1, 2014.

Weil, S. Making Museums Matter. November, 1997. ISBN 1-588340-00-7



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Deputy Director, Dallas Museum of Art Technologist, Coffee Lover, Dad, and Jazz Geek