Contemporary Art Is Growing Exponentially. Can Donors Help Organizations Catch Up?

What do the Metropolitan Museum of Art's high-profile struggles have to do with recent news that Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts received a $2.5 million gift from alumna Charlotte Feng Ford ('83) to endow a curator's position at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA)?

Funny you should ask.

The short answer is "contemporary art." The longer answer is, "The need for museums to beef up their contemporary art holdings in order to stay competitive and attract world-class talent."

So let's first briefly look at the Met's woes.

There are many reasons why the institution is in trouble, and one of them, according to the New York Times, is its paltry contemporary art holdings:

Modern and contemporary art dominate the action these days—in auction houses and galleries, as well as museums. Everyone wants in, including a revered institution like the Met, which is striving to play catch-up even as it is struggling to pay the bills.

News from Smith College suggests that university museums are striving to play catch-up as well.

According to the school's press release, the gift will enable the college to hire a curator who is focused on the field of contemporary art, making Smith one of the "only college museums in the nation to have a position dedicated to contemporary work."

"[Contemporary art] has become a specialized academic and curatorial field, addressing a rapidly changing, global and technologically mediated environment," said Jessica Nicoll, director and chief curator of SCMA.

Nicoll's sentiment echoes that of Tom Eccles, the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, who noted in the Times piece that the audience for contemporary art "has grown exponentially in the last decade."

Everyone agrees that contemporary art is where it's at, yet both Big City museums and universities find themselves ill-equipped to pivot to the changing times.

Are you thinking what we're thinking?

Yup...donors to the rescue.

In Smith's case, as noted, it's alumna Charlotte Feng Ford. Ironically enough, she was an economics major at Smith, but her favorite class was Art 100. (Perhaps she was channeling her inner Kenneth Griffin.) Ford said she hoped the new position will make it easier for Smith students and others to "be with the art of their times."

Access to contemporary art is "a way to enhance the Smith curriculum, and it's a way to help people see the world in different ways," she added. "Contemporary artists are responding to current issues, and people who see that work can't help but be shaped by it."

Ford's comments also double as an answer to the question as to why contempory art is where it's at. 

Throughout the philanthropic arts space, we're seeing a dissolution of barriers between visual arts and things like social and political activism. We're in the "artist as activist" age, and it's here to stay, like or or not. The open question moving forward is if organizations, universities, and donors will respond in kind, in terms of integrating this art into curricula, hanging it on gallery walls, and re-imagining the role of the contemporary curator.

In related news, the Andrew W. Mellon is, not surprisingly, on the case regarding the latter component. Click here for more insight into their vision for the next-generation contemporary curator.