What Does This Gift Tell Us About Museum Professionals' Evolving Job Description?

By seeing around corners and encouraging liberal arts students and museum professionals to upskill in the face of emerging trends in their respective sector, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the closest thing we have to a philanthropic life coach for the creative class. Here are just a few examples.

Acutely aware of the precarious job market, the foundation supports humanities graduate students in leading "community-based research projects." Other gifts provide a financial incentive for museums to embrace cutting edge digital preservation technologies. And, attuned to the increased importance of stakeholder and community engagement, it has drawn up a next-generation vision for curators predicated on stronger relationships with donors and collectors.

Add it all up and it should come as no surprise that Mellon has further plans for museum professionals. These plans are embedded in a $400,000 Mellon grant to the Museum of Contemporary Art, (MCA) Denver. The gift will fund a three-year program, “Animating Museums,” for which professionals from around the world will be brought to Denver to host a series of workshops.

According to MCA Director Adam Lerner, the program will, "help groom the next generation of creative museum professionals." Among the goals, he added, are opportunities for participants to:

Implement their ideas with a creative project on a civic scale, testing established conventions for art programming and audience engagement, while learning from creative leaders to take risks and be more imaginative in the way they work, live, and contribute to their communities.

Sounds about right to me.

Lerner's quote contains all the familiar buzzwords—"audience engagement," "communities," "established conventions"—that are key inputs to Mellon's vision of the next-generation museum curator. Now the foundation can help test out their vision in a real-world training environment.

According to Thad Mighell, assistant chief animator at MCA Denver, the program is "not trying to teach creativity but instead how to retain that risk-taking (approach) in pursuit of something that’s truly fresh and innovative," and reinvigorate programming and increase attendance at other museums.

So what, exactly, is the museum looking for? Their site says:

We are looking for people who don’t rely upon received directives but want to make museums more interesting. We want people who continually ask the question: Why are we doing this this way? We are looking for fellows who work outside of conventional museum approaches, relying upon their own intuition and thoughtfulness.

At the end of the day, the program is predicated on the idea of innovative programming. That may not sound like an earth-shattering concept, but it's refreshing nonetheless, particularly in a philanthropic climate where good old fashioned programming often gets drowned out by headline-grabbing mega-wings, delayed headline-grabbing mega-wings, and headline-grabbing billionaire collectors who aren't "into" mega-wings.