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Are Museums Academic Units?

November 19, 2007

You'd never see an English department chair reporting to the vice president for advancement instead of to deans and provosts. University of Oregon professors want to know why that principle doesn't apply to the art museum.

This summer, Oregon's president took the uncommon if not unheard-of step of deciding that the director of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, who has historically reported to the provost, would report to the advancement office instead -- prompting faculty opposition that took the form of a University Senate resolution Wednesday. More broadly, the shift in structure underscores a question that’s been raised as a number of college leaders have raided their art museums to raise funds in recent years: To what degree is a college art museum considered central to an academic mission, and to what extent is it seen primarily as a financial asset?

“For me, and I think for all of us on campus, the educational mission of the museum is really paramount,” said Andrew Schulz, an associate professor of art history and a University Senate representative who spoke in favor of the resolution. “Moving it from the provost’s office to university advancement signals a move away from a commitment to the educational mission of the museum and at least symbolically suggests that the museum serves other purposes before education, in terms of outreach and development and other university goals.”

“And not just symbolically,” Schulz added, “the potential of the museum really depends on that relationship with the provost’s office.”

The University Senate resolution cites a best practices document from the Association of Art Museum Directors and urges that, consistent with the document, control be restored to the provost upon the appointment of a new museum executive director (an interim director is currently in place). Members approved the measure unanimously, said Gordon Sayre, the senate president.

The museum’s interim director, Robert Z. Melnick, said that while he understands the concern that the shift in reporting structure could herald greater external control of the museum, the change in leadership has not affected his decision-making whatsoever – a point bolstered by a statement from central administration.

“Regardless of which vice president the museum director reports to, it’s ultimately the president’s responsibility for overseeing the operations of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art,” Phil Weiler, an Oregon spokesman, said Friday. President Dave Frohnmayer did not directly return a request through Weiler to speak about his motivations for the switch and any response he might have to the University Senate resolution, and Weiler declined to discuss them.

The reason for the original change in reporting lines is unclear, but the museum did receive a fairly negative report from an outside consultant in February (the report is available on the museum’s Web site). The Jordan Schnitzer Museum, known for its Asian art collection, re-opened in 2005 after being closed for 4.5 years for a $14.2 million renovation and expansion project, which more than doubled its size.

"As a result, the museum is, in many ways, a 'new place' with a new set of aspirations and challenges even though it is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary,” said the report from the Pappas Consulting Group.

Among the challenges, the consulting group found tension between museum board members – who, Pappas Consulting found, were empowered to assert greater control during the museum’s closure – senior university leadership, and museum staff. Board members, some of whom donated "substantial gifts to the museum and feel a tremendous sense of commitment and 'ownership,'" asserted a need for greater fiscal and management accountability for the museum. “There is also the perception among board and museum staff alike that there has not been sufficient outreach to the community at large in Eugene or Portland or with gallery owners, other museums, non-profit entities, foundations, and/or corporations,” the Pappas report said.

Regardless of the rationale, Lisa Tremper Hanover, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries and director of Ursinus College's Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art, wondered about the implications “of reporting to an office that is essentially externally focused because of the fund raising agenda.” The ideal structure, said Hanover – who reports directly to Ursinus’ president – is that the museum director report to a president, provost or other central academic administrator functioning in a university-wide context.

“Are they viewing it as a key piece of their development agenda, in terms of raising funds -- and not just for the museum program -- for the college as a whole? Why else would the museum director report to the director of advancement?” Hanover asked.

“I think faculty have a concern that with the move to advancement that donors and non-university people will control the museum,” said Melnick, interim executive director for Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum since January. “And that has absolutely not happened.”

“Absolutely not, 100 percent not happened, and largely because it’s inappropriate, it’s wrong, the university vice president for advancement will not allow it to happen and I will not allow it to happen and the donors and the supporters of the museum don’t want that,” Melnick said.

“From a day-to-day practical point of view, the reporting to the vice president for advancement has not in any way affected any of the museum-related decisions that I’ve had to make.”

 

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