SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY OF MUSEUMS IN THE 21ST CENTURY: THE NORTON MUSEUM

This week’s contributing author, Monica Leveckis, is a graduating senior from Northeastern University and is majoring in Accounting with a minor in Art History.

VoCA is pleased to present this blog post in conjunction with Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History, Gloria Sutton’s Spring 2019 Honors seminar, The Art of Visual Intelligence at Northeastern University. This interdisciplinary course combines the powers of observation (formal description, visual data) with techniques of interpretation to sharpen perceptual awareness allowing students to develop compelling analysis of visual phenomena.

In the 21st century, all brands—whether they are companies or people—are much more likely to succeed if they show some sense of dedication to their communities through philanthropy or consumer engagement. Customers expect their brands to offer them products and messages that reflect their own values and to support causes and organizations that are making a difference in the world.[1] Art museums, which may not normally be thought of as “brands,” can and should take advantage of this trend to find success and longevity by involving themselves with their communities and important social issues as much as possible. The recent protests at the Guggenheim Museum in New York—which rallied against the museum’s acceptance of donations from the Sackler family due to their involvement in the proliferation of the highly addictive opioid, OxyContin[2]—demonstrate an urgency for museums to be socially conscious. Museums that not only avoid controversy but also generate positive social change will be in the best position to make their mark as important cultural institutions in years to come. One museum that is making strides in this direction is the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The Norton Museum was founded in 1941 by Ralph Norton, a steel magnate from Chicago who retired in Palm Beach with his extensive art collection, and boasts a collection of more than 7,600 works spanning several different periods, mediums, and genres.[3] The museum has several programs, exhibitions, and awards that focus on making the museum, which is located in one of the most affluent cities in the country, more accessible and inclusive, both in its collection of artworks and in its appeals to visitors. In February of 2019, the museum reopened after a massive expansion and renovation project that added 35% more gallery space, larger classroom and exhibition spaces, an outdoor event lawn and sculpture garden, and six renovated 1920s-era cottages that will house an artists-in-residence program.[4] A month after the newly expanded museum opened, the museum welcomed a new Executive Director and CEO, Elliot Bostwick Davis, who was formerly the director of the Art of the America’s department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for 18 years. During Davis’s tenure at the MFA, she was involved in many efforts to make the museum more inclusive, active, and engaged with its community.[5] She focused on growing the African-American art collection to one of the top three collections in the country[6] and leading a project to create innovative exhibitions that “use understudied works from the MFA’s permanent collection to address critical themes in American art and the formation of modern American identities.”[7] Hopefully her arrival at the Norton will bring the same.

Explicit Bias, Nina Chanel Abney, 2019, at the Norton Museum of the Arts, West Palm Beach, FL. Photo by author.

The Norton already has a history of supporting lesser-known artists through programs like Recognition of Art by Women (RAW). The RAW program is an annual exhibition series that features living female artists in solo exhibitions – this year they’re showing Nina Chanel Abney, an African American artist who seeks to address major issues like racial inequality, gender discrimination, and gun violence through her bright colored and bold graphic style.[8] Abney was recently commissioned for the huge lobby wall at the ICA in Boston and was included in “30 Americans” in 2008, an exhibition of top African-American artists, alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, and Kehinde Wiley.[9] This program demonstrates the Norton’s commitment to celebrating diverse voices in contemporary art, with past artists like Austrian Svenja Deininger, Nigerian-American Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and British Jenny Saville (the first winner in 2011).[10] Along with the recent expansion project, the museum has been able to start offering free admission on Fridays and Saturdays.[11] Free admission is becoming increasingly rare for American museums—the Met recently decided to charge admission for out-of-state visitors after many years of only suggesting donations[12]—but it’s a critical policy in making museums accessible to visitors. By offering free admission on two of the more popular days of the week, the Norton aims to makes itself a welcoming cultural entity for those in the surrounding community.

Two of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL. Photo by author.

In its quest to better serve the growing Florida community and become one of the leading museums in the country, the Norton might look to other museums such as the Bronx Museum of the Arts or MASS MoCA. The Bronx Museum offers permanent free admission and speaks to its diverse audiences through innovative contemporary exhibitions, programs with K-12 students, and their Artists in the Marketplace program, which nurtures 36 emerging artists each year and provides professional development seminars.[13] Ingrained in MASS MoCA’s mission is the idea that a cultural institution can bring economic vibrancy and a strong sense of community identity through the arts, and they do this through extended experimental artist residencies, a wide range of participatory learning opportunities for visitors of all ages, and connections with local schools.[14] The Norton Museum is already on a path to sufficient social responsibility through their existing programs and initiatives, and by following the lead of museums like the Bronx Museum and MASS MoCA in the development of their own residency program and programming that engages with local schools, they create a space for new and groundbreaking art that is conscious of its social surroundings and community.


[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-corporate-social-resp_b_9282246

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/09/arts/protesters-guggenheim-sackler.html

[3] https://www.norton.org/about/history

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/chaddscott/2019/02/07/norton-museum-of-art-in-west-palm-beach-hosting-grand-opening-celebration-february-9/#28f9b441aee2

[5] http://www.artnews.com/2018/09/17/elliot-bostwick-davis-director-norton-museum/

[6] https://www.palmbeachdailynews.com/news/local/who-will-head-norton-museum-mfa-boston-star-hired-director/fuJmrU4jELtgfA7OvAaIdM/

[7] https://www.mfa.org/collections/art-americas/collecting-stories

[8] https://www.norton.org/exhibitions/nina-chanel-abney

[9] https://www.wbur.org/artery/2019/01/21/nina-chanel-abney-new-mural-ica

[10] https://www.artsy.net/show/norton-museum-of-art-svenja-deininger-second-chances-first-impressions

[11] https://www.forbes.com/sites/chaddscott/2019/02/07/norton-museum-of-art-in-west-palm-beach-hosting-grand-opening-celebration-february-9/#4fe85c17aee2

[12] http://www.artnews.com/2018/01/04/met-charge-mandatory-25-admission-fee-towners-ending-suggested-rates/

[13] http://www.bronxmuseum.org/about/

[14] https://massmoca.org/about/

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