What has happened in this 2021?

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The five trends not to be underestimated, according to Museum Strategy Consultancy

Illustration by Melissa McFeeters

For cultural institutions, 2021 was a year of transitions and recovery after a long lockdown period. Before we put this year behind us, it is useful to take stock and take a look at what marked it in the creative and cultural spheres. At Museum Strategy Consultancy, we decided to gather in this article the five trends that marked this year:

1. NFT technology

In March, the well-known auction house Christie’s beat the artist Beeple’s digital JPEG work at auction for $69.3 million, showing the whole world the “fever” of… NFTs. Non-fungible tokens use blockchain technology to certify the digital authenticity of a work and have brought forth discordant opinions: there are those who see them as the best way to guarantee value and uniqueness to digital works of art-which have long suffered from the inability to prove the artist’s intellectual property-and those who believe it is just a dangerous speculative bubble-do you remember the tulip bubble in the 17th century? Some museums and foundations have been able to seize the opportunity at once and convert it into a fundraising opportunity: this is the case of the Uffizi, which thanks to its collaboration with Cinello created the first and only digital silkscreen of the famous Tondo Doni work sold for 140,000 euros. Or of Mucha Foundation, which thanks to its partnership with VIVE Arts was able to create five NFTs of Alphonse Mucha’s works. Many observers speculated about an imminent opening of a museum dedicated exclusively to NFTs, and so at the end of the year came the news everyone was waiting for: in January 2022 the doors of the Seattle NFT Museum, the world’s first museum dedicated to digital art with temporary exhibitions, Q&A sessions with artists, and real-time creation of NFTs, will open.

2. Society and community: restitutions

Major institutions from all over the world have announced and returned works from their collections to their home states: such is the case with the Washington National Gallery of Art, which returned the bronze cockerel from Benin belonging to an altar devoted to the Queens Mothers.

Like Germany and the United States, many other states have declared their intentions to repatriate all stolen works on national soil in the near future: such is the case with the Netherlands, which has put in place its plan to unconditionally return any cultural object stolen from a former Dutch colony.

Italy has also chosen to return – as opposed to the United Kingdom – one of the pieces of the Parthenon frieze to Greece through a four-year loan. The work-present at the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum -will be brought to the Acropolis Museum with the possibility of renewal for another four years, as required by Italian law.

Artwork restitutions underscore the commitment and responsibility accrued by entities to the various communities that stand in defense of each state’s culture. Not a few objects have been stolen over the centuries in different parts of the world, and requests for restitution by activists are increasing (from Nepal to Nigeria).

Increasing returns of stolen works of art have also opened the door to new international collaborations in some cases. At the ceremony at the return of three Nigerian artworks, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) entered into a memorandum of understanging to collaborate on mutual loans and future exchanges:

“It’s not just about the repatriation of works, but the path forward. As an institution we will exchange scholarships, invite our Nigerian colleagues here to interpret parts of our collection, and lend our expertise to Nigeria.”

Max Hollein, director of the MET Museum

3. Management innovation: diversification and new cultural products.

It has been estimated that most museums are only able to display 6-7% of their cultural heritage. The remaining 94% is hidden within their own repositories.

In order to give new life to works that do not find space in traditional museum itineraries, several interesting management choices have been made this year. These include the case of the Uffizi, thanks to a major project to enhance the artistic heritage in the region called “Lands of the Uffizi.”

This new way of enjoying collections throughout Tuscany gives the possibility of creating stronger links and synergies with peripheral museums, fostering new forms of decentralized and more sustainable tourism, through the enhancement of the extraordinary artistic heritage of some of Tuscany’s lesser-known museum realities.

The “One Hundred Works Return Home” project wanted by the Ministry of Culture also has the same objective: one hundred works kept in the storage rooms of Italy’s fourteen public museums return to populate the halls of museums in the territories for which they were conceived. The project includes-in collaboration with RAI-the creation of a series of documentaries aimed at strengthening the link between the territory and the work of art itself.

This year’s most innovative project is in Rotterdam: the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen, the largest art repository open to the public, opened on November 6, 2021. It will not host exhibitions, but visitors will be able to access the works in the collection and take part in the behind-the-scenes activities. A management choice that needs the right space to be told, perhaps in a future article – Spoiler alert: yes, we will have a chance to talk directly with the head of the collection.

4. Economic sustainability

One negative trend that needs to be taken into account again this year is the decrease in donations made to cultural organizations. TheUrban Institute ‘s Nonprofit Trends and Impacts 2021 study conducted a survey based on U.S. nonprofit organizations.

The results underscore not only the disparity between large and small organizations in terms of access to philanthropic funding, but also that younger and less established organizations are more affected when donors decline than older and larger organizations that have had time to establish themselves in a community and can benefit from their reputation and trust in the community.

Although donations had increased between 2015-2019, there was a reversal in 2020. This decrease was also observed in 2020 by the Global Trends in Giving 2020 report in Europe, where only four out of every 100 donors decided to donate to culture. A decrease in donations in the first half of the year was also observed for this year by the Italian Institute of Giving.

In order to succeed in countering this negative trend, cultural institutions will not have to incentivize one-time donations, but will have to be able to create a direct relationship with visitors and users of their content through the provision of memberships capable of putting the needs of their audience, the values they believe in and seek within museum spaces, first.

Being active players within one’s own society and being able to convey the importance of one’s assets will be the challenge to be faced in the coming years, and it will be possible to implement this with clearer and more transparent communication, including through the drafting of Social Reports capable of communicating the objectives, values and results achieved throughout the year.

5. Climate change: environmental sustainability in cultural institutions

Another aspect that cultural institutions have taken on board is a focus on the consequences in the coming years due to climate change. the World Monuments Fund this year stated that climate change is one of the three key factors threatening the preservation of cultural sites.

After the activists’ protests in front of the British Museum and the greenwashing protests against the Shell company for its sponsorship with the Science Museum in London – which pointed the finger at the disconnect between climate-themed exhibitions and less than environmentally friendly sources of funding – the cultural institutions have become more sensitive to the issue of environmental sustainability.

The final Declaration of the G20 Culture paid particular attention to the role of cultural institutions in addressing the challenges related to climate change. From the conference it emerged how cultural institutions can encourage the creation of a common awareness regarding the importance of containing risks, also through innovative events and tools.

Over the course of this year, several ways have been identified (at least seven have been indicated here) to respond to the climate crisis. Among these, the exhibitions that denounce man’s exploitation of Nature stand out (such as the exhibition Unsettled Nature – Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans) and the curatorial choices that focus attention on the sustainability of the exhibition itself.

This is the case of the Busan Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA Busan) with its exhibition entitled Sustainable Museum: Art and Environment, which directly addresses the complex relationship between the staging of art exhibitions and the invisible environmental impact of such events. For example, the very high CO2 emissions during the air transport of works of art were considered – preferred to maritime transport – and precisely to avoid this waste, MOCA decided to stream the pieces located remotely and to use installations .

Lastly, many museums have begun to carefully choose the companies with which to create partnerships. The use of innovative technologies and the expertise of partner companies has helped in many cases to bring out the “social urgency” regarding the consequences of climate change. This is the case of the Design Museum in London, which thanks to its thriving relationship with Snapchat has managed to show the devastating effects of climate change on its building through augmented reality.

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