The one issue with art museums touring exhibitions

This week the National Gallery in London, one of the world's most prestigious institutions, advertised a job for a senior touring exhibition manager. At first. as someone trying to advocate for the importance of touring shows, my heart jumped for joy... how great is it that a major institution is joining this revolution of global dialogue?

But there is something that museum directors need to think about when planning their touring exhibition strategy. A major issue with art museums that have developed what they call a touring exhibition strategy: you have to get what you give.

In essence, many major art museums put together a touring strategy but it is one-sided. They are just planning to export - not import.

Why is it that major art institutions will not import exhibitions? From what I have seen, there is a certain type of ego that works in the cultural programming of major nationals... that they have to only present their own ideas that they've developed in-house, or have a major influence in any exhibition that's shown within their venue. A "touring exhibition programme" usually just means exhibitions that the institution would like to promote to others.

A healthy ecosystem relies on a steady flow of supply and demand. In the museum industry, there is a unique phenomenon: every museum could at one point be the supplier of a travelling exhibition and sometimes the buyer.

But this is not the case for most art institutions. They would like to have their content and ideas hired for a fee, but they would never do any other institution the honour of doing the same.

If you look at science museums, the opposite is true. They have a healthy buy and sell relationship, and have been doing this for years. Interesting content may be coming from the quirky collection of a regional museum, and larger institutions will hire the show, in part to also help foot the up-front cost for the regional museum to be more ambitious in what they would like to undertake.

For example, the Museum de Toulouse in France worked with the Royal Institute of the Natural Sciences of Belgium in Brussels to develop an interesting touring show about Baby Animals that proved to be very popular.

There is one arts institution in London that has found the balance between producing and importing exhibitions: the Royal Academy. They create their own content that goes on tour, but also welcome ready-made content from other venues. For any museum director, this mix of resource allocation is a godsend. You can calculate expected returns based on precedents for shows that have already been shown elsewhere while taking more risk on shows developed in-house.

I really look forward to the day big nationals not only expect their ideas to tour the world, but also bring big ideas from the world to them.

(to read some comments from the industry on this post, please check it out on Linkedin)