At the beginning of the month, the J. Paul Getty Trust sadly announced that it was cutting 34 jobs in its museum division, with the education department being the hardest hit with the loss of 19 employees (almost 40% of their staff). According to the Los Angeles Times, the expected annual savings of $4.3 million to be redirected to art acquisitions. Volunteer docents are expected to replace these professional museum educators in leading tours at the Getty.
“Everything the museum does cascades from its collection. The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else.” -James Cuno, Getty president and chief executive
This news has certainly sparked many emotional, passionate conversations among museum educators over the past few weeks, as well as some serious soul-searching about our profession. For me (and I know for many others), the Getty has stood as a bastion for museum teaching — one of the major institutions dedicating its educational mission and vision to forwarding the work of professional gallery teaching.
The work of Elliott Kai-Kee and the entire incredible teaching staff at the Getty has lifted the field of museum teaching to a new level over the past several years. Even beyond Elliott’s recent seminal book co-authored with Rika Burnham, the Getty educators’ recent session at NAEA prompted a great discussion about the role of visitor questions in museum teaching and learning. Getty educators have always done a wonderful job of evaluating and assessing the work they do and providing reports online and disseminating valuable data about learning in museums. For more than a decade now, the Getty Research Institute has also brought in exceptional scholars-in-residence for their Museum Guest Scholar program, including Brigid Globensky, Rika Burnham, George Hein, Kim Kanatani, Sarah Schultz, Dana Baldwin, Kathleen Walsh-Piper, Ray Williams, and Marla Schoemaker. This keen emphasis on museum education and teaching has, until the Getty’s recent decision, been truly inspiring.
Last week, the National Art Education Association responded to the Getty cuts with a powerful letter from its president, Robert Sabol, submitted to the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times. I would strongly recommend that everyone read the letter which has been circulating for the past week (and which I hope is published in the Los Angeles Times soon in order to provide the much-needed counterpoint in this conversation). Upon first reading Sabol’s letter myself, I felt extremely proud to be a museum educator and a member of the National Art Education Association. I wanted to quickly highlight some excerpts from the letter that I found particularly meaningful for our profession as well as museums in general (and I’ll leave any commentary to readers, who can add their thoughts below):
“The recent decision by President and CEO of the Getty Trust James Cuno to eliminate 19 positions in the Museum Education Department represents a significant step backward as well as a lack of understanding of the public value that museum educators provide.”
“Mr. Cuno’s statement, ‘The stronger the collection one has, the better one can do everything else,’ is out of step with how the museum field and external environment are evolving…. many art museums are shifting from being solely ‘about something to beingfor somebody….”
“While the collection and preservation of works of art are essential, for museums to remain viable in the future they must also demonstrate their value and relevance to their communities, which is precisely what museum educators are trained to do.”
“Works of art will always be central to the missions and purposes of museums, however, their continued relevance to individuals and contemporary society is dependent upon establishing meaningful connections with the people that view them, something that museum educators are uniquely trained to do.”
I commend Robert Sabol, the entire Board of NAEA, and the Museum Education Division (including the passionate and insightful leadership of Anne Manning) for such a meaningful response to the Getty. You have affirmed the human-centered nature of the work we do as educators, and framed the immense public value inherent in that work.
I hope that this continues to spark productive conversation and dialogue around this moment, and I invite everyone’s thoughts and reflections below. I also hope to feature additional guest posts in the weeks ahead that can take a closer look at the implications this decision has on our field, our profession, and our vision moving forward.
UPDATE: Be sure to also read Briley Rasmussen’s follow-up post on this site, which deepens the post-Getty-cuts conversation through the human dimension of teaching: Public Value and Being Human: Gallery Teaching is Core to Our Mission.
This post is the author’s own and doesn’t represent the Saint Louis Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.