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Creative Research Center

A New CRC Monograph – Strategies to Manage Censorship Issues and Controversies in Museums – by Kyle San Giovanni

Posted in: Director's Essay

Wide view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art interior

September 9, 2013

Dear Neil:

I am pleased that you are publishing my MA thesis on the Creative Research Center website.   I came to this topic through discussions with you a few semesters ago.  After researching several other topics, I wrote on managing controversies and censorship issues because I think that discussions about artistic freedom must continue to be at the forefront of museum managers’ concerns.

With this study, I identify the elements that go into successfully managing censorship issues when mounting museum exhibitions that may be considered controversial.   I create a proactive, business management approach modeled after “plan, do, check and act”.  I hope to ensure that any museum organization can better anticipate and successfully navigate issues that may arise when planning and presenting exhibitions. The problem is of interest to the museum industry because they are likely to struggle with the issue of censorship at one time or another, whether they are prepared to or not. Therefore, museums need a positive, proactive way to stand up for their actions and communicate with their public.

I find that while controversy can occur in any museum throughout the country, even in sophisticated cultural centers, organizations continue to have a hard time controlling the fallout. This can make it difficult and disruptive to maintain the relevance of the show, without exerting great effort to defend their decisions against dissenting opinion. There are legitimate reasons for deciding to present challenging, even difficult subject matter. Such actions expand the boundaries of art and culture, while engaging the public. For better or for worse, challenging exhibits have a way of complicating the operational process. However, the extra work brought about by producing demanding exhibits may be a windfall for an organization, if managed deftly. Enticing and demanding subject matter may create interest, thereby helping to enhance or sustain interest in museums. It is no secret that tantalizing shows attract visitors. Regardless of how the exhibition is produced or why scrutiny is brought to bear on a given museum, the organization needs to be in a position to take advantage of the situation.

While the difficulty in sustaining any museum is rooted in a healthy economy, contemporary art has become more sociologically and politically based during the last several decades. In order to best engage the public, the museum industry must continually look at itself critically. Understanding demographic and changing tastes are a few of the ways museums have changed for the better. In order for museums to move forward and continue growing stronger, they must reinvent themselves for new generations by incorporating contemporary subject matter and new perspectives into their exhibitions. This keeps shows fresh and young audiences attending. By addressing challenging socio-cultural issues, museums have captured the attention, imagination, and identity of the country and individuals. Connecting with the audience will enable longevity.

Enticing exhibitions, challenging subject matter, and great works define museums. Visionaries, solid leadership, and hard work will get an organization to where it needs to be. However, managing the museum of the future comes down to accountability to the public. Understanding the public’s desires and giving them what they want, sprinkled with what they need to know, will do more to solidify a museum’s place in the mind of its patrons than anything else it might do. Museums remain a substantial draw to visitors and residents alike. Devising a plan to include the public and other organizations before a controversy erupts will go a long way toward sustaining a museum’s place in the community.

My motivation for researching censorship controversies in art museums is to allow me to delve more deeply into the juxtaposition between art and culture, and the practice of organizational leadership. Through my research, I identify a need for a more proactive and innovative approach to managing controversies that arise from mounting challenging museum exhibits. This approach requires understanding, not arrogance, and the courage to refrain from bending to any political pressure that may arise. I hope this approach is valued by the museum industry as a way to manage such issues.

You asked me include some background about myself.

I have been a professional in Environmental Management and Public Health for more than two decades.  My vocation has seen its fare share of controversy through the years, from vaccine safety to global warming, so I am no stranger to the subject. Some early controversies I confronted came from being overtly philosophical and from my curiosity with the scientific theory of evolution. Additionally, I experienced “censorship” at an early age, in a variety of situations. My scientific curiosity, especially regarding prehistoric times, was met with disdain in my early school years. My interest in the sciences stems back to my childhood, but my passion has always been the arts.  Yet even the art topics I explored, which were typically of a darker nature than was expected from someone of my age, came under attack by school teaches, peers and even family members. Along the way, I developed a fondness and curiosity for all art forms, from literature, to performance and visual arts, especially for those that “push the envelope”.

Over the last decade and a half, I have performed extensively and increased my involvement with various arts organizations from the production side. I have worked with many performance groups throughout New Jersey, in addition to founding and operating my own theater troupe and music ensemble. Over the years, I have functioned as director, producer, writer, treasurer, fundraiser and board member. This work has amplified my interest in my thesis topic. Presently, my years of experience and education have culminated in my completing a Master of Arts degree in Museum Management. My educational background, personal interests and work experiences make me distinctly capable to undertake controversial subject matter involving museums.

To read my thesis, Strategies to Manage Censorship Issues and Controversies in Museums, click here.

Kyle San Giovanni