The Madres Club, a program serving mothers and children whose first language is Spanish (taken pre-COVID). Bridge Ahead helped the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art adapt the program to operate remotely. Photo courtesy of JSMUA.
The Madres Club, a program serving mothers and children whose first language is Spanish (taken pre-COVID). Bridge Ahead helped the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art adapt the program to operate remotely. Photo courtesy of JSMUA.

In 2017, Alice Walton established the Art Bridges Foundation with a simple goal: to bring great works of American art out of storage and into regional museums across America.

Paul Provost became the foundation’s CEO in August of 2019. Seven months later, he found himself speaking with leaders at regional museums scrambling to adjust to COVID-19. “Those first weeks, museums were in a freefall and trying to plan ahead,” Provost told me.

In response, he and his team created the $5 million Bridge Ahead initiative to help regional and metropolitan partner institutions stay connected to their communities and plan for safe reopenings. Next up, with museums gradually returning to some semblance of normalcy, Bridge Ahead is poised to launch a national outreach campaign in late September “to encourage communities to go back to museums,” Provost said.

Given that Bridge Ahead is one of few philanthropic programs on our radar that has rushed to the aid of struggling small and medium-sized arts institutions during the pandemic, and that Art Bridges is one of the most influential funders in this space, I was eager to talk with Provost about how the initiative came about, and the grantmaker’s future plans.

What follows is a recap of how Provost and his team conceived Bridge Ahead in the early days of the pandemic, along with a closer look at Art Bridges’ unique mission to support smaller, underfunded museums, while alleviating the pressures facing larger museums with mountains of artwork in storage.

“It Was a Different World”

The Art Bridges Foundation operates under what Provost called a “hybrid” model—part museum, part foundation. It has an in-house curatorial department and organizes exhibitions. However, unlike a museum, Art Bridges has no brick-and-mortar presence. It also acts like a conventional arts funder, awarding grants to its partner museums.

Provost told me that the idea for Bridge Ahead began to take shape in mid-March. “We realized it was a different world,” he said. “Given the severity of the pandemic and threats to economy, we understood that museums would be affected dramatically. This applied to our large partners in major metropolitan areas and smaller ones in regional areas.”

He got on the phone with directors at partner museums in Billings, Peoria, El Paso and points in between. “I asked them, ‘What are your biggest challenges? How can we help?’”

Leaders expressed two overriding concerns. First, “there was real need in terms of reaching out and being in touch with audiences in their communities while they were shuttered,” Provost said. And second, “when they reopen, it’s going to be expensive.” These issues became phases one and two of Bridge Ahead. Art Bridges Foundation announced the initiative in early May.

Coping and Reopening

Here’s a case study documenting Bridge Ahead’s phase one support in action. In pre-pandemic times, the Eugene, Oregon-based Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMUA) convened the Madres Club, a program that brought together 20 mothers and children whose first language is Spanish to work on art activities. COVID-19 forced the museum to halt in-person gatherings. Virtual meetings were off the table, too, as many participants lacked laptops, computers and reliable internet access.

The museum purchased and distributed arts materials and tablets with Bridge Ahead funding and virtually reactivated the Madres Club, reducing barriers to participation during a time of social isolation.

With museums gradually reopening across the country, Bridge Ahead has been rolling out phase two support over the summer. “This might involve funds for marketing and engagement to let communities know they’re reopening,” Provost said, and “giving them a certain level of comfort around protocol for reopening safely.” Partners are using funding to put decals on the floors for proper social distancing and install plexiglass screens for staff at museum entrances.

Bridge Ahead plans to kick off its national outreach effort this fall. “We’re buying in local regions and major metropolitan areas,” Provost said, reminding people that their local museums are open again. This effort will find Art Bridges providing a marketing and communication toolkit for its partners so they can effectively spread the word.

Provost also told me that partner museums have been asking for help in reaching diverse audiences. Looking ahead, Art Bridges will ramp up efforts to “move the needle on issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion” at regional partner museums.

An Antidote to “High-Class Hoarding”

As noted, the Art Bridges Foundation partners with metropolitan institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art. Provost and his team allocated a portion of Bridge Ahead funding for some of these museums. This may sound strange on the surface. After all, some of these institutions have “access to the deepest pockets on the planet through their donor bases, leaving less-well-endowed organizations to reap public support,” says Laura Raicovich, the former director of the Queens Museum. But it speaks to Art Bridges’ unique funding model, which engages with museums large and small.

My chat with Provost reminded me that the debate around the “haves” and the “have nots” in the museum world needn’t be a zero-sum game. “Our vision of expanding access to art is based on our regional partners,” he said, “but we can’t get that done without support and cooperation from our partners in major metropolitan areas” that have artwork to lend. For instance, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art collaborates on shows with the Boise Art Museum and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington.

And make no mistake: Institutions have plenty of artwork to lend. Widewall’s Angie Kordic reported that 5% of museum collections go on display at any time. In a piece praising Art Bridge’s “art populism,” National Review’s Brian T. Allen wrote, “I think it’s a shame that established big-city museums in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia sit on thousands of objects they don’t have room to display, or interest in using. It’s high-class hoarding.”

Collectors aren’t pleased, either. Some have terminated lending relationships with museums, while others start their own private museums to ensure that the public will see their work. “I don’t see how giving art to museums that are not prepared to show a fair amount of it makes any sense,” said Eli Broad, who opened his own museum in 2015. Others in the museum world have pushed back on what they consider an overblown concern over collections kept mostly in storage, but the fact remains that there’s a lot of art out there that goes mostly unseen.

Expanding Programs and Partners

Restrictive donor agreements and a complex deaccessioning process make it difficult for museums to sell accumulated work. As a result, many directors find themselves on an “inevitable march where you have to build more storage, more storage, more storage,” said Charles L. Venable, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, in a New York Times article. “I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

Other museums embark on costly expansion projects. Candid research found that of the sector’s top 10 recipients of foundation and donor-advised grants from 2014 to 2018, eight were museums that had either completed or announced major renovation or expansion plans. These museums received a total of $1.35 billion during this four-year window. (This figure excludes gifts from donors.)

Equity advocates argue that these kinds of projects exacerbate the funding gap between the sector’s gilded institutions and smaller community-focused organizations. In July, a Blade of Grass program director Prerana Reddy told me that philanthropy should focus its attention on “direct funding for neighborhood-based cultural anchors” in the months and years ahead, rather than “large museum renovations.”

I realize it’s a bit quixotic to think that Art Bridges will instantly incentivize museums to rein in costly expansion projects or compel funders to give smaller organizations a second look. But the storage issue is a reminder that the debate over equity in the visual arts world involves more than funding. This explains why Alice Walton is so focused on access. By providing directors with outreach expertise and bringing world-class work to small-town museums, the foundation aims to be an equalizing force in the sector.

Art lovers in Boise and Bellingham appreciate this model. So do big-city museum directors. “It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are thousands, if not millions, of works of art that are languishing in storage,” Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the Times. MoMA launched a fraught $600 million effort to house its own trove of modern and contemporary art. “We would be far better off allowing others to have those works of art who might enjoy them.”

Provost agrees. “Art Bridges needs to continue to grow,” he told me. “We want to expand programs and partners, not only with large institutions with lots of collections in storage that they can get on the road and share, but also regional museums.”

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