In order to engage visitors over the decades, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s exhibition program has presented art in various media from a variety of places, time periods, makers, and cultures. Exhibitions have featured scholarship, highlighting both the Museums’ collections and loans from public and private collections across the world, to relay meaningful narratives and create experiences through which visitors can broaden their understanding of art, society, and perhaps, themselves.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, the Museums have methodically evaluated our many processes and practices to better articulate our institutional goals and priorities to ourselves and to the public. Through a series of working groups, we developed a more refined process to propose and evaluate exhibitions. As part of this process, we began to ask curators how a proposed exhibition will add new voices to existing scholarship, challenge existing art historical canons, and contribute to discourse on current world issues. For over a year, we have continued to refine this process via video-conferencing as we isolated at home due to Covid-19 restrictions. The Museums’ goal of becoming an anti-racist institution provided an impetus to reflect on the history of our exhibition program.
While education is at the forefront of our mission, the Museums depend on earned revenue from the exhibition program to sustain operating costs—this is the reality many museums will continue to face until an effort is made by the industry to reconfigure this common operational model. We often refer to exhibition attendance numbers to define financial success and to forecast the success of future exhibitions. Attendance often soars when artist names and exhibition narratives are familiar; however, our core mission to educate comes with a responsibility to evaluate what we present and why.