Christina Olsen: Future of museums, innovation and collaboration during and beyond COVID-19

April 24, 2020
Written By:
Sydney Hawkins

University of Michigan Museum of Art. Image credit: UMMA


Christina Olsen

Christina Olsen

Christina Olsen is the director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, one of the leading university art museums in the country. In addition to presenting a dynamic schedule of exhibitions and events, UMMA houses a comprehensive collection that represents more than 150 years of art collecting at U-M, and includes more than 21,000 works that span many cultures, eras and media

Prior to joining UMMA in 2017, Olsen served as the director of the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts. She has also worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Foundation and Portland Art Museum. She is currently on the board of the Association of Art Museum Directors and is co-chair of the U-M Arts Initiative.

She can talk about the future of the museums and cultural institutions in the era of COVID-19 and the importance of art in times of crises.

How will COVID-19 change the way that museums operate and engage with audiences in the future?

The reality is that many, many museums are going to be impacted financially for a long time. Some will take years to recover, some will go under and others might have to contract or adjust to very different kinds of programs for the coming years. Museums with small endowments or ones that are very vulnerable to the gate will be devastated.

However, one of the silver linings that I have seen over the last five weeks is that institutions, museums, libraries and other cultural organizations are really coming together and working together out of necessity. I have been talking weekly with museum directors in my budget size, with campus-based museums and with Big Ten university museums. We’re talking about broad shared marketing strategies, collections sharing initiatives to save money and producing exhibitions collectively for when we eventually reopen. I think we’ll hang on to this collaborative spirit both because it’s an effective way to work but also because we’ve just been through this huge shared cultural experience together, and also in response to a reality that we may have empty galleries when we return because we can’t afford to do shows we had planned because we haven’t been in the building to make them.

Are you noticing any potential remedies to make up for museum losses?

I think you’re going to see museums trying to invent new forms of revenue. For example, MoMA has been producing courses with Coursera as a partner. So you can take a MoMA class on contemporary art and it’s free unless you want to earn a certificate. And if you want a certificate, then you pay for it, which is one of the Coursera models. So the museum is leveraging its collection and its expertise in the form of curators. I think you’re going to see more versions of that. We’re thinking along similar lines and talking to faculty and partners at U-M to explore how we might respond to the fact that, for many campuses, it might be a kind of hybrid year where there’s some online instruction and some onsite instruction.

We’re a place that has invested in digitizing and cataloging our collection, and getting it online for a while now. But that’s still different than re-imagining our mission to be delivered physically in person and virtually, and via social media platforms. That means we have to do what brands did a decade plus ago, and reenvision our enterprise as experiences for people along a spectrum of physical and virtual environments, with the building as just one of those. I think that is really going to reflect how a number of museums look at their future.

Do you anticipate that UMMA will be open by fall? What might social distancing look like at the museum?

We’re still moving forward with the planned opening of our exhibitions, and we’re preparing for three scenarios this fall: one where we are open, one where we are not open and a potential hybrid. In all three cases, we are thinking about social distancing and how that would play out in the building, which might have to do with capacity restrictions, scheduled class visits, and limited numbers of people at programmed events, and options for digital interaction.

In addition, we’re having great success working with faculty to fulfill their educational class visits virtually, and are moving some popular annual events online—like the museum’s Study Days event. We are creating new methods for communicating with our audience with the launch of ‘Art in your inbox,’ Sight & Sound, a new Medicine at the Museum series and more.

Why are cultural institutions like museums and galleries important in times of crisis?

This crisis is not only going to devastate arts and cultural institutions, it is going to devastate artists, who are among the most vulnerable people in the culture. They’re the ones who are supported by museums and galleries. Just like gig workers, they have very few other sources of income.

Nationally, we need a much deeper recognition or acknowledgement in this country that the arts is an important economic driver for the economy, and to our lives overall. I think what we really see if we look around right now is evidence everywhere for how essential the arts are in times of crisis. What are we all doing in quarantine? We’re all making and consuming art. We’re drawing, taking photos, making elaborate baked goods, watching great films—we’re all connecting to one another or escaping through the arts.This is why we turn to them. As a university art museum, we have a unique opportunity to help people connect those dots and understand that the arts offer a deep source of comfort, healing, and coming to terms with and understanding the world around us, and that is absolutely essential to our survival.