Responding to the Getty Cuts: Why Educators Should Trump Acquisitions at Innovative Museums

Teens at the Rubin Museum of Art

Recent news that the Getty Museum plans to cut 34 jobs, with 19 of them in its education department, led me to think about the connection between museum education and institutional innovation.  This reflection was also brought on by the fact that the Getty announced it is not cutting back on programming or exhibitions, but plans to redirect the $4.3 million dollars currently dedicated to these positions  into acquiring art. The museum assured the public there would be no drop off in quality because volunteer docents, trained by professional staff, would lead tours in lieu of their paid colleagues. “The stronger collection one has, the better one can do everything else,” Getty President James Cuno assured supporters.

My question is: beyond visitor experience and jobs, what else is lost when institutions do not invest in education? $4.3 million dollars can only buy a fraction of some of the most highly regarded pieces of western art available, but the Getty’s actions speak to a field-wide perception that education is outside of their core mission. By reducing their education department they will miss an opportunity to engage with staff members who are dedicated to developing new practices, exploring different approaches to common issues, team building and risk taking.   In short, they undercut a potential generator of innovation that is already housed within their institution.

As a museum educator I see many connections between forward-thinking arts education practice and building an innovative arts institution as a whole.  Arts institutions that invest in education can strengthen their commitment to fostering innovation within their institution and in the culture at large. Here are three points to consider that I hope will spark discussion about the relationship between arts education and institutional innovation:

Innovation demands creative habits of mind.

Engagement with the arts through facilitated, educational experiences helps develop imagination and creative thinking. A report released by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2011 underscored the importance of imagination to the next generation of American workers and identified arts education as a key driver of this kind of thinking.  To cultivate imagination arts institutions must not only work deeply with schools to build meaningful arts education programs, but cultivate imaginative approaches to institutional challenges within their staff.

College students at the Getty

Critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration drive innovation.

This year the Center for the Future of Museums released Museums and the Future of Education, a report that highlights the innovative practices museum educators around the United States use to teach these skills to students. Arts institutions could look more closely at the curricula and approach museum educators have developed and adapt some of the core ideas to help strengthen these skills among staff members in order to support innovation.

Innovative arts institutions engage audience members in multiple ways and, as a result, build a loyal, broad base of support that will welcome the organization’s evolution.

Educators help audiences make a bridge between their experience and the work presented by the institution. When audiences feel that an institution makes an effort to engage them they are more likely to be involved. Similarly, when members of an organization feel there is a chance to connect their own experiences and creativity with mission and goals of their organization they are more likely to support, and stick with, innovation. Creating a bridge between the personal and the institutional experience must be nurtured over time and have consistent resources and thought dedicated to it.

Arts educators, and the practices they cultivate, can be a source of strategy and ideas that can be scaled up to support innovative practices institution wide. In a time of tight budgets when institutions are scrambling for new ideas and approaches the old divide between education, programming and collections can no longer hold. By enforcing this divide institutions miss out on a source of creativity and new ideas already at their doorstep.

How does your institution invest in education and innovation? What connections between do you see between fostering strong arts education and incubating institutional innovation?


Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts.