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We’re 15 years into the new millennium, but our museums don’t seem to be aware. They’re stuck in the late 20th century, the Arrogant Age, with its love of gigantism in architecture and art. Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Bilbao, a sky-reacher with a sasquatch footprint, scaled to accommodate colossal Richard Serra sculptures, epitomized that love. Mr. Gehry’s 2014 Vuitton Foundation museum in Paris, a glass galleon packed with bland blue-chip cargo, reconfirmed it. So we’re still waiting, scanning the horizon for a new kind of museum, a 21st-century museum, to appear.
How will we know it when it arrives? There will be no single model, and there shouldn’t be. Art and life, which are equally a museum’s business, are too complicated to be reflected in any one mirror. The new museum won’t be defined by architectural glamour or by a market-vetted collection, though it may have these. Structurally porous and perpetually in progress, it will be defined by its own role as a shaper of values, and by the broad audience it attracts.
A new version can’t arrive too soon. Existing ones are, in crucial ways, stagnant. Broad attendance numbers may give the opposite impression: Major urban museums in the United States are getting crowds in the door, but diversity isn’t coming in with them. Despite the dramatic increase in minority populations in this immigrant nation over the past half-century, and a wave of multiculturalist consciousness, our major art museums remain largely the preserve of better-off whites, a group that is losing its majority status in urban settings.
And, more recently, there is evidence of significant shifts within that core audience, as once-shared pools of knowledge and interest change. These changes are most graphically evident at so-called encyclopedic institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In them, non-Western art has always been a hard sell. But increasingly, so are formerly reliable stretches of Western art. […]