Earlier this year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art revealed that it was operating at around a $40 million deficit. America’s preeminent art venue isn’t alone in its financial struggles: Cultural institutions from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to Minnesota’s Rochester Art Center have had trouble fundraising in recent years. The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver wants to help. In the past year, MCA has seen about a 20 percent increase in revenue from admissions, memberships, and donations, thanks in large part to its youthful patrons and donors. (Nearly three-fourths of MCA’s visitors are under 45.) This month, MCA director and chief animator Adam Lerner launches a program to share that success: Animating Museums, a two-year fellowship that invites leaders from American art museums to get more creative—and thus get more cash.

This isn’t the first time Lerner has thought outside the display case. Whether it’s running inventive adult education programs like Art Fitness Training (a crash course in fine art appreciation) or hosting Black Sheep Fridays (nights of wacky activities ranging from a sexy Star Trek costume party to make-your-own-puppet karaoke), he’s singularly focused on pushing museums to be hubs of culture and innovation. “Creativity for me is about asking internally the question, Wait, why do we do it this way?” he says. “In many ways, we think of ourselves as a laboratory for developing interesting ways of being a museum.”

6,800 = MCA Denver visitors under the age of 18 in 2016

Lerner doesn’t want MCA to be a singular example, though. That’s where Animating Museums comes in. Over the next two years, the fellowship’s 14 museum professionals will visit Denver for three workshops. MCA staff will teach them how to liven up their future exhibits with additional programming and how best to back colleagues who pitch creative ideas. Guest speakers such as former Walker Art Center curator Sarah Schultz, who created an initiative encouraging patrons to use the Minneapolis museum’s lawn for their own artistic purposes, provide further inspiration. Fellows will also meet for virtual chats several times a year and collaborate on a capstone event—a festival, a series of performances, street art…just about anything but a traditional exhibit. And that’s where Denver gets its payoff; the capstone will be held in the Mile High City in the summer of 2019.

This article was originally published in 5280 July 2017.
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.