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The "Imbecile" Institution and the Limits of Public Engagement: Art Museums and Structural Barriers to Public Value Engagement



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As sites for the promotion and contestation of ideas of beauty, subjecthood, and citizenship, art museums play an important governance role in liberal democracy. They are also a major source of expenditure for local governments, yet they often seem only marginally committed to contributing to the public good. While citizen participation in the arts has demonstrable public benefits, the art museum does not prioritize the kinds of services and activities that build public value. Instead, it caters to a small, liberal elite that in North America is shrinking both as a percentage of the overall population and in terms of real numbers. My research examines the structural barriers preventing art museums from adapting to their changing environments to create public value. I compare available evidence of the public value of arts participation as identified in the UK’s Art and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project (2016) with data and evidence from North American art museums. I pay particular attention to the experiences and opinions of the art museum’s “front-line” workers, those who have daily contact with the public, through a survey with members of Canadian Art Gallery Educators and case studies at four Canadian art museums. I identify barriers to public value creation, including but not limited to: the composition of boards of trustees, hierarchical command-and-control organizational structures and functional departmentalization, staff demographics, the concept of artistic “excellence,” and the peer assessment process. I argue, on the evidence compiled, that the art museum is what Veblen (1914) referred to as an “imbecile” institution: one which, once entrenched, perpetuates its power so successfully that it seems eternal, inevitable, and right, even as it disserves the public. I also argue that to build public value, the art museum must dramatically restructure and re-orientate towards a radically democratic mission in which citizen participation and the educational function are prioritized. Finally, I contend that this can only be achieved by policy makers at all levels of government taking bolder steps to develop the art museum as an “agonistic” institution, discouraging the centralization of culture, and requiring greater diversity (both cultural and professional) on art museum boards, in managerial and creative positions, and in the assessment committees that evaluate the organizations.



Public value, public engagement, art museums, art education, democratic deficit



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy


Public Policy


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