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Due to unforeseen circumstances, the museum is closed today. We regret any inconvenience.
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Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College / Strategic Plan / January 2023–June 2028
Strategic planning provides a moment to take stock—a time to review an organization’s mission and think deeply about its values, as well as consider its history, recent work, and, importantly, the ways in which it envisions achieving its desired impact in the future. During 2021 and 2022, the staff of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, with input from students, faculty, administrators, volunteers, and community members, engaged in this essential work. This document sets out where we believe the museum should go, and how we intend to get there, in the coming five years.
Simultaneous with our development of this plan, the museum field—like society overall—encountered tremendous challenges in the form of health crises, economic turbulence, and international conflicts. At the same time, we experienced much-needed reckonings around racial injustice, a new focus on issues of gender equity and accessibility, concerns relating to ownership of cultural property, attention to proper acknowledgment of Indigenous and other groups, changes to higher education, and continuing environmental vulnerabilities due to climate change. All this has pushed many in the art and museum fields to think in new ways about how to use our platforms and collections to raise awareness and create positive change. Many museums, including the Allen, are putting a renewed focus on equity and access as we engage the public and steward the irreplaceable artworks entrusted to our care so that they can continue to inform and inspire future generations.
In tandem with our thinking about these major issues, the staff at the Allen has focused on supporting the curriculum and larger goals of Oberlin College. Over the past several decades, the museum has worked to become ever-more deeply integrated into teaching across almost all disciplines at the College—encompassing the humanities, sciences, and social sciences—and within the Conservatory of Music. The Allen certainly contributes to Oberlin College having been recognized, for many decades, as a locus of excellence in the arts and humanities—but what students can learn with and through the collection is much broader than the outcomes of a typical course of study in the visual arts. Through our work with an exceptional collection spanning many of the world’s cultures, multiple media, and 6,000 years, the museum’s talented staff makes of the Allen a site where students can grapple with matters important both to scholarship and to society, outside the traditional classroom. In addition, we engage with students in ways both co- and extra-curricular, by facilitating experiential learning, supporting career-readiness, promoting student-community engagement and alumni connections, and encouraging dialogue on sensitive topics. While these aspects of the museum’s work align with the College’s educational goals, they also serve its operational ones, bolstering robust admission, retention, alumni engagement, and philanthropy. Moreover, the Allen’s national and international recognition in the arts and museum fields engages those who may not otherwise know about the College, broadening the entire institution’s reach and potential. Supporting the College’s initiatives and priorities (which indeed align with those of the museum field) is important to us, and you will see in this plan an emphasis on work that furthers racial and gender equity and diversity, promotes accessibly and inclusion, encourages care for the environment and our neighbors, and makes prudent use of resources.
In order to achieve our goals of being integral to the positive experience of Oberlin students and beneficial to our larger community, the Allen must expand—in both physical space and staff size. Thanks to the efforts and stewardship, during more than a century, of staff members before us, the collection has grown to more than 15,000 objects, while the only new exhibition space added (crucially, in terms of our ability to present large-scale works of art) is the Ellen Johnson Gallery, which opened in 1977. Since the late 1980s, the Allen’s directors have advocated for an expansion to the east, to incorporate the Clarence Ward ’37 Art Building into the museum’s footprint, enabling the expanded museum to have a single perimeter both for security and HVAC needs. More space—for galleries, storage, classes, programs, and offices—would allow the museum to serve our community in the ways that the staff has long desired. With dedicated space for changing exhibitions, important—and fragile—collection works could remain on view for longer periods, without the necessity to turn over galleries for temporary exhibitions. The creation of specific galleries for more aspects of the collection—African, Islamic, Indigenous American, Asian, and other areas—would be prioritized, with the proper casework to accommodate the light-sensitive works on paper, objects, and textiles that are part of these collections. Galleries would be planned with more room for the public—including larger classes or tour groups—and more seating. The substantial funds being spent for offsite storage would be greatly reduced, and curators would feel free once more to suggest the acquisition of large-scale works. With more rooms for teaching with artwork, the museum could accommodate a greater number of simultaneous classes, and with dedicated program space we could invite in more schoolchildren and community groups, while providing appropriate spaces for lunches, snacks, crafts, receptions, lectures, and special events. We envision these new spaces to be accessible, as well, potentially freeing the museum’s second floor—currently not ADA-accessible—to be used in ways that are not geared to the general public.
Concurrent with the need for these public-facing spaces is a need for more office space for an expanded staff. In terms of the museum’s service to the College and community, as well as its collection size, it has been “punching above its weight” for many years, but this efficiency has come with costs—including staff burnout. Compared to museums at other liberal arts colleges, the Allen’s staff is small, which limits the museum’s ability to fully serve the College and local communities—and to expand our regional, national, and international reach—as we would wish. While we would be glad for expanded staffing in many areas of our operation, in this plan we are focusing on two key positions: a deputy director and a coordinator of student and community connection. The former would assist with the museum’s multitude of administrative, management, and reporting responsibilities, while the latter would take on the increasing work of student co- and extra-curricular engagement, currently borne in part both by the museum’s Office of Academic Programs and Education Department, and add a new focus on connections with alumni. In addition, the museum must have an expanded, proprietary, security staff—both to accommodate our weekend hours and enable expansion of our morning and evening hours to accommodate more Oberlin classes, as a way to respond both to changes in class schedules and sizes, and our community more broadly.
Expanding the Allen in both space and staff is key not only to our daily work, but also to how the museum connects to the community. Making the museum’s work both meaningful to, and more visible for, our audiences are but two of the goals we at the Allen hope to achieve in the coming years. Connecting with you—whether you are an Oberlin community member, a student, a faculty or staff member, an alumnus of Oberlin College, a resident of Northeast Ohio, or a visitor from anywhere in the world to the museum or to our website—is integral to the Allen’s mission. Founded in 1917 and now in its second century, the museum—always free and open to the public—has been an important educational resource for hundreds of thousands of visitors, of all ages and backgrounds. As you will see in this plan, we aspire to continue the museum’s high-quality academic and public outreach and emphasis on career preparation for Oberlin College students, in combination with changes to how we use our gallery spaces to present the museum’s global collection, greater interaction and communication with our multiple audiences, and preparations for a much-needed museum expansion. Critical to our efforts is engagement with, and feedback from, you—whether through personal interactions between you and the museum’s staff and collection, or through improved communication regarding the museum’s offerings—all in the service of creating meaningful experiences with the Allen’s extraordinary art.
This emphasis on connecting art and people finds its place above the Allen’s entrance, in the museum’s very stones, where “the cause of Art is the cause of the people”, a line from William Morris’s 1884 speech “Art and Socialism”, is inscribed. Importantly, what bookends that phrase in his speech is an emphasis on hope: “There is our hope: the cause of Art is the cause of the people. Think of a piece of history, and so hope!” At this point in the speech, Morris was discussing the inevitable changes that come to all lives, to all civilizations, within his overall theme of the dignity of labor and the necessity for improved working conditions—as well as for art to be seen as a necessary component of a fulfilled human life, something that should be shared by all. In our work, we at the Allen look forward to continuing to carry forth the inspiring legacy of the museum’s prescient founders with an emphasis on such ideals as Morris’s: linking art and activism, and connecting art and people.
John G. W. Cowles Director
Goal 1: Cultivate Inquiry, Collaboration, and Care
We will re-imagine the cultural narratives of our galleries by reckoning with collecting histories, by incorporating new perspectives in interpretation, and by altering our presentations to better represent the relationships of global cultures. To achieve this, we will cultivate collaboration, productive dialogue, inclusion, and teamwork among ourselves and our stakeholders.
Goal 2: Increase Our Value to the Oberlin Experience
We will advance the educational development of Oberlin College students to prepare them for life at and after Oberlin, while building a network for alumni in the arts.
Goal 3: Build the Foundation for Growth
We will ensure that the AMAM can fulfill its mission for many generations into the future by preparing for an expansion that meets increased demands on staff for teaching, exhibitions, events, experiential learning, and community engagement. We will make the case for support by creating broader awareness of our impact on students and the community.
 Links to relevant communications from the College on these matters include:
https://www.oberlin.edu/about-oberlin/one-oberlin; among others.
 The museum’s 2009-11 HVAC renovation presciently took into consideration a future expansion by including the capacity to serve that building. Consideration should also be given to expansion to spaces in the Venturi ’77 addition, along with renovations to the Gilbert ’17 building. Any expansion to the ’37 or ’77 addition presupposes appropriate other spaces being created for our colleagues in Studio Art and Art History.
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