Letter from Los Angeles: The Demise of the Museum Volunteer

August 2nd, 2013  |  Published in July-August 2013  |  2 Comments

Letter from Los Angeles:  The Demise of the Museum Volunteer

— Kay Talwar

The volunteer in the art world is a vanishing breed thanks to the institutions they serve. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) had 3000 volunteers when Michael Govan became director in 2006. Today it is questionable whether the museum volunteer will continue to exist at LACMA at all.

Prior to Govan’s arrival, the volunteers were among the most staunch supporters of the museum. They gave freely thousands of hours of time and expertise not to mention money to a county institution that operates without an endowment. The volunteers belonged to fifteen different councils. The docent, museum service and art museum councils interacted directly with the public. The remaining councils were support groups for the various departments of Los Angeles’s only encyclopedic art museum. The support councils had a unique position in the ecosystem of the museum. They created and funded many public programs and cultivated future collectors and donors for the museum. They also supported exhibitions and provided funding for acquisitions since the departments receive no funds from the museum for purchase of new art. Certainly the councils enriched the museum.

However this was not the opinion of the administration. Early in Govan’s tenure, in an address to the Council chairmen, LACMA’s CFO said that the councils were a financial drain on the museum- that they did not bring in enough money to justify the use of museum facilities. The minimum council membership fees were raised to $400 per couple per annum. Almost immediately half of the 3000 volunteers disappeared off the roles. Gone were the interested students and knowledgeable academicians. It was clear that money was more important than educational programming. The remaining volunteers were left feeling disgruntled and unappreciated but were not ready to give up their councils.

The final blow was dealt in the fall of 2012 when the administration announced unilaterally that minimum council fees would be $1000 per annum and that a patron level membership ($250) was required for council membership. Effective July 1, 2013 council planning boards were dissolved. With the increased fees the ranks of supporters will shrink even further and there will be little funding for programing or acquisitions. Such steps make it abundantly clear that volunteer participation is not wanted but that volunteer money is most welcome.

In addition the public service councils like the docents are feeling unsettled as the talk of replacing the main campus escalates. If sections of the museum are closed for extended periods of time then the docents will have no work. As a result forty docents have already transferred to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood.

The administration’s justification for their action is that councils were elitist. They now choose to address a younger and more ethnically diverse demographic in an effort to cultivate a new support base for the museum. This marketing strategy seems short sighted. Why alienate your traditional supporters? Why curb the free programming that the councils provided for the public? Why further isolate your curators from the public by taking away their support councils? The answer, of course is MONEY. With some twist of logic the administration hopes that a newer, younger, more diverse audience will provide them with more funds. Let’s hope it’s true as they steamroll over the good will of former volunteers, the ones who once were their biggest supporters.


Kay Talwar holds an M.A. in Art History from the University of Michigan. She has co-authored Indian Pigment Paintings on Cloth for the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad and In Adoration of Krishna for the Tapi Collection, Surat. In Los Angeles she has been involved for many years in promoting Indian art and cultural activities. She served as Chairman of the Southern Asian Art Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for six years and is a Bharata Natyam dancer.


  1. David Raphael Israel says:

    June 20th, 2014at 1:40 pm(#)

    Dear Kay,

    Might I request an update on the state of things that you so interestingly (and unsettlingly) describe above? As this was written some 10 months ago, I’m wondering what the current state of affairs may be? Has the volunteer contingent indeed further dwindled? Has there been any notable change of approach or policy by the Museum, that might render the above report outdated? Do kindly advise.

    By way of background, I happen to be a new LACMA individual member. I joined two days ago, just before purchasing tickets to the wonderful “Yoga in Dance” classical Odissi performance (June 20, 2014) at LACMA’s Bing Theater — an event I believe the Southern Asian Art Council produced.

    Noting your excellent article (on a LACMA blog) previewing that performance, I became curious to glance at some of your other writing, and thereby stumbled onto this hornets’-nest of an article here.

    As a fairly new LA denizen (I moved here 5 years ago, after spending a few years in India and China) and as a totally new LACMA member, I’m interested to get more fully up-to-date on the evolving state of the Museum.

    With thanks

  2. David Raphael Israel says:

    June 20th, 2014at 1:42 pm(#)

    p.s. [erratum] — pardon, I had meant to type “June 18” (not 20) for the concert date, above.