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We began the process that led to this strategic plan in November 2019, more than two years ago. During those long 24 months the world jumped its tracks, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and our ideas and ideals about our future, jumped with it.

As everyone reading this knows, in the intervening months COVID-19 struck, killing at least 5 million people, and upending our habits and ideas about work, leisure, labor, education, and much else. The global pandemic was accompanied by a worldwide reckoning around systemic racism, inequality, and colonialism, galvanized by the murder of George Floyd. The last two years also saw a contentious U.S. presidential election cycle and a hyperpolarized political and cultural landscape at the local and national level.

These cataclysmic events profoundly shaped our thinking about UMMA’s mission and future. They made us take up the immediate and long-term ways that art museums, with their histories of colonialism and elitism, could rethink their collections and practices to regain public trust and value. They prompted us to deeply consider what people need and desire from art and public institutions during times of extreme upheaval and trauma. And, they drove us to think keenly about the priorities of our partners on the U-M campus and in the community, to consider their needs and desires as we design programs and exhibitions. These questions and considerations led us to others, about the role UMMA has both on campus and in the community, who we serve well and who we need to serve better, and what our staff and culture would need to meet these challenges. In summary, our inquiry here, and in our museum practice, has centered on the question of how do we lead real change in museums, so that the communities we care about can thrive in the 21st century? 

Central to our thinking was attention to which publics, and communities, we prioritize. Museums have a long history of claiming they’re for everyone, UMMA included. We came to realize that it is critical to focus on key communities if we want to broaden the Museum’s value to people who aren’t currently coming, who have been excluded, and felt unwelcome. Campus museums also have a long history of focusing largely on campus audiences. We have charted a path that seeks to engage both the campus and our region’s underserved communities as key audiences, with special attention to marginalized and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, [and] People of Color) students.

This focus on underserved communities is a critical part of our contribution to the university’s broader efforts to assert its public value, and its commitment to partner equitably with surrounding communities. We are committed to maintaining teaching, learning, and scholarship activities at the highest level for U-M students and faculty, while also expanding our campus partnerships beyond traditional expectations and embracing our role as a vital public space in the greater community. The tactics in this plan will help us better understand the harmonious overlaps and unexpected tensions of being both of the campus and of the community, and will give further definition to the role we can play.

The plan we’ve crafted develops from the Museum’s own history, and from many of the experiments and directions of the last four years that interrogate encyclopedism, expand on the role of a campus art museum, and extend the ideal of UMMA as a town square. Experiments and projects like Collection Ensemble, which was the first reinstallation of UMMA’s historic Apse in more than a decade. This reinstallation highlighted the collection’s diversity—in artists represented, regions, and time periods—for the first time. It was later joined by the installation Unsettling Histories, which revealed a history of slavery latent in a number of UMMA’s American and European paintings. Finally, we collaborated with the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s office for the 2020 presidential election, and recast the Irving Stenn, Jr. Gallery as a voting site, registering thousands of new voters and offering an artful, thoughtfully planned location for people to cast their votes. This project succeeded in revealing UMMA’s strength as a powerful locus of civic engagement. A turn toward public participation and agency was also reinforced by the innovative exhibition Take Your Pick, in which Museum visitors voted on which vernacular photographs would enter the collection, and by the debut of the UMMA Cafe, long advocated for by campus and community. We’ve built on and expanded these directions and achievements as we crafted this strategic plan.

This plan was created over 24 months with participation from the entire UMMA staff, led by a cross-departmental Strategic Planning Committee who met 14 times. The plan was informed by input gathered through two comprehensive staff surveys, full-staff and small-group discussions, and multiple hands-on working sessions. The Strategic Planning Committee conducted interviews with U-M administrative leadership, faculty partners, students on UMMA’s Student Engagement Council, and BIPOC student group representatives. Perspective was provided through conversations with campus museum directors around the country and by benchmarking against our peers. Finally, we met with our communities—interviewing donors and hosting two focus group sessions with BIPOC community members with and without connections to UMMA, facilitated by the organization NEW (Nonprofit Enterprise at Work) (Nonprofit Enterprise at Work). These focus group sessions uncovered perceptions of the Museum and its programs and what our communities would like to see in and from UMMA. Planning was supported by Vogl Consulting.

The result is a plan built around two vision strategies that reflect the Museum’s vision for the next five years: to Be a Dynamic Space for Civic Life and Shared Experiences and to Engage Diverse Communities and Perspectives, and two foundational foundational strategies that will help us achieve that vision: to Advance Teaching and Learning and Shape a Vital Exhibition Program and Collection for the Times We Live In.

This plan commits UMMA to rethinking our role and responsibilities as a public good, in all of the dimensions of that idea, and in all our activities and interactions in the years ahead.