Maybe The Cult Rules Aren’t As Important As We Thought

Seema Rao at Museum 2.0 shared notes from a session she conducted at the Museum Computer Network conference last week titled “Are Museums A Cult?”

The answer, as I am sure you have anticipated, is that they definitely can be for the same reasons theaters, operas, ballets, orchestras, etc can be. As you read her notes, you can see how easy it is to substitute your own discipline in.

I got to museum bc I loved art. I loved the ideas around art and I loved sharing those ideas. I figured everyone here was the same—excited to share. Then, I got into museum work. I found that people were only excited with sharing if they could control every aspect of learning. Sharing with parameters is not true sharing.

It was disheartening. I realized the field often preferences things to people. Given the capitalistic matrix we live in, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. I was also saddened.

And I wasn’t alone in my disillusionment. Everyone I knew was wondering if they were in a field that was problematic. We went into this field for good. And we were wondering, if somehow, our idealism blinded us. If we were on the side of the good.


As a field, we’re in a crisis. Why? Because of the system. It’s trained us, not unlike a cult, to question only enough to keep the system going. It requires sacrifice from most people, and certainly doesn’t sacrifice for Us.

The system sucks. The system gives a few people great tax breaks by giving a few more people the chance to do scholarship. It’s a system reinforcing scarcity. And like all hierarchical systems, it needs a whole lot of other people to get less, and have less say.

This is a conversation that has been ongoing for some time now. While it can feel dispiriting to feel you are working in an industry that is so slow to change, there are organizations and programs that are working toward a more productive relationship with audiences.

A week ago, a new orchestra entity had their first performance in my venue attracting an audience of 900 people. The philosophy of the programming is essentially “not your grandparents’ orchestra” in an attempt to attract new audiences. Based on attendance demographics and surveys, it has started on the road to achieving those goals. Some responses said they didn’t care for the program mix and there were a comments about educating attendees in proper applause etiquette, but those were much fewer than you might imagine.

There were far more notes about people not wearing their masks in the audience chamber–that might have been more a reflection of cocktail consumption since we didn’t experience any resistance to mask wearing at the door.

Strange as it may seem to say in the middle of a pandemic, it is actually encouraging to learn that the programming may factor less into the decision not to attend than lack of social distancing and mask wearing. I would rather be stricter with masks than about when you can respond to hearing something that moves you.

If the people who are showing up in numbers at the fringes of a pandemic threat aren’t reacting negatively to a change in programming philosophy, the resulting word of mouth may literally enable an organization to change the narrative about themselves.

Can the cult persevere if the cult practices don’t seem that important any more?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Maybe The Cult Rules Aren’t As Important As We Thought”

    • It was the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra which is basically students from the McDuffie Center for Strings and brass & woodwinds from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra –thus the reason they have to play on Mondays as the ASO musicians aren’t available on other days. Bobby McDuffie for whom the school is named wanted to break the conception people have about orchestras and make it more widely accessible. So for the first concert they had performances by students/campers of the Otis Redding Foundation school and summer camp. Future concerts will include participation of gospel choirs and rappers. The program consists of some traditional pieces alongside more contemporary compositions.


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