How Museums Can Shape a More Equitable and Sustainable World

2 July 2024


Article by Suzanne Cotter, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Chair of the CIMAM Award for Best Museum Practice, for Museum ID magazine

Article published originally in Museum ID Magazine, on 28 June, 2024

The International Committee of Museums and Collections of Modern and Contemporary Art (CIMAM) Award for Outstanding Museum Practice aims to highlight exemplary initiatives that catalyze structural change in museums, fostering collective learning and empowering institutions to effect change on a global scale. Suzanne Cotter, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Chair of the CIMAM Outstanding Museum Practice Award on how the projects nominated for the award invite us to not only imagine but to enact the possibilities of museums in shaping a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable world.

In our increasingly fraught contemporary world, museums are privileged spaces of cultural exchange that can influence how people relate to each other, their communities, and the world around them, and the cultural and economic ecosystems they enable.

The seismic events of the most intense period of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 closed the doors of cultural institutions including museums around the world for extended periods. While this unprecedented disruption in the first half of our relatively new century provoked deep reflection on the purpose and value of these institutions in society, it also highlighted the fundamental need for cultural experience in people’s lives.

In response to this existential questioning of museums, CIMAM, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, embarked on a comprehensive survey in November 2020 of its members to answer the question “Why Museums?”, eliciting insightful reflections from museum directors and professionals. CIMAM also issued a statement in July 2020 defending the role of modern and contemporary art museums as custodians of collective memory, bastions of cultural participation, and catalysts for social cohesion, equality, and sustainable economic development in times of global crisis. CIMAM Advocates for Museums for Modern and Contemporary Art.

CIMAM inaugurated the Outstanding Museum Practice Award (OMPA) in 2021. This impetus for the award was to recognize and celebrate the role of museums and their adaptability and responsiveness in a period of intense uncertainty that was dominated by media feeds and networks of communication that relayed the bleakest of news from every corner of the globe. The Outstanding Museum Practice Award was intended as an affirmation of the work of museum professionals and of the profound social role of museums in shaping collective consciousness and fostering genuine connections with diverse publics and communities.

For the first award, which was expanded in its title to acknowledge the particular time of crisis in which we were living, Queens Museum in New York was honoured for radically recalibrating its mission and operating model to better serve its communities during the Covid-19 pandemic. This recalibration was rooted in the principles of hospitality and collective care and reflected the museum’s responsiveness to the urgency of the times. It responded to a fearless commitment to serving surrounding communities, including residents, artists, educators, and cultural producers to engender meaningful engagement and social impact.

In 2022, following several years of consultation with museum professionals around the world, ICOM, the International Council of Museums, announced its new definition of Museums during the 26th ICOM General Conference. The new definition emphasizes museums as inclusive, accessible, and community-centered institutions and underscores the social responsibility inherent in their educational, reflective, and knowledge-sharing functions.

Following this transformative redefining of the language with which to conceptually define the work of the museum, CIMAM further refined its criteria for the Outstanding Museum Practice Award with a particular focus on sustainability to address the idea of well-being in its broadest sense and to recognize the inseparability of planetary care with people and communities and their cultural and economic well-being.

In its second edition in 2022, the Outstanding Museum Practice Awards recognized museums for their commitment to the idea of the museum as a continuous and evolving practice and for their willingness to affirm alternative models to the historic and Eurocentric and colonial structures that predominated. The award-winning museums – Kokama museums, Manaos, Amazonia, Brazil, Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes “Rosa Galisteo de Rodriguez”, Santa Fe, Argentina and MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand – were recognized for enacting mutual empowerment for the museum and the publics they seek to serve.

The most recent edition of the Award in 2023 recognized the decentralized practices of residencies embedded in indigenous communities. The project, exemplified by “CHAGRES: Nomadic Residency” in the Emberá Drúa community, deep in the Panamanian jungle along the Chagres River, created spaces for dialogue between artists and artisans, addressing contemporary artistic practices, traditional crafts, ancestral knowledge and cultural heritage. Special praise was given to the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Panamá’s commitment to increasing the visibility of indigenous artists and vernacular cultures, reinforcing their transformative role in the local artistic process and in the broader cultural landscape.

Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes "Rosa Galisteo de Rodriguez", Santa Fe, Argentina

After 3 years of the Outstanding Museum Practice Award, a persistent theme has emerged: the recognition of museum practices that drive real and lasting structural change, with repercussions in the cultural, economic, and socio-political contexts in which these practices are located. It is clear that decentralized perspectives on the possibilities of museums of contemporary art are providing invaluable inspiration and permission to think and operate differently.

The recognition of best practices in museums not only encourages a culture of excellence and innovation within the field but also becomes even more relevant in times of crises when resources can become even more scarce and priorities reassessed.

CIMAM’s Outstanding Museum Practice Award underscores museums’ invaluable contribution during challenging times. Equally significant has been the public acknowledgment of museum practices in different parts of the world and the amplification of their work, both locally and globally.

This year, the CIMAM Outstanding Museum Practices Award is seeking to identify practices in museums of modern and contemporary art that demonstrate innovation, inclusivity, sustainability, and resilience. While exhibitions and one-time events are excluded from the eligibility criteria, practices may include initiatives that promote diversity and equity, foster community engagement, embrace digital technologies, address environmental concerns, and adapt to situations of crisis while continuing to fulfill their mission of preserving cultural heritage and advancing artistic discourse.

Since its inception, OMPA has remained steadfast in its mission to recognize and celebrate museum practices that embody relevance, connection, and impact, regardless of scale or resources. In nominating the work of our peers and colleagues CIMAM invites us to not only imagine but to enact the possibilities of museums in shaping a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable world.

Suzanne Cotter
Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Chair, CIMAM Outstanding Museum Practice Award

Published 28 June 2024