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February 27, 2009


Dr. Ford Bell, president and CEO of the American Association of Museums, addressed more than 200 museums and nonprofit professionals on February 13 at the second annual Robert F. Smith, Jr. Cultural Arts Leadership Symposium, a program presented by the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership (BPCP), a collaborative of 24 San Diego cultural institutions.

Dr. Bell’s timely message, “Museums Matter — The Opportunities and Challenges of Cultural Institutions in the 21st Century,” was poignant in a time of budget woes and stimulus packages — that museums are an essential part of successful communities.

Dr. Bell stressed that museums are widely recognized as cultural education institutions, when in fact they are economic engines. Museums generate more than $14.5 billion in economic activity across the country; employ more than 500,000 Americans; and the 850 million museum visits in the United States every year are more than professional sporting events and theme parks combined.

“There is more evidence that museums are economic engines for communities,” said Bell. “Cities seeking to lure new business regularly include museums among the highlights of their communities, contributing civic atmosphere and overall quality of life, and all of us (here) can testify that museums are sources of civic pride, helping make citizens proud to be Atlantans, Minneapolitans or San Diegans.

“That civic pride is a major factor in the bond between museums and the public, and it is that bond, as much as anything, that will ensure that museums survive this economic downturn, and thrive when it passes. I think that museums boast one thing that is increasingly rare in modern society, and that is authenticity. We collect, preserve and exhibit artifacts and objects and specimens which are the real thing ─ increasingly hard to find in the first decade of the 21st century.”

Dr. Bell pointed to data that demonstrates how museums can educate, inform and change attitudes and behavior. He spotlighted Balboa Park’s School in the Park Initiative as an important model for schools and museums across the country. School in the Park involves two inner city schools to “do school” in the Balboa Park museums, with a standards-based curriculum that integrates formal school learning with hands-on experiential education.

He also cited examples of museums responding to fill voids in America’s social fabric, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s on going program that works with Alzheimer’s patients; the Please Touch Children’s Museum in Philadelphia and North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, both of which work with young people in the juvenile justice system; as well as institutions that bring museums to students; museums that offer English as a Second Language courses; and institutions that have created charter schools and engaged in innovative partnerships that help provide critical experiential learning opportunities to many people.

“All of us here today are in the business of honoring and interpreting the past. And in that endeavor, our single greatest asset is authenticity. The genuineness of place or structure or artifact is what gives these things the power to amaze and even transform the visitor. They carry within them the spirit of the original inhabitant or artist or event. This is something intangible but still very palpable, and deeply, undeniably authentic. Virtualize such things and their spirit is gone, their magic along with it,” Bell said. “That is the business all of us are in: preserving the magic.”

Dr. Bell, who has more than 30 years of experience as a nonprofit executive, board chair, donor, trustee, educator and scientist, heads the American Association of Museums. The AAM has been bringing museums together since 1906, with the mission of developing standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community. Based in Washington, D.C., AAM currently represents more than 15,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, 3,000 institutions, and 300 corporate members.

Bell’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion featuring commentary from San Diego Museum leaders: Derrick Cartwright, PhD; Maruja Baldwin, executive director, San Diego Museum of Art; Stephanie de la Torre, executive director, Cultural De La Raza; Peter Ellsworth, president, The Legler Benbough Foundation; and San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria, District Three; Rick Bregman, San Diego market president for Bank of America, who provided the introductory remarks.

The Robert F. Smith, Jr. Cultural Arts Leadership Symposium is a signature event of the BPCP's Balboa Park Learning Institute. The Symposium and endowment were created in honor and recognition of San Diegan Robert “Bob” Smith, who was an inspiring civic and business leader who shaped strategic direction for several Balboa Park institutions.

The BPCP’s Balboa Park Learning Institute is a $1.3 million, three-year pilot program, which has received generous support from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The Institute offers innovative and specialized learning opportunities focused on the cultural arts field to professionals and volunteers in Balboa Park and the greater San Diego community. In doing so, the Institute helps institutions such as museums, theatres, symphonies, and zoos better preserve, create, and share a unique and varied cultural heritage with present and future generations.

The 2009 Symposium was supported in part by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Robert F. Smith, Jr. Symposium Endowment Fund (held at the San Diego Foundation), the San Diego Natural History Museum and Bank of America.


Established in 2001, The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership (BPCP) is the collaborative body and collective voice for 24 diverse cultural institutions in Balboa Park whose 500 trustees, 7,000 volunteers, and 3,500 staff serve more than 6.5 million members and visitors annually. The BPCP’s mission is to enrich the cultural life of San Diego by facilitating collaborative efforts among member institutions, as well as between the Partnership and the community; to enable Balboa Park cultural institutions to achieve their full individual and collective potential; and to preserve, enhance, and make accessible the cultural assets of Balboa Park for present and future generations. BPCP facilitates collaboration in education, collective business, governance and advocacy, marketing and PR, public access, and sharing and communication. For more about the BPCP, please contact Paige Simpson at 619.232.7502 or, or visit

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