The Accessibility Issue : Open Thread
AAMD president Michael Conforti says that visitorship is up, suggesting that in fraught times like these, museums can provide a reassuring setting for visitors to interact with art, with their heritage—and with one another. “People are trying to connect with things that are more stable, that will be here,” says Conforti, who runs the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.But apparently getting certain segments of the population into museums is still proving to be tough. And that brings us back to one of our favorite whipping posts around here, the accessibility issue. I'll be honest, this is an issue we discuss at great length in the gallery, particularly when it comes to writing the press releases and designing the installations of shows.
It's very much something I'm aware of, that you can't expect everyone in the general public (or even the gallery-hopping public) to enter a space and immediately relate to all work. What might seem obvious if you've spent the last 6 months talking about little else will seem entirely obtuse to someone who hasn't, so the exhibition should attempt to provide something for the entirely unitiated as well as for the visitor well acquainted with the work. In fact, I think that being conscious of and facilitating access to the layers within any artist's work is a critical part of the educational role of a gallery. Throwing it all at someone at once is a surefire way to make them not care.
According to Robin's article, US art museums seem to be focused on this at the moment as well:
Campbell's last idea is the crux of the problem for much contemporary art, IMO. This idea that you must "know about" an artist to appreciate the work, rather that simply take from it what you can or wish to and move on. (How can you be expected to know about an emerging contemporary artist? Seriously...it's OK for such work to be new to you).
“Art museums have not been very good at communicating,” says Peter Marzio, director of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “Science and natural-history museums have done a much better job of remaking themselves to adapt to the 21st century” by creating interactive, educational, and family-friendly spectacles. Marzio argues that art museums can succeed “by doing the reverse. Not apologizing for the fact that the picture doesn’t move—you do the moving. What’s lacking is the ability for visitors to understand it because they’re not given information or training.”
Thomas Campbell, the new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says that engaging visitors who don’t feel comfortable is one of his primary challenges. “There is an enormous potential audience that simply isn’t coming here,” he says. “They come for school trips, but it wouldn’t occur to them to come again. Without sacrificing standards, we need to remind people that coming to the museum is not a big deal. You’re not taking a test. You don’t have to prove you know about the artists. It’s just fun.”
We see the "right" response to work by children in the gallery or art fairs all the time. They are fearless in offering a critique. They are fearless art experience consumers. They instinctively get that "it's just fun." Why adults become fearful about art is probably related to what Campbell references: the idea that you're being tested.
Personally, I feel this is a concern that institutions and galleries have to work to correct. The answer isn't only wall text or even well-written press releases, I suspect, but well-versed staff and an inviting environment. (We place a bench in our gallery for most exhibitions and purposely let visitors take their time, not approaching them to see if they have questions until they either indicate they do or have been in the gallery for a while. I like to think this communicates that it's ok to simply experience the show.) Some museums are taking a more high-tech approach though:
To an unprecedented degree, market research about the needs, wants, fears, and anxieties of visitors is shaping how museums are designed. “We got a lot of comments that it’s just overwhelming to come to museums,” says Lori Fogarty, director of the Oakland Museum of California, which inaugurates a complete reinstallation of its art, natural history, and science collections this fall. So the new galleries will feature “loaded lounges” where visitors can relax, read catalogues, or do hands-on activities, along with open spaces that accommodate up to 25 people for concerts, storytelling, or other such programs.As an art experience consumer myself, I find I'm more comfortable looking at any genre of art with more practice. This is obviously the solution to the problem. Getting people into the museums (or galleries) more frequently will lead to their being more comfortable in them and thus more happy to come back. Of course, the danger here is that efforts to please the visitor begins to compromise the mission of the institution or, worse, the intentions of the artists. The museum directors interviewed in the ARTNews piece all seemed very aware of that potential and seem to think that slowing the viewer down with interactivity is among the best approaches to the needed balance here:
But a bigger change in her plan is connecting people who might never have visited art museums with the people who curate them. Fogarty calls it transparency—“breaking the fourth wall”—having curators answer questions about how and why they choose works. Visitor feedback will be encouraged, and the exhibitions, in turn, will be based on the “wiki model,” with curators representing only one voice in a mix that includes conservators, community members, and artists. “We can’t count on the fact that potential visitors were brought to museums as kids,” Fogarty says. “Many have no cultural or experiential reference; they don’t think of the museum as a place that welcomes them or has anything of interest to them.”
At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, director Olga Viso is also using a major reinstallation as an opportunity to remake the museum into a more civic space. “We want to be in dialogue with the audience instead of in the place of authority,” as she puts it. Such efforts may mean involving the community in the organization of shows or asking people to vote on the selection of artworks. When the new installation opens in November, says chief curator Darsie Alexander, curators will hold in-gallery office hours—giving visitors insights into the way exhibitions happen, and giving the staff a chance to find out “how visitors encounter work in space—the kinds of questions they ask about art, what they find interesting, and how long they stay.”
[A]s Bonnie Pitman, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, explains it, “It’s not that the mission is going to change; it’s about how we respond—how we champion the experience and power of art. And how it embraces and engages and educates our community.” Every third Thursday, when the museum stays open until midnight, visitors can find storytelling, spoken-word performances, poetry readings, concerts in the galleries, and, in the case of the King Tut exhibition, belly-dancing demonstrations. Pitman herself leads the “Insomniac Tour” of the collections—it starts at 10 P.M.
Pitman took a page from natural-history museums in her institution’s year-old Center for Creative Connections, which attempts to slow down the classic three seconds that visitors spend in front of artworks by presenting eight masterpieces in a way that invites viewers to focus on materials. For example, Courbet’s The Wave (ca. 1869–70) is covered with a Plexiglas box with a movable magnifying glass affixed to it.
Campbell cites interactivity as the key to connecting with audiences who are new to the Metropolitan. “We take so much for granted,” he says. “You walk through gallery after gallery and there’s really very little explanation of certain objects, certain paintings in these rooms. There’s an assumption that you have a general knowledge of the history of European art. Modern technology provides the opportunity to provide more information without turning galleries into intrusive didactics. It’s really just a question of choosing applications.”
Of course, you can encourage folks to be a bit too comfortable in a museum, as this charming video featuring C-Monster's author demonstrates. Consider this an open thread on viewing art and ways to deal with the accessibility issue.