“I don’t know where to start.”
“I don’t know what to look at first.”
“Why would a museum put this on display?”
“Is this really art?”
“Your labels make me feel stupid.”
According to a terrific article in ArtNews, museums across the country are reevaluating the way artworks are presented to the masses in an effort to maintain patron levels and to better serve their constituents. It’s about fucking time.
Long has the Junkyard been a supporter of the “understanding the artist will help you understand the art” movement. We know that art can be confusing. Sometimes it really is crap, and sometimes its genius that just requires a little more understanding to be fully realized. Museums have long been collecting and exhibiting work in quiet halls that can seem alienating, hollow and cold and that does nothing to encourage the general public to actually enjoy themselves! Museums aren’t meant to be clinical – these works are meant to be enjoyed!
It sounds like museum are catching on. The labels that formally read like absolute truths about a work are getting makeovers to say things like “it seems as if…” – this allows the possibility for reinterpretation, and most importantly, discourse. And while much of this seems like common sense, understand that the arts have always been seen as something ‘different’ in this country than in others where the arts are integrated into society. Somehow the US decided that the arts were meant only for those who could afford to enjoy them and didn’t make efforts to invite others into that world. It isn’t surprising at all the museums struggle to increase membership and patronage, but I am excited to see this trend in making art accessible.
The Museum of Arts and Design in NYC is a museum after my own heart. As Jordi quickly found out when she visited to critique the Dead or Alive show, this museum is all about helping the viewer not just understand the work, but the artist and the process. As such you find yourself really understanding the works and feel appreciated! It’s like the museum actually is thankful you have come and as such they are giving you this gift of experience. It’s a beautiful thing. The MAD also has an artist in Residence program where visitors can actually meet the artists in the MAD studios and talk to them as they do their work. Brilliant!
Other museums like the Guggenheim use ‘inquiry based’ tours where you can walk around the museum with guide and actually ask questions that are important to you and let those questions steer the tour. Gone are the days of a guide telling you the a,b,c’s of a work and just standing there thinking “but….what is it?!” and say hello to starting your tour off with “I have no idea what Im looking at” and letting that be ok!. Particularly when we deal with Contemporary and Modern Art, we need more museums who are taking a more creative and inclusive method to educating the masses.
Is this a revolutionary idea? Apparently so. But Im happy to see museums are getting Junkyard-y with their strategies and tossing the art speak out the window…at least a little. Of course, in art, the viewer bears some responsibility to try to understand a work regardless of personal feelings about it, as well as understand the world that it is coming from. Certain words are best used to describe work, but they don’t need to be strung along in endless circuitous lines of bullshit to make the work seem special. It is special. It’s in a museum. Now just tell people about it in a way that is interesting and not stupefying. And viewers, remember to keep an open mind – while you might not like the work, you should appreciate it for what it stands for, what it does and why it was created. Appreciation doesn’t mean you have to love it, but you shoudl always keep an open mind and the willingness to learn.
As we always say, art is for everyone. And if the museums are making an effort to work harder for you, then make the effort to work with them – go to you local museum or gallery, talk to the security guards (they often know a lot more than you think!) and ask for a tour. And always ask questions! Art can be complex but it is oh-so satisfying when you finally understand the answer.