Dumbing Down the Art Museum

Courtesy brooklynmuseum.org

A popular article in Tuesday’s New York Times discusses the Brooklyn Museum’s failed efforts at drawing bigger and more serious crowds. This historic museum has tried everything from Saturday night dance parties to exhibitions that sometimes push the boundaries of art. Even its entrance, made from glass, was meant to attract locals. Though it has attempted to bring in more visitors by what the article calls its “populist tack,” its efforts don’t seem to be working.

"Star Wars: The Magic of Myth," courtesy brooklynmuseum.org

The Times reports that attendance dropped 23% last year while it grew over at New York’s major Manhattan museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. The article raises some important questions about how a museum can bring in new crowds without alienating established art-loving visitors. To that end, I have spoken with quite a few art world people who feel uncomfortable at the Brooklyn Museum and try to avoid it.

"Who Shot Rock and Roll," courtesy brooklynmuseum.org

An interesting response was written on the Museum Nerd blog. This post asserts that the Brooklyn Museum has gained visitors who don’t normally come to museums through its less academic exhibits while continuing to provide well-respected shows — in essence, trying to appeal to everyone. In addition, the blog lauds the Museum’s ability to bring in a diverse crowd, not simply in terms of race but also age, culture, and socio-economics via its parties and events.

The Brooklyn Museum isn’t alone in its struggle to bring more people in; other art museums have been offering inventive programs to lure in bigger crowds. The Baltimore Museum of Art recently offered a 2-hour meditation session with its 600-year-old sculpture of Guanyin, “a spiritually significant sculpture,” for $60. Many museums offer music programs in the galleries, while some host dance performances and summer soirees, as well as social events for younger members. The Metropolitan Museum does many of these things and took it one step further last February when the museum established its “It’s Time We Met” photography contest, which encouraged nearly 1,000 visitors to take pictures of themselves with the Museum’s art. Their photos were entered into an advertising campaign competition. Was it irritating to visit the museum and see tourists posing like Roman statues and taking artsy photos of the architecture? Sure, a little, but it was amusing and not nearly as bad as seeing people practicing yoga in a painting gallery.

  1. Ben Street says:

    Really interesting stuff. It’s amazing how patronising museums can sometimes be to their audiences in the name of “inclusion”. Tate Britain, for instance, has taken to a supremely condescending PR campaign called “Your Collection” (look here, and try and keep your fist out of your mouth — http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/yourcollection/splitup/).

    Hard not to applaud museums’ intentions to broaden audiences – everyone should be able to get the most out of museums – but art/historical objects are not necessarily fun, or pleasant, or easy to understand. So many of these attempts to drag people in airbrush that, making losers of everyone involved.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Yoga class in a museum sounds ridiculous and I have to agree with Ben on this one. It’s certainly good that the Brooklyn Museum and others want to attract new audiences, but if museums want to attract more visitors, let’s perhaps start by making it easier on teachers who want to bring classes of students without charging them an arm, leg and foot. This is particularly true with school districts that are just outside of major cities, for example. Let’s teach students (and teachers, and museum educators) how to engage with art vs. simply look at it. If viewing works of art becomes active and exciting rather than passive and boring, I think we would be heading in the right direction.

  3. Ross Selavy says:

    Isn’t it time we put away our liberal, populist leanings and face the fact that a lot of art is “elitist”? That often, to appreciate a work of art, the viewer needs to understand its historical context or the artist’s intentions or any number of other factors underlying its creation. Any one of which requires the viewer to know something, to bring something to the art.

    A cultural institution can choose one of two paths. It can be aspirational. It can maintain a level of intellectual integrity, and hope to educate its audience. It can enlighten. Or it can pander to the lowest common denominator in the name of populist accessibility, ignoring the condescending disservice it does by coddling rather than challenging its audience. “Dumbing down” is a pejorative. However, there is a fine line between “accessible” and “dumb and dumber”.

    I understand that I’m talking about an ideal world where cultural institutions are not beholden to governments or corporations or foundations for their funding, and don’t need to provide attendance numbers or demographic analyses to justify their programming. However, to wrench Stephen Sondheim completely out of context, “Art isn’t easy.” Nor should it be.

  4. Ben Street says:

    Too right Joe! We don’t show students works of art because they are reassuring, cosy, comfortable, accessible, “relatable” or reinforce ideas they already have about the world, so why do museums frequently talk down to their audiences by pretending that all those things are true?

    Art museums should stand against a culture of ease. They should stand up for difficulty, complexity and contradiction. Look how little those ideas are valued in the majority of contemporary culture and it’s clear how important art museums are. Everyone should have the benefit of this, not just these fabled “serious crowds” (I have no idea what that means, by the way! Is an academic crowd more serious than a group of high school students? — No). Let’s not do art a disservice through ill-conceived “good intentions”.


  5. Marcus says:

    The yoga class at the Baltimore Museum of Art (as your link indicates) wasn’t in a paintings gallery but outside in the sculpture garden. That space is already something of a mixed-use environment: people eat there, bring their children there to stroll its paths (as I have), etc.; & the class itself was scheduled outside of regular museum hours regardless (& the garden is closed to the public). You may not agree with having the yoga class there but it seems less egregious than the “amusing” photo ops at the Met that are encouraged even as other museumgoers may be trying to look at the art. And say what you will about the $60 price tag for the meditation class, the BMA has free general admission, unlike most museums.

  6. Nettrice says:

    Thank you for posting this entry. I recently got an email from Brooklyn Museum’s Arnold Lehman in response to the NYT article and it angered me. I am happy to be able to express my feelings here.

    As a young female artist of color I found the NYT article to be as offensive as many of the comments posted online were. I posted live updates to my Facebook page when I went to Brooklyn Art Museum for First Saturday, i.e. to check out Kiki Smith. Earlier in the year I went to see Yinka Shonibare. I recall being awestruck at the crowded museum that included patrons of diverse backgrounds. Most impressive to me were the families gathered there.

    Growing up in a semi-urban city my family seldom, if ever, spent much time in the local art museum. When I decided to study art in college I got little to no support from my community. Art wasn’t practical as a field. How many black women artists actually had work in permanent collections at the local museum? None.

    The elitism in mainstream museums and galleries made a negative impression on me. I decided at a young age not to exhibit my work in a traditional venues. I am prolific but I only share my work with peers and students. The virtual 3D world has allowed me to create the kind of space that invites people to visit and experience my work on my own terms. It is unabashedly Afrocentric and hyper-aware of it’s difference. There is nothing “easy” about it. This form of rebellion is how I’ve managed to maintain some integrity for the type of art that interests me.

    I still go to traditional museums and galleries but I never see myself exhibiting there.

  7. Anne says:

    The Baltimore Museum of Art’s yoga classes are limited to 20 participants and the meditation classes are limited to 8 participants, so these aren’t very good examples of inventive programs designed “to lure in bigger crowds.”

  8. Ross Selavy says:

    I just attended an interesting Arts Forum presented by the Alliance for the Arts here in New York. The topic was art spaces (artists’ housing, performance spaces, etc.) and their effect upon their communities. What struck me, however, was a metaphor used throughout the presentation: the cathedral and the bazaar. (I believe it originated in a book about digital media.) Basically, it refers to top-down or peer-to-peer distribution of information. Web 1.0 vs. Web 2.0, if you will.

    The concept of the cathedral and the bazaar seems to me to provide some perspective on the discussion about the “dumbing down” of art museums. The museum, of course, is the cathedral, in which trained experts speak to and, one hopes, enlighten the public. The bazaar is where the public exchanges wares, ideas, gossip, what-have-you.

    The point is: the bazaar takes place in the public square OUTSIDE the cathedral. It might be sanctioned, even supported, by the cathedral, but it is not a project of the cathedral. The bazaar has all those attributes that well-intentioned museums speak about in support of their populist programming: accessibility, community involvement, an open exchange of ideas. It is democratic. That is its essence.

    The cathedral, on the other hand, is the place where the experts instruct. That is its reason for being. It is elitist. (Heaven forbid that the public should be allowed to decide what it should be taught. We’re all familiar with horror stories about local school districts removing books from libraries so that Johnny won’t learn about _____.)

    The cathedral and the bazaar are two different realms with two different roles, both important. As an artist, Nettrice gets it. Her description of the space she has created for her art is Bazaar 2.0. Museums, please take note.

  9. Nettrice says:

    @Ross S, don’t misconstrue my meaning. I WANT the public in the cathedral and those in the cathedral to be let out into the bazaar! Street art (a valid art form) is one answer to the elitism of the traditional system. Web 2.0 is another answer for artists who are not included or invited into mainstream venues/discourse unless part of “special” exhibitions. I want more public discourse from non-European/Western and African Diaspora voices. I want more youth voices.

    In addition to being an artist who is always on the lookout for alternatives I am a professor who makes a point to present diverse perspectives on formal and informal aspects of art, culture, and history. As an art student I once brought up the fact that one of the de’ Medicis (Allesandro) was of color and the last member of the “senior” branch of the Medici to rule Florence and the first to be a hereditary duke. I see him as an Renaissance Obama!

    I am intrigued by the hidden aspects of art history and culture. Committed to researching the “other” aesthetics in art and inviting everyone to the discourse — those in the cathedral and the bazaar!

  10. Ross Selavy says:

    I did not mean to suggest that the two venues should be segregated – just that each plays a different and equally important role in the overall discourse about art. In fact, the cathedral and the bazaar can collaborate. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Guggenheim’s YOUTUBE PLAY. A BIENNIAL OF CREATIVE VIDEO. I quote from the Guggenheim’s website:

    “YOUTUBE PLAY hopes to attract innovative, original, and surprising videos from around the world, regardless of genre, technique, background, or budget… It is the goal of YOUTUBE PLAY to reach the widest possible audience, inviting each and every individual with access to the Internet to submit a video for consideration. The end result will hopefully be the ultimate YouTube playlist: a selection of the most unique, innovative, groundbreaking video work being created and distributed online during the past two years.”

    Sounds like a bazaar thing for a cathedral to be doing.

  11. Nettrice says:

    Yes. I have heard about Guggenheim’s new initiative. I find it interesting. I believe it is a response to the paradigm shift in the role of the artist vs. audience (passive vs. active). Traditional venues should remain true to their roles but not be placed on a pedestal which often happens in similar discourse…but not always!

  12. Meg says:

    I have been so disappointed with the negative response elicited from those who believe that museums should be elitist and opaque because, well let’s just face it, they are.

    Are we really having the John Cotton Dana vs. Benjamin Ives Gilman debate again? Museums are public spaces, the collections belong to everyone, and developing programs and exhibitions that cater to a wide audience absolutely means someone is going to be unhappy about it (here, the art experts who want galleries pure and quiet all the time, like they own them or something). I didn’t really notice anyone taking pot shots at MoMA for featuring a Tim Burton retrospective, which in my view is just as culturally significant as Star Wars. And I mean that in a good way.

    If the Brooklyn Museum is too loud during community events, why not go on a day where there isn’t one scheduled? Are new installations with educational resources nearby really so distracting that you can’t enjoy the work? So much for it speaking for itself, right? So much for your trained eye.

    It would be one thing if the Brooklyn Museum was seriously compromising ethical standards for objects, but here, they are actually meeting AAM best practices for diversity and community engagement. I for one am happy to see a museum that doesn’t feel like it needs to be like every other, and that is taking risks, serving a broader audience, and not pandering to the smallest segment of museum visitors only (art aficionados). (Check out Falk and Dierking’s research if you’re unfamiliar with their research about audience motivations and types.)

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