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.