Museums experiment in modern art of drawing visitors

    With a growing list of entertainment options available, cultural institutions are learning to fight for audience attention. Some museums in the Philadelphia area are giving visitors the power of a curator.

    So far, audience interaction experiments have been hit or miss.

    If you’ve got an idea for an art exhibit, you might be able to hang it at the Delaware Art Museum. One of its galleries in Wilmington will host your show–as long as it’s not your art. The museum doesn’t do vanity projects.

    Right now the Philadelphia Women’s Caucus for Art has a show there that’s split along gender lines. The group paired work by male artists with work by female artists, but don’t tell you which is which. You have to guess. There are ballot boxes inside the gallery.

    Museum curator Mary Holahan, who says many people cast votes, says the anonymity is good.

    “Voting is a yes or no thing,” she says. “But it isn’t a public commitment where you feel you are exposing yourself, or have the right answer.”

    Just as in politics, voting means people want to be engaged with art. Another local museum is taking it up a level.

    What were they thinking?

    The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown recently featured an exhibition called “Facing Out, Facing In.” After looking at a particular work, you are posed with a list of nine questions.

    “The artist is angry and cries out against injustice and oppression”…yes or no?

    “The artist is having an emotional crisis and sharing it makes it more real”…yes or no?

    “That allows people to accept and honor the complexity of the problem,” says Michener curator Brian Peterson. He wants visitors to ponder whether the artist is examining a personal, interior perspective or sending wider, external message.

    After a series of questions, visitors are asked to rate how much the artist is focusing inwardly versus outwardly. Visitors are told to rate the work on a scale of one to six.

    “If we just had yes and no, that’s too sledgehammer approach, where you need a scalpel to tease it out,” says Peterson.”

    The experiment allows viewers to determine what the art means. Normally, that’s the curator’s job.

    In the last several years, institutions have become more sensitive to fatigue, when visitors get tired of being told how to think about art, often in esoteric terms. That rubbery feeling in the knees is sometimes called “museum legs.” It does not allow a visitor to discover art on his or her own terms.

    Peterson says his job is to invite visitors to participate, but not pander to them.

    “We are here to set standards. I’m not going to step away from that. There is quality and excellence. Having said that–that’s not all we do,” he says. “We’re supposed to make climbing Mount Everest seem like a walk in the park. At the same time, you keep an eye that Everest still exists there. It’s big and it’s hard. You have to work.”

    The voting process narrows the experience into an agenda–to measure the degree of subjectivity in a work. What if visitors got far more freedom to comment?

    Prose … and cons

    The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts asked visitors to respond to art with no agenda at all. In an exhibition called “Same:Difference,” visitors were asked to write–in their own words–the wall text that accompanies the artwork. So how did that go?

    “Not terribly well,” admits Monica Zimmerman, assistant director of education at PAFA.

    “This asked people to go home, think about what they had done, remember the curator’s e-mail, and then e-mail from home,” she says. “Possibly too many steps.”

    Although that exhibition–which closed in January–was reasonably well-attended, the interactive element got virtually no responses. PAFA has been more successful with its occasional After Dark programs, when people come to mingle, drink wine, do some kind of activity together, and check out art while undoubtedly checking out each other. Zimmerman says the museum discovers the audience while the audience discovers the museum.

    “There are assumptions we make about people visiting the museum that turn out to be false,” she says. “I had no idea how upset people are that we don’t serve red wine. Because it stains canvases! It never occurred to us that people wouldn’t understand that.”

    There are still those who engage with art by simply looking at it. But according to Zimmerman’s visitor surveys, a high percentage of people at After Dark social events had never been to PAFA before. For some, she says, it may have been their first time in any museum.

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