Sunday, July 2, 2023

Museums, They Are A Changin'

If you have been reading my Missives, you know I write about subjects that relate to the arts and give me and hopefully my readers something to think about. Just deciding on these subjects takes up a substantial amount of the time of producing them.

I was reading an article about fewer people going to museums but oops,.. that was 2022, still pandemic times when we did not want to be with a lot of other people. Slowly people are coming back to those institutions. The museum administrations, however, are always looking for ways to keep those visitors coming and making the younger generations feel welcome while, at the same time, not losing their older constituency.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention so as museum goers stopped coming during the pandemic, the directors and curators came to them through Zoom and other communication channels. It turned out that it worked so well that it is doubtful it will disappear in the near future. The outreach brought in a wider audience and, as a result, more funds. In many cases there was even interaction allowing the participants to engage in the discussion.


I just finished a book called, “Seeing Like an Artist” by the artist Lincoln Perry. One chapter is devoted to encouraging the reader to see works of art in the original and not rely on what they see in a book or on a screen. His examples, however, are all works of art in situ, the best-known being Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. In a museum, however, seeing row after row of paintings or showcases with the same kind of objects can seem static particularly in this age of increasingly short attention span. Special exhibitions are nothing new, some are done for serious art aficionados and scholars, such as the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show, “Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter” but many are done to attract crowds. Bringing shows from abroad and bringing masterpieces stimulates curiosity and excitement. But even a good title can work, like Tom Hoving’s first blockbuster “In the Presence of Kings: Royal Treasures from the Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art” in 1967. It was curated by the Museum’s head of the Arms and Armor Department, Helmut Nickel, and was relatively inexpensive since the art was all in house.


Today, Fashion is the sensation of the moment, most recently the cause of lines at the Met, was for “Karl Lagerfeld: a Line of Beauty” celebrating the couturier who died in 2019. At a large museum, like the Met, there is plenty else to keep one occupied, but it is the shows that are getting ‘them’ in the door (”Butts in the bleachers” was the term my wife learned when organizing exhibitions). Museums say they need the cash and high ticket prices ($30 general admission for the Met) do not seem to lessen the crowds, but make museums seem more elitist than ever.

The Met Gala

Installation is all important as was proven by the Frick Collection, occupying the brutalist Breuer building for the duration of the renovations to its mansion home. The thoughtful installations, breaking up the minimalist space to create conversation between works or by the same or related artists (4 Rembrandts together and 4 Whistlers) and allow special moments of focus without distractions of d├ęcor or labelling.
From a company called The Marketing Arm comes a 2018 article called “The Experiential Museum: It’s not Just an Instagram Funhouse” with this quote, “Interactive, multi-sensory experiential museums let visitors explore new subjects of interest, engage all of their senses, and actually have a hand in determining their takeaways from museum narratives.” 

The new byword, “experiential”, implies participating not just viewing. It is geared towards involving the younger generation. According to a research paper by Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm “the emphasis is on in-person, personal, museum-curated experience and will evolve to accommodate digital engagement (on- and off-site), self-directed entry experience and visitor curation. As museums seek to expand their reach, a greater focus on youth-oriented programming will also emerge.” Why was this published by an architectural design firm? … Because museum administrations wishing to build for the future have to take into account a different kind of museum experience.


We must try not to simply lament the loss of what was our haven of solitude in the past and grasp the opportunities that new kinds of involvement in the art experience can offer us. It can be enjoyable, even if in a different manner.