Although it was once coolly dubbed the modern cathedral, the reconceived museum of today—having shed its elitist wrappings—often bears little resemblance to a place of worship. Due, in part, to a radical and calculated makeover intended to turn museums into popular and, dare it be said, fun destinations, some claim that they now boast higher attendance numbers than sporting events. Administrators, eager to build upon this appeal, are adding a host of innovative programs to expand both the spectrum and satisfaction of their audience. “It’s important for museums not to be overbearing and not to be like going to church,” says Arthur Danto, a philosopher who writes about art and museums. “They should give you lots of reasons to go.”
Traditionally, curators have served as the guiding forces behind exhibitions, but, with a focus on art alone, the audience hasn’t always fit into the picture. Yet after federal funding was cut and instructional grants became available, the role of the education staff at many museums evolved. Besides simply composing text panels as they had in the past, they might oversee after-school and summer programs for youths at risk, head Web development, and curate entire shows.
Though the process of moving from a supplemental to a primary role within a museum is a long one, educators anticipate that their involvement in the creation of content will only increase. By producing interactive videos of current shows, training teen docents, or generating curricula for classrooms nationwide to access online, they are developing ways to encourage greater public interaction with museum art. Just as important, these educators are also looking to become influential players in the redefinition of institutions that communicate, rather than dictate, meaning.
“Curators have always been suspicious that museum educators will make something complex into something simple,” says Zoya Kocur, an education consultant currently working with the Whitney, and, until recently, the Bronx Museum of the Arts. “Educators want to create access, and curators aren’t necessarily concerned about that. They want art to speak for itself.”
In Kocur’s estimation, the primary concern of many museums is still collecting and displaying objects. Though they try to present themselves as open and classless, she says, the curator remains “king” while the educator is relegated to second-class status. “Curators are often unaware of the gulf between themselves and the communities,” she says. “They have one event or exhibition aimed at a particular group and then move on, which can create distrust.”
The advent of postmodern theory helped to narrow that gap. Precipitating a shift in art history, it recognized that the significance of artwork was powerfully influenced by its context. Flexible interpretation became an essential part of the viewing process. And educators, as the traditional interpreters of museum content for the public, suddenly found their services more in demand.
“Educators were overidentified with the museum audience, and, like the audience, felt disempowered,” says Susan Cahan, the first curator of education at the New Museum. By making the head of the education department a curator, the museum was theoretically putting outreach on equal footing with the art itself. “In a radical way we tried to break down the distinction between educators’ being interested in people and curators in art history. The difference in the outcome,” explains Cahan, “lies in treating knowledge not as something conveyed through the exhibition, but as something that is produced through the experience of the viewer.”
While the New Museum and other alternative spaces are trying their hands at such dynamic experimentation, they are doing so without a blueprint. To continue receiving targeted funding, these institutions are also saddled with reaching neighborhoods that do not have a tradition of museum-going. “Museums in the lives of people of color have a precarious position,” says Eathon Hall, director of education at the Bronx Museum. “Literature and the performing arts have appeal, but not the visual arts. Our biggest challenge is to find out what it means to be community-based and have a more ‘popular’ appeal.”
To help engage audiences, the Bronx Museum has turned to instruction. “We use education as a marketing tool,” says Hall. “We program poetry readings, family workshops, and musical performances in association with exhibitions to demystify the museum. For many people, art is dead white artists in the Met and not contemporary work reflecting life as we’re living it.”
“Opening up museums further does not work by going the blockbuster route,” adds Kocur. “People can’t engage with an object up close and personal when they’re packed in and see it for only three seconds. That’s more like Star Wars, the obligatory pilgrimage. It’s a superficial approach because people aren’t sure why they’re even there.”
While some criticize the blend of so-called high culture with popular entertainment as “edutainment,” museum administrators contend that the idea was broached by artists themselves. “We’re being directed by artists who are using marketing tactics to make their work more accessible,” says Alanna Heiss, executive director of P.S.1. Although formerly known only to insiders, the space now holds outdoor summer film screenings and DJ parties on Saturday nights to help bolster its allure. “I feel very positive about the future of making contemporary art more accessible,” she says. “We now look to purveyors of popular culture, restaurants, movie theaters, and theme parks to see what we can learn from them. But if we wanted to become them, that would be a problem.”
Many couple such enthusiasm with a belief that the quality of programming will not slip. “We’ve been guilty of creating ivory towers,” says Hall. “We don’t need to dumb things down, but to allow them to be open for interpretation and feedback.” Others in the art world concur. “It’s all right for people to have fun in museums. It’s fabulous if they are enjoying themselves and also learning something or being engaged by art,” says Kocur.
Instruction not only serves to help visitors understand shows but can also draw them in off the street. And, if it’s done well, it should always communicate the aim of the museum. “In the last couple of years, our mission has been clear: to be really open to everyone, in any way we can, but without changing the way that we’ve picked art in the last 25 years,” says Heiss. “We will show only the best and most interesting art available. That part of our programming has remained the same.”