LA Youth recently put out an article written by 15-year-old Henry Hwang titled, “Why museums suck.” Hwang visited six museums to get a handle on that “whole art thing” and see if maybe he overlooked the value of museums. Now aside from Hwang’s criticism of “old people,” he does bring up some good points about the whole “experience” of an arts organization – the “experience” being what calls us in and brings us back.
While going through his article and the responses to him, I started to create a list of questions about what we’re doing as arts organizations, what we can do better, and how we can balance what our base wants with attracting new audiences from time to time. Let’s start a conversation.
Hwang’s perception of museums is already uninviting and alienating. He writes,
When you go to museums, you don’t get to laugh, unless it’s at the stupid paintings and how much they cost. The artist will put some blotches of paint on a canvas, give it some stupid name, and the painting will end up costing around $1 million. I don’t get it.
So, museums are not a place he can see himself laughing and having a good time. It’s a fairly common conception for people whose only interactions with museums are on classroom field trips being repeatedly told to stay quiet, don’t touch, and keep in line. There’s not a great way to correct this. It is important to respect the space, but if your only interaction with a museum or arts organization is being told, in essence, “Stop having a good time with your friends,” it’s difficult to unlearn the dread of attending.
What’s the initial perception of other types of organizations that we have to overcome?
And what about the art, you know the reason to be there? Hwang continues,
I saw this one Picasso painting that looked like Sharpie marks and White-Out on cardboard-like paper called “Heart of a Young Girl.” It was so lame. This tour guide came out and she started making fun of it, but then she actually explained how Picasso started a new type of art. He started painting an image from all different perspectives at once, like he’d paint the mouth from below, the eyes from the side, and mix it all up. I really liked that tour guide, plus, she was hot. I tried to take notes, but I was too busy looking at her. Heh. After she explained the painting, I understood it a little more, but I still thought it was wack.
So, let’s ignore the comments about the attractiveness of the guide and instead focus on the core. Someone engaged him in a discussion about the piece and he wasn’t as bored by it. So that’s something. But maybe Picasso is just not for him.
How are we engaging patrons in conversations about what they are seeing, and how can we do that better?
He later talks about the Skirball Cultural Center where he had a much different, one would say, positive experience.
When I came in, I was like dude, there are a lot of old people. But these old people weren’t bumping into each other, they were standing at every corner for like three minutes. That’s how good the exhibits were. The topic of the museum was Jewish history, and they had pictures and various multimedia that were very pleasing to the eyes. This museum was very advanced and every teen should go to see its touching exhibits. Some parts of the museum were really moving like the Holocaust part. I almost cried. (SHHHHHH!!!!!)
Here he’s combating that learned reaction to a museum as a place where you stand quietly and not touch. He was actually compelled by the exhibits partly because of an emotional response and partly because he was able to actively engage the work through touch – something that most museums and arts organizations cannot do.
The response to Hwang has been mixed. Some trying to be proactive, listing out the various things that museums do for teenagers now. It’s also brought the amazing work of Nina Simon into focus whose Museum 2.0 is taking an innovative look at how to engage audiences.
Other responses have been more condemning of his attitude, like these tweets.
— Michael Turner (@michaelmuseums) October 19, 2012
Agreed. But can we try to do something a little different sometimes as opposed to discounting these comments altogether? I’m not suggesting we reshift every mission to be the champion of the surly teenager, but rather than discount them altogether, how about we actually say what we can be improved upon?
— Rowan Henderson (@Henderson_RC) October 19, 2012
Again, agreed. But disgruntled teenagers who don’t like art and don’t feel welcome in a museum now aren’t magically turning into adults who love art in the future. A process is involved. Can we find some places to bend?
@ibheritage But museums shouldn’t dumb down just to capture bored teens with short attention spans though. Everyone else loses then.
— Edward James (@edwardajames) October 20, 2012
I feel like this idea comes out a lot in the artistic community whenever you bring up the idea that someone doesn’t “get it.” Not everyone is going to “get it” all the time. That’s a fact. We are all different and varied. Hwang visited six museums to try to convince himself that they were worth going to, and he didn’t win that game. Only one out of the six museums gave him something that he actually connected with everything else had an air around it that was distancing either because of the work itself or even just the atmosphere. So, again I say maybe there is something to his criticism and we shouldn’t discount it out of hand.
I also take issue with the phrase “dumbing it down.” It’s not asking to be dumbed down. It’s asking for a way in.
Not everyone is going to be the right audience or even a good audience for what you do, just like I was not a good audience for someone who was looking to catch an undecided voter for Romney. It would just end with both of us frustrated. Likewise, I’m not a good audience member for a lot of different shows. The show I loved most this year, which was one of my favorite South Florida theatre experiences, was the one that also had the most walkouts at intermission. I was the right audience for that show, and sadly the theatre’s subscriber base was not.
As theatre practitioners, we need to be smarter about audience development and we need to learn when to let go. How many folks have complained that people don’t get your work are stupid or culturally ignorant or something else? I get the need to vent, but spending too much time complaining about people who don’t like your art is similar to the Romney supporter complaining that I wouldn’t take a pamphlet. He was never going to reach me anyway.
Hallelujah. But but but, that doesn’t mean that you can’t reach out every now and then and do something differently. One of Arthur’s favorite pieces was amazing to him but not with the subscriber base of a particular theatre. Does that mean that that theatre should never go outside the box again? I hope not.
Later in the piece Arthur muses, “so why do we get mad at folks in their 20s for not going to shows geared for people in their 70s?” Should we then instead say that while most of our offerings are geared toward an older base, we can still have shows, works, pieces in our repertoire that might appeal to someone outside of that group? And perhaps programs outside of, “Here’s a free ticket to a show you probably won’t have any interest in?”
I agree with the sentiment of Arthur – all art is not for everyone. It’s subjective and shifting. Everyone likes different things and that’s fine, great in fact, because it means we’re not boring. We’re unpredictable. But I don’t think that means we should stop trying to reach new audiences.
Like everything in life, there’s a balance. I think having areas/moments in all of our work where we can include engagement outside of the usual “stand here and stare at it pointedly until it resonates with you” is an important idea to champion. But maybe that’s just me.
So, I’ll put this to you, oh smart internet Seattle arts people: How can art institutions as a whole including theatres, museums, galleries, dance companies, etc., engage new audiences and compel them to return or even stay without compromising their mission? Is there room in every organization to have at least one out-of-the-norm experience that is trying to appeal to a different group than the usual base of support? Or, is it better to always cater to your base?
Thoughts? Outrage? Puppies? Leave a comment. Let’s brainstorm ideas.