The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Art, science, and history museums are almost synonymous with their physical, institutional spaces and the conventions associated with them. Until recently, you could have said the same thing about classical music.
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has been worried lately about the declines in classical music attendance revealed by various national studies. One of the bright spots he sees — in fact, one potential solution to the broader problem, if the experiment works — is Le Poisson Rouge, the downtown venue in which classical music is played in a jazz-club setting, with patrons drinking and eating and performers talking casually about their work between pieces, just like jazz, folk, and rock performers do.
This isn’t “lite” classical or pop-idol crossover. Serious, marquee-name musicians play at the club, and the programming runs from Bach to cutting-edge contemporary fare. No dumbing down here; just a different set of conventions around the music — conventions that appear to be more relevant, accessible, and appealing to some people than the stylized formality of most concert halls.
Poisson Rouge’s founders are part of a small but expanding circle of performers (like Matt Haimovitz), ensembles (like Eighth Blackbird) and others around the field who are exploring what can happen when you separate the “production” of classical music from the system of nonprofit institutions and foundations that have supported, housed, and controlled that production for the last hundred years or so.
And this, in turn, is something I think of as part of a broader trend toward the de-institutionalization of culture, despite the fact that a few institutions are trying it, too.
There’s plenty to say about what this trend may mean for classical music. But since I work with both performing arts organizations and museums, and since cross-pollination is one of the points of this blog, the question I want to raise today is whether an analogous trend could exist in the museum world, or for that matter in the science and natural history realm. What would de-institutionalized museum content look like?
When I broach this topic with art museum professionals, they often point to the gallery scene as evidence that there already is a jazz-club version of the art museum: a “farm system” of smaller, commercially-structured but experimentally-minded venues that nurture fledgling talent…and even offer drinks along with the art at opening receptions.
But art galleries are inescapably about buying and selling. When you walk in you’re a customer, and if you have no intention of buying art then you’re not playing your role well. And galleries are famously snobby. Ask a few of your friends who work in unrelated fields whether they feel more comfortable in an art museum or an art gallery; the museum will win hands down.
The point about nightclub settings like Poisson Rouge and the even more vernacular bars and bowling alleys that cellist Haimovitz often plays in is the sense of ownership that their users feel about the venue. It’s a watering hole: a shared resource, a pleasure of the commons. You know it doesn’t belong to you in any literal sense, but you feel it exists to serve you and your fellow drinkers and conversationalists. If you ask the bartender to change the television channel to a different game, she probably will. It’s no accident that “pub” is a shortened form of “public house.”
A fair number of science and natural history museums, and even the odd art museum or two, have actually gone to bars and pubs to run programs for a younger, more social audience. The “science on tap” programs usually involve a scientist or educator from the museum giving a talk in the bar’s back room, often with a few artifacts on hand to give participants a close encounter with the real thing. The art museum programs are similar, except that the artwork is a reproduction.
But the question that Poisson Rouge poses for museums isn’t whether ancillary programming like outreach events can be conducted off site. It’s whether the museum’s central function, exhibition, can go on in a space that feels like a bar, or like some other informal, everyday, non-authoritarian environment.
Which brings us to house museums, another category that museum professionals bring up when the conversation turns to alternative exhibition environments. But the sense of ownership and domestic ease we feel at the Gardner, the Frick, or the Huntington is purely projective, a fantasy of identification with the absent collector-owners (something I’ve written about in the context of the Barnes [pdf]). It’s not that we can be ourselves in such a place, as we can at our neighborhood bar; it’s that we can play at being someone else.
Museum people also bring up concerns about security and conservation, understandably enough. Unlike classical music, museums have artworks and artifacts to worry about, and informal exhibition venues may intensify longstanding museum debates about how much access is too much. But the conventions of mainstream museum spaces, buildings, and installations aren’t fully explained by the need to protect collections. They reflect assumptions, priorities, and promises that seem increasingly…well, institutional in the era of YouTube, independent coffeehouses, and postmodernism.
All of which leaves the question unanswered. The truth is that, after a lifetime of associating exhibitions with the institutional spaces, buildings, and conventions known as museums, it’s hard to imagine what a de-institutionalized exhibition might look like. With music, we have long experience not only with the formal, institutional spaces where classical music is usually played but also with the clubs, coffeehouses, and stadiums where other kinds of music are performed. So we can apply one of those paradigms to a different type of music fairly easily, at least mentally.
But we don’t have a corresponding strand of “indie” or commercial exhibitions in our heads in the same way. Some hints of how a de-institutionalized art exhibition might work came from the intentionally short-lived Denver Community Museum, which ran community-generated exhibitions in a pop-up location for one intriguing year. But for all its independence of spirit and structure, the resulting exhibitions (which I saw only in photographs like this one) sometimes looked pretty much like any installation in a community-minded, contemporary art center.
Other possibilities will emerge from the bar-with-a-museum-in-it that Nina Simon is creating in Santa Cruz, a venture that comes closest to answering the Poisson Rouge question for museums. As I understand it, though, Nina intends the space in part as a test-bed for exhibits and programs that will eventually find their way into the traditional museums she works with — a function very different from that of Poisson Rouge, whose concerts are meant as ends in themselves and offer a parallel, ongoing alternative for listeners.
Meanwhile, the question is worth pondering, because we live in a time when people are less connected to the major, centralized institutions that used to dominate culture and other arenas, institutions that promised quality with a capital Q and built grand edifices to symbolize and back up that promise. (Remember when banks looked like museums?) It’s not that consumers no longer trust those traditional institutions; it’s that the promises they trust them to keep aren’t quite as relevant and exciting as they used to be. Arts institutions and museums of all kinds may need to study Poisson Rouge’s playbook, if only to learn where the real competition will be coming from.
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