The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
You wouldn’t have thought that yet another symposium on inclusion and diversity in the arts would be anything new. We’re all (still) frustrated at how little changes. But at the MCA Chicago last night, I began to wonder about something I’d never questioned before: the role of participatory experiences in building ethnic and cultural diversity.
A friend of mine, the veteran museum consultant and author Elaine Gurian, came to town to speak at the MCA’s annual public dialogue about museums and diversity. I went largely to see her, and I was happy I did, for several reasons.
The first was a calmly revolutionary speech by the MCA’s still-relatively-new president, Madeleine Grynsztejn. I was tempted to call it a manifesto for a new kind of multivocal, responsive contemporary art museum, but it was less dogmatic than that. She put out there the question the museum is wrestling with at every level, staff and board: What’s the best architecture of participation for a civically-minded art museum in today’s world? (I’m not quoting verbatim here; my notes are sketchy.)
It sounds like a question about means, but it turns out to be about ends. “No one wants an uncurated museum,” Grynsztejn declared; “discernment” is crucial, because from it flows the museum’s credibility for all kinds of audiences, not just connoisseurs and collectors.
So far, so twentieth century. But she went on to frame — and embrace — the big challenge to that traditional line of thinking: the “civic turn.” Museums like the MCA must be places of “exchange and debate,” with artists and artworks acting as catalysts. Such a museum doesn’t want an “audience,” it wants “engaged participants.”
For Grynsztejn and her crew, that doesn’t mean subordinating the curatorial eye to the wisdom of the crowd. But it does mean sharing responsibility for making meaning and relevance. Such a museum must be both participatory and authoritative. It must have its own voice but also welcome in other voices, not just on the gins or occasionally but centrally. ...
It must be a “community of participatory interpretation” (a phrase Grynsztejn used in announcing a year-long Chicago project by the artist Mark Bradford, who was also on hand to speak). The curators, she implied, are members of that community, but so are people who bring with them “criticism and difference.”
It’s an additive vision, a “both/and” solution — exactly the kind of pluralistic, post-orthodoxy thinking that Elaine, who spoke next, has been prodding the museum field to adopt for years. Grynsztejn’s talk struck me as an exciting alternative to the essays gathered six years ago by the now-director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Cuno, in Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust. I’m thinking particularly of the piece by the late Jim Wood (Cuno’s predecessor at the Art Institute and my first museum client), “The Authorities of the American Art Museum.”
The essay has always bothered me, and Grynsztejn helped me realize why. For Wood, museum authority was an end in itself: valuable to the broader society, sure, but still self-referring and self-created. In Grynsztejn’s MCA, it’s a means to an end, and the museum can’t create it alone. These days, authority comes from opening up. It's only real when it's shared. Somehow Grynsztejn made us see that not as a paradox but as a natural fact of life.
Other reasons I was happy to be there? Elaine’s talk, Bradford’s talk (that's his New Orleans ark), and the discussion that followed, which kicked off with a meet-your-neighbor exercise that had the auditorium buzzing. But I’ll save those for another post so I can get back to the question that, for me, hung over the whole evening: What’s the relationship between offering participatory programs and drawing more diverse audiences?
All evening, the connection was more or less assumed, and maybe that’s right. The people who have traditionally visited art museums have been those that shared its values, perspectives, language, etc. By opening itself up to other values, perspectives, and languages the museum should become more welcoming to people who are a different from those traditional visitors.
Makes sense. And socially participatory experiences in and around art — or as art, which is how many of Bradford’s projects work — give people a sense of agency and ownership that evens the power imbalance that made some people and communities uncomfortable in museums or kept them away altogether.
I don’t want to be a curmudgeon, but I sat there wondering if all that is enough. One can imagine, just as a test of the logic here, a richly participatory experience at an art museum that draws exactly the usual (educated, white) suspects because that’s who shares the assumptions underlying the experience and feels comfortable and purposeful in such an environment.
Or a traditionally presentational, one-way installation of work by, say, a hot African American artist that draws a diverse and large crowd (something we’ve all seen at art museums on occasion).
I was trying to pick out the relationship between the fact that Bradford is African American and the fact that many people in the MCA’s auditorium were African American museum and arts professionals, artists, philanthropists, etc. If the guest speaker had been a correspondingly visionary Latino or Asian artist, the crowd would presumably have been different.
So to some extent it’s about what we’ve always known it’s about: seeing yourself represented in the heart of the museum: at the microphone, in the galleries, on the stage.
Much of the talk last night was about how to make sure people of all kinds feel comfortable entering and being in the museum. But beyond the challenge of comfort lies the challenge of relevance. I’m comfortable in a bowling alley but it’s really not my scene. Lowering the barriers and making people feel invited can get them in, but if we expect them to make the museum part of their repertoire, we’re going to have to do some more thinking about both what we present and how. (The wall texts I saw in the MCA’s temporary exhibition last night are not likely to feel relevant to most Chicagoans, even educated ones.)
Participatory experiences can be part of what creates relevance — can be a big, transformative, even unforgettable part. I’m a fan, and I’m excited about the MCA’s new vision and Bradford’s project here. I just think we can’t afford to see participation as a panacea. While we’re making room for other people’s voices, we still need to think about the museum’s voice. While we’re thinking in new ways about who are audiences are, we also need to think about who we, as institutions and individuals, are. We can’t afford to delegate the hard work of self-discovery and sharing to our audience-participants, or even to the artists. Relevance starts at home.
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