Why On Earth Am I Looking At This?

Most Museums Have Trouble Connecting To the Public. Maybe It’s Time For Some New Ideas.

I recall during my time with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago watching the lines of people forming on Michigan Avenue, rain or shine, to visit one of the greatest art collections on the planet. I was always uplifted by the crowds, but I also worried for these earnest visitors, knowing most of them were underprepared for their pending encounter with the visual arts. Those concerns would be substantiated when I saw those same ticket holders soldiering through the galleries and paying minimal attention to the exhibits prepared expressly for their viewing. While a museum’s front door and ever-present banners are welcoming, navigating through the many works on display can be daunting. A museum collection is usually a vast accumulation of individual contributions and cross-cultural collisions, and making sense of it is a challenge for even the most seasoned visitor.

Experiencing film, dance, and music is different. They set the terms of engagement in a familiar format, one that addresses a passive and fixed spectator. But the visual arts require the viewer to make the first move, one that can be intimidating for the uninitiated. My former SAIC colleague, James Elkins, points to studies showing that the average viewer spends two seconds looking at a painting and 10 seconds reading the accompanying wall text.

There are exceptions, of course. We cannot deny the excitement of eager audiences in the company of original masterpieces. Nor can we overlook the intense relationships between individual viewers and the works they have adopted as integral parts of their lives, touch-points that draw them back to a gallery again and again. But in spite of the massive outlay of financial capital, public investment, philanthropy, infrastructure, and institution building that goes into a museum, something still seems poorly calibrated. The desired spark between a viewer and a painting is rarely ignited by a quick glance.

James Cuno, the president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, wrote in an essay on the purpose of art museums, “I like to think that by providing and preserving examples of beauty, museums foster a greater sense of caring in the world and urge their visitors to undergo a radical decentering before a work of art.” That is a noble and undeniably correct objective, but it is one with a modest batting average. Despite the exhaustive efforts of curatorial teams to increase the likelihood of a “hit,” many audience members seem intuitively aware of what is missing: more access to the story explaining how and why a work has arrived at this place for their enjoyment.

In 2000, the former director of the Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Krens, demonstrating a full awareness of this deficiency, laid out a checklist of the required components of the contemporary museum experience. These were, he told The New York Times, “great collections, great architecture, a great special exhibition, a great second exhibition, two shopping opportunities, two eating opportunities, a high tech interface via the Internet, and economies of scale via a global network.” Many commentators have quoted this programmatic mash-up with disdain, but no one really doubts the truth of Krens’s assessment. What disturbs many is that Krens gives equal value to the non-art-related functions of the museum, separating them from the high culture items with nothing more than a comma. Indeed, that comma was easily jumped when Krens staged “The Art of the Motorcycle” in 1998, a rare intrusion of consumer products into the carefully defended art world. But Krens had tapped into the interests of thousands of ordinary art-goers, those shuffling through the galleries on “museum legs”, only to become reanimated by the opportunities to engage in eating, spending, and talking on the phone—activities compatible with a sidewalk stroll.

Did Krens really mean to reinvent the relationship between the art world and daily experience, and, by extension, between the museum and the surrounding city? If so, his perspective was in part a function of the idiosyncratic Frank Lloyd Wright building, a famously cylindrical structure within Manhattan’s boxy grid, which Krens occupied during his tenure as director. However alien the Guggenheim might look, Wright was sending a critical message about the socializing function of the city. Wright brilliantly coiled and extended the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue directly into the building, leaving no doubt that the presentation of one of the finest collections of 20th century art would be enlisted as a backdrop for a highly choreographed pedestrian parade. The art is proximate but not insistent; the scene before and behind the spectator is equally compelling. The viewer ceases attending exclusively to the paintings and begins to inhabit and explore the space of the museum as one would the city itself, with all of its distractions and unanticipated discoveries. And, if you begin at the top of the exhibition space—as recommended—every step down the ramp propels you back to the point of origin: the city. Very few museums connect city to museum in such a fashion—but why not?

There is scientific data, too, upon which to build an argument for ensuring that we do better by our museum guests. Kelly LeRoux, an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, using data from the General Social Survey conducted since 1972 by the National Data Program for the Sciences, arrived at the following conclusion: “Even after controlling for age, race, and education, we found that participation in the arts, especially as audience, predicted civic engagement, tolerance, and altruism.”

To be sure, correlation isn’t causation, but her statement is still extraordinary, a compelling encouragement for closer ties between our cultural institutions and their eager audiences. A museum should be more than a civic amenity. It should generate proximity in every way—proximity to our better selves, to our city, and to our greater societal achievements. “[T]he space of the art museum is an inherently public or civic space,” wrote Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, in a recent essay. “Art museums in this context need to be understood as quintessentially urban institutions that play a critical role in defining the intellectual and physical fabric of cities and towns.” We would do well to ask more of what the city can contribute to the conceptualization of the museum, and vice versa.

Wellington Reiter, FAIA, is the Senior Vice President of the Arizona State University Foundation and former dean and college president. His works are in the collections of several major museums across the U.S.
Primary Editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
* Photo courtesy of Mr. Wright.


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