“Words can be visual art.”
“The bike-powered art piece prompted me to consider that art can be participatory.”
“I’m inspired to paint my stairs!”
I could fill this whole post with comments like these in response to the question, “What is one new idea you are taking away with you?” from a visitor survey ICA commissioned recently. Here are a few more:
“How can I apply the language of design?”
“Be more open minded.”
“Museums = awesome.”
Of course, many of the questions in the survey were more straightforward: What did you come to see today? What is your age? Before today, were you aware that ICA is free?
Useful though responses to those questions are, we also wanted to understand what happens to people when they come to ICA. Maybe one day tiny functional MRI machines can be attached to visitors as they tour the museum to answer this question, but until then, asking about new ideas sparked by time in the galleries seemed like a place to start.
On a warm, cloudy Saturday last fall, I sat on a bench in ICA’s lobby and watched Claire Cossaboon, a masters student in museum communication at University of the Arts, administer the survey she developed for us. “So many people are excited about sharing their opinions,” she told me, which—somewhat to my surprise—turned out to be true. Maybe this is partly because of Claire herself. She’s enthusiastic without being chirpy, warm and attentive and good at listening. “So much of this is engaging in the conversation,” she explained, “so people don’t feel they’re taking a test.”
I watch her chat with a couple in their fifties. “This show has been a flashback to my life,” the woman says. (She’s referring to Jeremy Deller: Joy in People, which reflects the artist’s interests in popular music and acts of rebellion among other things, and which includes a life-sized reproduction of a Manchester, England tea room, where you can get an actual cup of tea.) These people came in today because they just happened to be walking by. That’s their answer to question #3, “What prompted your visit?” Their suggestion of one thing they might change? “There should be free tea all the time!”
It’s gratifying to see how few changes our visitors request. Aside from some complaints about signage (“Have more panels with explanations about the meaning of the work”; “The way-finding was a bit confusing”; “I wasn’t sure if I could use the back ramp”) many of the suggestions are of the “It would be nice to incorporate music more into a future exhibition” variety. Or, “Bigger, I want more!”
I was surprised to learn how young our audience is—65% between the ages of 18 and 32—and thrilled to see how many say they would return again (98%) or recommend ICA to a friend (the same 98%).
Of course, the whole issue of surveying one’s audience raises questions. While it’s vital to know who our visitors are, how they learn about our shows, and if they’re confused about whether they’re allowed in the Ramp (they are), the bigger question of the relationship between audience and museum is complicated. What is our responsibility to please audiences? If we present a show that crowds the galleries, is that by definition more of a success than an exhibition that speaks deeply to just a few people and confounds or even annoys others? Is our first responsibility to the audience or to the art?
It’s easy to say (and I do say it) that there has to be a balance. We have more than one gallery after all, and more than one slot per exhibition season. In any given year we offer variety: the monographic and the thematic, the established and the emerging, works in different media by a diverse range of artists, work that’s more accessible and work that’s harder.
Still, there’s a part of me that wants to read the results of all these surveys, think about them, get better signage about the Ramp, and then forget the whole thing—sort of like a tennis player forgets the individual element of her stroke when she’s in the zone.
We believe—we believe passionately—in connecting the best new art to audiences. But the art itself is where we begin.
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