What if you gave everyone who came into a museum a bell, and they wore it, and it rang as they wandered through the galleries?
What if you offered short, private concerts in the museum’s coat closet, for just two people at a time?
What if a museum offered plant vacations, where you could send your philodendron for a week of pampering: special water, poetry read aloud, intimate videos of pollination screened at midnight?
What if a museum hosted a lecture series, and each month you could get in free if you met a different random criterion: if you were a Virgo, or won a thumb wrestling match with a body builder, or could guess what a teenager had in her pocket?
These were some of the ideas tossed out by Mark Allen (an artist, educator, and founder of Machine Project in L.A.) and Adam Lerner (Director and Chief Animator of the Department of Structures and Fictions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver) at a Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative roundtable for the curatorial community last month—a truly fabulous presentation by two people who seem to breathe out good ideas as though they were air. Anyone who is reading this blog probably knows that this is a difficult time for museums, as it is for book publishers, orchestras, theaters, dance companies. Attendance is largely down, as is funding from both government and private sources. People’s leisure time is increasingly spent online, whether on Facebook or playing videogames or watching their favorite YouTube channel. Blah blah blah—that old story.
Yet, in direct opposition to these trends, real live people all over Los Angeles and Denver are getting themselves into cars and onto buses and using their feet to travel to the museums and galleries where Mark and Adam are, and once they get there they pay money to see—and participate in—art, art-making, and all kinds of fabulously wacky art programming. Adam’s tag-team lecture series Mixed Taste (two half-hour lectures on unrelated subjects, such as earth art and goat cheese, or Gertrude Stein and prairie dogs, with a combined Q&A at the end in which connections beautifully and serendipitously emerge) draw over 300 people each and sell out a month in advance. And while Mark claims that he would rather make something five people look at for a thousand minutes rather than something a thousand people look at for five minutes, he too is attracting a serious following for his programming.
Just sit in a room with these guys and you partly get it—the intensely creative, imaginative, topsy-turvy energy they send out is addictive. But this is not just a charisma thing. There are lessons here that can be learned by any institution interested in learning them.
For example: People are increasingly interested in experience-based programs rather than object-based programs.
Also: The way you frame what you’re doing matters. What you call things matters. Using humor draws people in. Being a little zany can help. As Adam says, “We create excitement through the trappings, but the trappings are not just trappings—they are part of the content.”
I know some of you are thinking this is just gimmicky, or that it detracts from the powerful experience art can offer, or that these jokers are merely pandering to the lowest common denominator. It seems to me, however, that what they are doing is exactly the opposite of that—that they are in fact trying to engage people who care more about substance and creativity than about the traditional formal accoutrements of the old-fashioned museum experience. That they are in fact trying to bring what you might call art to the entire experience of visiting a museum, not just to the authorized works that hang on the walls or stand on pedestals. That they are reaching for new forms of collaboration in which, in Mark’s words, “the voice of the institution and the voice of the artist blur together.”
Video excerpts from their talk can be viewed here.
Here at ICA we pride ourselves not only on our terrific exhibitions, but on inventive and thoughtful programming that helps connect the visitor to the art by way of experiences that are fun, memorable, enlightening, communal. I’ll never forget last year’s ecumenical celebration of spring with dogs in hats and deviled eggs and poetry, organized by artist Sarah McEneaney in the spirit of Maira Kalman; or Curator Jenelle Porter’s spectacular lecture on her show, Dance with Camera (complete with tons of video clips); or Tim Rollins joking with members of K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) in a way that enhanced rather than detracted from the life-and-death seriousness of their artistic and educational project.
This fall I’m looking forward to Art School Double Feature with curator Kate Kraczon and artist Matthew Ritchie (Wednesday, September 22); ICA’s first-ever Free For All, featuring the 2010 version of Ingrid Schaffner’s annual inquiry “What Is Contemporary?”, screen-printing by Print Liberation, and music by Reading Rainbow (Wednesday, September 29); and Jenelle Porter’s Travelogue series that will bring curators from all over the globe to talk about what’s going on in their backyards (the first lecture, on Wednesday, October 20, takes us to Vilnius, Lithuania—or rather, brings Vilnius to us).