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Lunchtime blogging: visitors as artists

February 3, 2009

Nina K. Simon tweeted “why don’t art museums treat the visitors as artists the way science museums treat visitors as scientists?” It’s a good question, one my schoolmate Perian Sully muses about insightfully at Musematic. More level heads than I can wrestle with the practical details, and better critics than I can discuss whether it would even be a good idea. I’m on my lunch break, so I just want to daydream about what it would be like.

Imagine walking into an art museum and, instead of getting a warning against cameras and ballpoint pens, you are handed a sketchbook and some pencils. You walk past an enormous illustrated chart of artists and their schools and influences to a wall of sketches, each slightly different than the last, culminating in a finished painting. A label below each sketch explains in general terms what the artist was trying to achieve at each step of the process. In larger text and simpler words, a museum educator’s voice invites you to follow along in your own sketchbook. In the next room, a class of blind children run their hands over a cast bronze replica before trying their hands at interpreting the planes and curves they feel in a modeling clay at a nearby table. Today is also local poet day at they museum, and local artists of a more literary medium are presenting poems inspired by particular pieces of visual art next to their muses.

What would this accomplish? I suspect in a generation there would be a lot more artists. But does the museum really want more artists?

— On the Road

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. ninaksimon permalink
    February 4, 2009 10:02 am

    I love the ideas of the sketchbooks instead of warnings and threats. We say that art inspires people, but how do museums allow that inspiration to be manifest?

    Do science museums want more scientists? Yes, because they believe that science positively impacts the world. If art museum folks don’t feel that way about art, then they are in the wrong business.

    • Kerrick permalink*
      February 4, 2009 10:53 am

      Hi, Nina; thanks for dropping by. I agree that art museum people should, naturally, want more (and more effective) artists in the world, or they’re in the wrong business. And I’m interested in thinking about what effect a world of artists would have on the art museum. If art museums have to operate in a world that treats everyone as an artist, they will need to focus more on regional and local art and less on “quality” or “significant” works from far away. But these “significant” objects are often what museum users pay their money, time, and attention to see. If they want to see what their neighbor is doing they can go over to her living room gallery show. And yet art museums doing more of the living room gallery shows will, I think, help to build stronger local art communities and be a greater public service than showing the work of dead or far away living people whose objects have become famous. As Perian said, it does require a cultural shift… but I think it’s a cultural shift that museums can and should facilitate, if not lead.

      I think everyone is an artist, but not everyone’s equally effective as an artist. The greatest service I can see this approach having is to help make every artist—every person—more effective in whatever their chosen media are. I think that means first opening a discussion among a wide variety of people about what makes someone an effective artist. Are museum directors, trustees, and donors ready to hear from museum users that some of the museum’s featured artists are not very effective by the museum users’ standards? What stresses could that put on the relationships with the museum constituents?

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