-How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
-I don't know, I left.
I am terrible at remembering jokes but this one always sticks with me and I think I know why...it tells the story of high art and audiences. I work at a museum—not a big institution but a kunsthalle with a good following. We offer marvelous contemporary art exhibitions, exciting public programs, learning opportunities, and a wonderfully unique shop. These are all elements to sustain this "following" yet; we still grapple with the mysteries of how people see and do things. We ask ourselves how audiences will spend their time, and whether they consider museums relevant in their 21st century lives.
Even if museums are telling the story of humanity, today nothing is sacred. Institutions we would tend to assume as anchored are actually in danger of drifting away. The term "too big to fail" should apply to cultural institutions. The word "big" in this case would describe a museum's role in keeping life real. For many, museums simply exude scholarship, enlightenment, and authority—period— and is as solid as school. However these days both museums and schools are on less solid footing as the importance of the arts, culture, and education continues its perplexing downslide on the list of priorities for our country.
There was a time when you just went to the museum. Today, the museum must come to you. Excellent curatorial content alone is not enough. As a result public programs are taking steps to reinforce the relevancy of museums by providing hands-on learning experiences that relate the content inside the museum to the content of the outside world. Through these activities visitors are reminded of the essential nature of art; the public is invigorated to not only go to the museum but also find the time to stay, learn, and enjoy being there.
Current museum-world buzzwords include "audience engagement," "participation," "interactivity," and the word "outreach" comes with a typed job description. "Participation" is the new black. Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum (Museum 2.0; 2010), presents a myriad of successful models where museums are shifting from content-driven models to event-driven models in order to engage audiences with what is on view; the museum becomes a "platform provider." She is adept at pointing out how shifts for more engagement can come from very small yet impactful design adjustments. A favorite example is one using the visitor badge at the end of a visit to evaluate the audience's take-away experience. Once a guest's visit is complete, instead of tossing the badge into a waste receptacle it is placed, ballot box-style, into specially-designed containers that request audience feedback about the exhibition.
In a more mainstream example, we could look at how the feedback mechanism works for Apple computer and Facebook as both success stories are completely based on participation. Both have become household names because the whole household is involved. In Jay Elliot's The Steve Jobs Way (Vanguard Press; 2011), one of the many revelations is how Jobs revolutionized the way we create and communicate by looking at the "individual" as his main motivator in his development of products as opposed to "the bottom line." As a regular Facebook user, I realize its power comes from putting the content in the hands of its users to gather "likes" and comments so that each post becomes a platform for interplay and repartee.
In the last few years in Los Angeles we have seen contemporary art institutions embrace more partnership and collaboration with people and organizations that, while not necessarily art-related, are connected to global concerns such as the environment, poverty, food, transportation, and social justice. One cannot help but see the legacy of Joseph Beuys and his gospel that "everyone is an artist," and his beliefs in the social, cultural, political function and potential of art, developed in the 60s, and referred to as "social sculpture." We also have Allan Kaprow to thank for creating "happenings" and promoting "art as life."
Here are a few examples of unique, awareness-raising programs that have happened at art museums in the city: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) recently completed a year-long project titled EAT LACMA with the artist collective Fallen Fruit. It was a dynamic look at the first form of civilization, food, and "how it connects us" through creation, consumption, and art. Several art organizations (Hammer Museum, LACMA, LA><ART, and Santa Monica Museum of Art) are galvanizing support for the Watts House Project (WHP), an "ongoing, collaborative art project in the form of a neighborhood redevelopment" in Watts inspired by the Watts Towers' artist Simon Rodia. The Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA) has carved a niche by intertwining bicycling and cultural engagement with its wildly popular Tour da Arts rides. The Hammer Museum also supports bike culture through its Bike Night. Attendance for these events is not only vigorous but they are also unique in their makeup. New audiences are brought in and a new relevancy for the museum results. The museum becomes identified as a nexus for creativity, intellectual exchange, and a connection between art and what is going on today in the world at-large.
There's a two-way path going through museums now. They are evolving in fascinating and innovative ways through this real-life exchange. There is no better time like now to get out and go to the museum.