Reflection on Evaluation and Research: Winter 2015

Reflections on The Democratization of Art: A Contextual Approach

Conducted and edited by James Kisiel, with Susan Lafferty and Ed Fosmire

For this installment of Reflections on Evaluation and Research, we take a closer look at the idea of inclusion and equity in art museums—what Kate Booth refers to as the democratization of art in her recently published article, The Democratization of Art: A Contextual Approach. The article was recently published in Visitor Studies (Volume 17, Issue 2).

In this reflection, Ed Fosmire, Deputy Director for Communications at the Laguna Art Museum in Orange County, CA, and Sue Lafferty, Museum Consultant and former Director of Education at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens near Pasadena, CA, were tapped to provide their thoughts on the article and its relevance to their experiences as museum professionals.

Jim: Let’s start with you, Sue. What was your initial reaction to the paper?

Sue: This paper tackles an extremely complex and challenging set of questions regarding the efforts within the art museum community to make their collections meaningful to a broad audience. The author identifies shortcomings of these efforts and touches upon some of the factors involved in attracting and then engaging so-called “under-represented” or “non-traditional” audiences. The paper concludes by recommending a “contextual approach,” which seems to be very similar to the constructivist theory of learning, and states that more consistent empirical research must be conducted in order to more accurately determine the success—or failure—of democratization efforts.

The paper leaves me with a number of questions, including the question of the desired outcomes from a museum experience. Is it enough to simply have a positive experience, or must there be more, like repeat visits or improved academic performance in the case of student groups?

Jim: These are those eternal questions. What should the outcome be? And as pointed out in this article, how does democratization (or perhaps equity) fit into that? It seems that these questions are very institution-specific, and ideally, should reach back to institutional mission/vision. But I think it’s hard to get those messages to trickle down to all corners of the museum.

Ed: I think more could be done to indicate to the general population that museums are for everybody without having to put on spectacles or performances or rely on technology or social interaction. However, what that looks like I don’t know. But art museums are a certain type of thing—just like a symphony concert or a modern dance recital is a certain type of thing. Some things should and are being done around the edges at most museums to democratize them, but will complete democratization turn art museums into something else? Something that removes them from their traditional roles (and maybe it’s time to reconsider roles) of stewardship and education?

Jim: Thanks, Ed! Perhaps you could say a little more about your initial reaction to the piece.

Ed: [The article] raises good issues, as we in the museum “business” often assume that accessibility is what everybody wants—funders and the public. I think that’s true mostly of funders (especially government, foundation and corporate and some enlightened individuals). But what [is seen] with many supporters is an interest in keeping the museum a rather exclusive “club,” especially people who have been involved with the museum for a long time.

Jim: So another factor is the tension between new and old. A fear that change will alienate those who already DO value what the museum has to offer.

Ed: Art museums put a lot of effort into justifying their existence, especially when people and foundations have choices to support things like hospitals, social services, and protecting wildlife or the environment. We’ve pondered free days and being completely free always. But we fear that this could actually devalue the museum experience, not to mention what that could do to a major revenue stream and source of involvement—memberships.

Jim: I am curious as to how you respond to a funding agency or benefactor or other influential party when they ask you to find a measure of social worth or social inclusivity. Is this about demographics, or do you think there might be other ways?

Ed: This comes up mostly with foundations that are trying to effect significant change within society while simultaneously supporting the arts. It almost seems as though these funders are trying to justify arts funding by connecting it to social impact. Which, in most cases, is a laudable effort. In many cases, however, this means that there are very few foundations that will fund an art institution’s mission and core activities if those don’t include a social inclusivity element. What ends up happening is what I call the “tyranny of the funder”; in other words, institutions must develop programming or add components, which may be outside of what they want to do and what their strengths are, in order to compete for the funding that all institutions need and that foundations have at their disposal. Some institutions bend themselves like pretzels in order to compete for this funding.

Foundations have their own priorities and board members and desires to effect social change so they create sometimes-rigid requirements that allow them to measure all the wonderful things that THEY do indirectly through their funding of institutions. It’s almost always about demographics, but it doesn’t have to be. Funders could consider how an institution provides access to anybody in the community, for example, or how an institution promotes local—or regional, national, international—tourism and how that could trickle down to improve a community. I think some foundations and government agencies are beginning to reorient their thinking, but I also believe that we are a long ways away from a significant number of enlightened foundations that want to support organizations in meeting their missions and for the good work that they currently do.

Jim: So funding agencies—foundations, etc.—may indeed promote this idea of democratization of art—for better or worse—in terms of THEIR goals. And the museum becomes the means through which that might happen.

Sue: Again, I'm coming from a programmatic/educational perspective, but I would agree with Ed, that too often it seems that funders don't really understand the central mission of a given museum. We were generally able to address funders' requirements for democratizing the art collection through our public and educational programs, of which there were many.

[For example,] we wanted to see increased understanding in some aspect of the art. We had to in order to get our school groups there and, quite often, to get funding! So we linked the programs to the VAPA [Visual and Performing Arts] and Common Core Standards. It is worth mentioning, however, that the teachers weren't always interested in links to the standards. They just like the idea of bringing their kids in to expose them to something beautiful and outside their realm of experience.

Jim: Yes, of course. Teachers, like any visitor, have specific reasons or motivations for their visit. I’m often struck by the assumption that there are certain motivations that visitors (or teachers) are supposed to have. I think museum folk and funders sometimes forget that these institutions, by their very nature, support such diversity of perspectives. That is simply the nature of these free-choice experiences. I guess the question is whether a lack of diversity suggests that there is a flaw in the museum—poor outreach, lack of attention to community, etc.—or a larger barrier of tradition and cultural norms, both within and beyond the museum doors.

With that, I’d like to say thanks to Ed and Sue for this thoughtful discussion around the idea of democratization in art museums and some of the challenges (or opportunities) that such efforts may bring.