While there is no easy answer to this question, it brings up a topic that indeed should be addressed. Art museums can sometimes be intimidating to the general public, and consequently there seems to be a two-sided debate about who art museums should be for. Some argue art museums should primarily serve those who are highly educated in art history who know how to look at and appreciate art, while others argue that everyone should be feel comfortable and welcomed in an art museum, including those with no art historical knowledge or appreciation skills. Yet if the word ‘everyone’ encompasses the art-historically educated as well as the general public, does the question even need to be asked? The issue seems to stem from the assumptions that a) a public with no art historical knowledge will adversely affect how the knowledgeable art appreciator experiences the museum, and b) an art historical knowledge base is necessary to experience an art museum ‘correctly.’ Allowing those with less art-historical knowledge to enjoy an art museum does not inherently mean that those with more art historical background cannot still experience art museums in the same way that they always have, nor does it mean that the general public will not get anything out of an art museum visit even if they have no formal art historical training. In fact, the art museum and the art inside it can serve as a place of refuge and insightful thought. Recognizing that there is no correct way to interact with art and that equal value should be placed on an interaction with art that is not based in traditional art historical fact is the first step to dispelling the idea that the art museum cannot be for everyone.
Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, even likened art museum elitism to sports elitists in his article “Elitist and Proud of It.” His argument (“why are sports elitists OK, but art elitists aren’t?”), however, is problematic for many reasons. Perhaps the greatest issue is that it is a clear case of false equivalence, where the two cannot possibly be compared because there are no similar defining qualities about the two. The fact of the matter is that while sports games are primarily a source of entertainment and comradery for fans and even their uninterested friends, museums are institutions committed to education and conservation of materials for posterity (this is not to say that people cannot be entertained by museums; rather that the core purpose of museums is not strictly entertainment). Museums have mission statements and are held by a standard of ethics while sports teams are for-profit franchises that market human achievement as entertainment. There is also a feeling of not being welcome in museums felt by those perceived to be less-educated, while this is not nearly as prevalent at sports games if at all. To compare the two when their fundamental purposes are utterly different therefore does nothing to further the argument that art elitists should be the only ones that art museums are for.
So, should museums be for everyone? Yes, absolutely. This is not to say that everyone will want to engage in museums, that they will appreciate museums in the same way that ‘art elitists’ do, or that they will even come. Yet while some museums will require a multitude of institutional changes for this to happen, everyone should at the very least have the opportunity to engage with art and the feeling of being welcome in an art museum.
What is it about art museums that inhibit inclusion? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.