Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

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Museum Questions: Can art museums be for everyone?

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.

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Museums in the News: Museums and Inauguration Day

Yesterday, ArtNews published an article discussing the J20 Art Strike, a call for museums, galleries, theathers, studios, venues, art schools, non-profits, and artists to “shut down” on inauguration day as a way to “fight back” against the new presidency. The ArtNews article also detailed many museums’ decisions to close, remain open, or change their admissions policies for Inauguration Day and the days following and/or proceeding. This live list is constantly being updated as museums make their decisions known, and include museums like The Whitney, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, the ICA Boston, and the Guggenheim. Many museums like The Whitney have made public statements saying that “This is America. And we really need to express what we believe…It is our role not to let them own what we think of as America but to express what we believe is America.” Likewise, the ICA Boston has stated that they “believe strongly in the role of museums to advance discourse and engagement in a pluralistic society, and invite all in our community to join us in reflection and conversation on January 20 and in the weeks, months, and years to come.” Many museums are offering free or pay-what-you-wish admission on Inauguration Day as a way of welcoming all visitors into spaces of reflection and conversation, and The National Museum of Women in the Arts is even offering “Nasty Women” tours to visitors on Inauguration Day.

With the Inauguration just a week away, where museums stand in all this is a topic that is hard to ignore. What do you think about changing admission prices and choosing to remain open or close for the day on Inauguration Day? Is this a topic your museum has grappled with? If so, how was it resolved? Do you think museums should be making statements about our current political situation? Let us know in the comments below.

For the original ArtNews article, click here.

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Call for Applications: Dewey Lee Curtis Scholarships to Decorative Arts Trust Spring Symposium, April 20-23

The Decorative Arts Trust is accepting applications for Dewey Lee Curtis scholarship recipients for its upcoming Spring Symposium, Savannah: Low Country Sophistication, to be held April 20-23, 2017.

Named in memory of Dewey Lee Curtis, a decorative arts historian and founding member of The Decorative Arts Trust, these scholarships cover the full cost of registration for the symposium, lodging, and a small travel stipend. Graduate students in fields relating to the decorative arts are welcome to apply no later than March 1, 2017. Applications can be downloaded from the Trust’s website. They can be mailed to The Decorative Arts Trust, 20 South Olive Street, Suite 304, Media, PA 19063, or e-mailed in PDF format Please contact Trust membership coordinator Christian Roden with any questions or at 610-627-4970.

Founded in 1977, the Decorative Arts Trust is a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and fostering of the appreciation for and study of the decorative arts through programming, collaborations and partnerships with museums and preservation organizations, and the underwriting of internships, scholarships, and research grants for graduate students and young professionals.

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