by columnist Madeline Karp

My family and I saw Lee Daniel’s The Butler last weekend. It sparked a family conversation about change over time. The main question: Can individuals – and then, by association, institutions – change? And what does it really take to implement that change?

We all had differing opinions.

People can change, my sister posited. Given enough evidence, smart people almost always will change their opinions to support the “right” side of things.

People change superficially, my parents submitted. One can intellectually change a position, but emotions are deep-seated, and the way one really feels about things – deep down on the inside – is usually pretty unwavering.

I think I was perhaps the most radical.

You have to wait for people afraid of change to die, I said. Young people are the propellers of change, but it’s usually the older people who hold the power. So you have to wait for the older people to die (or, less morbidly, to retire) so the young people can take the reins and implement broad change.

Of course we were painting with very broad strokes, so there were exceptions to all of our rules. But this idea of change, and longing for the “good old days” is popping up not just in politics, but in museums.

I bring this up because the New York Times recently published High Culture Goes Hands On, a grouchy op-ed discussing the current trend for art museums to focus on a visitor’s experience over the gravitas of the collection.

According to author Judith H. Dobrzynski, art museums are losing sight of their purpose and willfully giving up their identities by catering to those visitors who expect an “experience” out of their visit. She disagrees with Metropolitan Museum of Art curator C. Griffith Mann’s the idea that artwork can – or should – “activate” a museum wing, pumping new life and energy into an exhibit, and perhaps attracting a new audience.

“In ages past,” Dobrzynski wrote, “art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. …People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way.” She later goes on to say that art museums are social enough already; visitors are allowed to talk in the galleries, which is more than they can do in a theater. Talking is social enough, visitors.

Her definition of an art museum is painfully static.

Why can’t one see beauty, find inspiration and experience uplift while participating in art? For those visitors who, like me, are far more bodily-kinsthetic and interpersonal in their learning intelligences, Dobrzynski’s definition of what an art museum “should” be sounds a lot more like a high school detention than an informative museum visit.

I guarantee you that walking through Martin Creed’s “Work No. 965: Half the Air in a Given Space” would uplift me. (Pun intended.) How can your spirits not be raised after walking through a room filled with purple balloons? I’d be giggling like crazy afterwards, joyous at the sight of my friends and family suffering from static electricity hair, and I would certainly talk about the experience for years to come. In fact, I intend to seek out works by Martin Creed now, because that piece looks so cool and I want to see what else he’s up to.

Experiential art: FTW.

The long and short of Dobrzynski’s argument is that by adapting to the current demand for an experience, “our cultural treasuries are multitasking too much, becoming more alike, and shedding the very characteristics that made them so special.”

I disagree.  Dobryzski’s attitude towards new art exhibitions is indicative of her resistance to institutional change. Maybe in times past, palatial galleries were indicative of what art was. But art is changing. To remain relevant, art museums must change too. Art institutions aren’t losing their identities. They are evolving to showcase the identities of new artists, share new ideas and express new commentaries on society. Isn’t that what art is really about?

What do you think? Are museums focusing too much on experiences? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

PS – Did “Half the Air in a Given Space” make anyone else think of this? Again, I ask, how is this not uplifting?