This Week’s Post Comes from Kelsey Petersen, a First Year MA student in the Art History and Museum Studies program.
Should art museums be for everyone? Yes. But can they be for everyone? Not yet. Although many museums promote themselves as institutions open to all, not everyone feels welcome upon stepping through their doors. For someone who has never been to a museum, it
can be intimidating to access a space with historical objects that he or she may know nothing about, especially considering how so many art museums themselves are far from accessible. With rising admission fees, limited daytime hours, and an ever-pervasive air of elitism, museums still have progress to make to become more relevant, inclusive, and responsive for all, no matter one’s education, race, gender, and socioeconomic status.
Art historian and curator James Cuno has argued, the problem lies in the fact that “while anyone who can enter an art museum is free to be part of the elite experience it offers, the issue is not about access but rather about institutionalization, about who decides what art will comprise the elite experience.” Certainly, as anyone can infer by examining the makeup of trustee boards and staff, museums continue to perpetuate white (and presumably heterosexual and male) culture. Could this cultural homogeneity from the top account for the reason that most audiences are predominantly white? Since their beginning, museums have been selective in their audiences, carefully choosing a select few to engage with the art and objects within. Originally, only the bourgeois could access these private collections. The Imperial Collection in Vienna, for example, did not allow individuals in without clean shoes, immediately discriminating against the working class population and those who could not afford a carriage to arrive at the museum.
Museums today, of course, do not have such flagrant policies; however, their operating features continue to prevent approachable access. By only having their galleries open from 10AM-5PM, Monday thru Saturday, they are barring entry to the average individual with a full-time job. With entrance fees that sometimes run as high as $25 for a single ticket, not including special exhibition prices, museums are inherently closing themselves off to a large portion of the population. While many institutions have taken the steps to avoid this exclusion by opening late on certain days or having monthly free days – they still continue to be an intimidating and inaccessible space. To combat these ongoing issues, I argue that more museums should follow the model of the Anacostia Museum in D.C., which sought to “encompass the life of the people of the neighborhood – people who are vitally concerned about who they are, where they came from, what they have accomplished, their values, and their most pressing needs.” As John Kinard, the founding director of the Anacostia has stated, museums “must have relevance to present-day problems that affect the quality of life here and now.” If more museums adhered to this idea, I think they would experience an increase in attendance from individuals who don’t normally visit. The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire recently adopted this model to appeal to the city’s high number of veterans by putting on two exhibitions about the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, and ensuring its veteran voices were included. The Museum has also recently started an art program for individuals with family members abusing opioids, in response to Manchester’s high death toll from the opioid crisis. Ultimately, by creating spaces and programs that directly appeal to and impact a museum’s community and surrounding neighborhoods, museums can cultivate and intrigue more visitors from a broader scope.