Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Time to step down from the arts high ground

Having just begun an Art Curatorship course, I'm encountering more and more art history students these days. There's nothing wrong with them as a bunch — really, they’re all my kind of lovely, creative people — but there’s a trend I’m noticing that’s getting me a little annoyed. It’s a preponderance of intellectual snobbery.

Maybe it’s because I’m from a history background and can see in from a semi-outsider’s perspective, but I’ve a feeling that art history as a scholarly discipline has removed these students from the reality of the world in which, presumably, they hope to forge careers. They are, for example, largely up in arms about the ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that have become so much a part of contemporary museum practice. Blockbusters undermine the ‘integrity’ of the institution, they say. ‘Entertainment’ detracts from ‘education.’

But I think it’s time for many of them (us) to realise that most of the world doesn’t inhabit the rarefied social and moral space of the arts educated, or even the tertiary educated. Museums and galleries cannot exist independently of an audience, and that audience cannot be solely drawn from the bustling halls of the Old Arts Building. What is the purpose of a museum without its public? If its purpose is education (for none will admit that its role might be to simply entertain — scoffs of derision at the mere sound of the word), then it should reach and educate an audience who do not already have access to the forums and stores of knowledge provided by the University community. It should not preach to the converted.

Not that institutions of art and culture should alienate their ‘core’ followers by ‘dumbing down’ their collections and display development — no audience, no matter what their interest or background, wants to feel condescended to. But accessibility is key to not only the practical success (in terms of attendance and revenue) but also the very point of the museum. If this means the odd blockbuster — exhausting as they no doubt are to curators and staff — then so be it.

Isn’t it to be celebrated that we can muster audiences for history and art through the ‘populist’ attractions of, say, the Egyptians and the Impressionists? Isn’t the alternative that most of these visitors never walk through the galleries at all? Doesn’t this serve a valuable purpose in awakening passions that can flourish, onwards from Egypt to Mesopotamia and from there to esoteric Renaissance social history? Or from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and on to burgeoning contemporary arts?

These kinds of experiences are all the more important for children, whose engagement in art museums is a battle more often lost than won. I know that my own interest in history and my current desire to work in museums was sparked by early encounters with the thronging Egyptian halls at the British Museum and the entertainment-driven thrill of seeing colourful, popular, big-name artists like Warhol, Matisse and Picasso at MoMA. Now I love the NGV’s winter masterpieces, and I love that the people of Melbourne get excited about them.

Audience aside, nor can museums exist without funds. In a time of cuts to government funding, museums must raise revenue by attracting broader and larger audiences, private donors, and corporate sponsors. That’s just the way it is. Razor-haired students of contemporary art can moan about our institutions’ slavishness to Money, but without Money, the spaces in which to present that art (and the reasons for that art’s very existence) cease.

Museums and galleries exist in the real world. They suffer real-world challenges and constraints, and they serve real-world communities. Nobody should feel intimidated by the arts sector; nobody should feel that they lack the requisite knowledge, jargon, or swagger.

So, curatorship students, time to step down off your high ground of erudition and theory. Time to step out into the real world.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

No comments:

Post a Comment