marcus westbury

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Cathedrals vs. Town Squares

September 30th, 2010 by marcus

The Powerhouse museum’s Sydney Design iPhone App

ARE OUR museums and art galleries our cathedrals, or our town squares? That was the question posed in The Wall Street Journal last week. American arts writer Judith Dobrzynski described what she refers to as “a big rupture” in the world of American art museums. She describes a tectonic shift in the way museums see themselves, their role and their audiences and one that is causing considerable division.

According to Dobrzynski: “Not so long ago, directors were proud to say museums were ‘cathedrals of culture’, collecting, displaying and preserving the best art. Today, that’s regarded by some as elitism, and it’s not enough. Reacting to demographic and social trends, they are bending the art-museum concept to reach new audiences and remain relevant.” In contrast, some museum directors have come to see museums as what she describes as “modern-day ‘town squares’, social places where members of the community may gather, drawn by art, perhaps, for conversation or music or whatever”. She cites the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis, which has taken to lending radios, blankets, playing cards and even iPads to people. It’s even inviting the audience to help curate a show from its collection.

Many Australian museums and galleries are at the forefront of the town-square approach. Here in Melbourne, ACMI has been hosting a “weird, wonderful and whimsical program” of “Burton club” — live music and performance events in conjunction with the Tim Burton exhibition. In Sydney, the Powerhouse Museum — long an Australian and world leader in reimagining what a museum can be — has been hosting everything from “Writer Overnighter” events where authors, children and parents stay overnight in museum and sleep among the collection to markets for Sydney’s best young designers. In Brisbane, GoMA has been organising “Up Late” for its Valentino, Retrospective: Past/Present/Future — complete with bar and music performances by leading local, national and international DJs.

It’s a fascinating evolution and not without much debate. There are both great potential rewards and dangers to elite institutions that go down this path. The promise of new audiences is immense, but so is the risk of undermining the authority and legitimacy built up by decades — or centuries — of conservative programming.

Despite the risks, the case for the more inclusive approach is overwhelming. It doesn’t come from within the museums but from the changing world outside. The cultural needs and expectations and choices of the community are multiplying and diversifying and museums and galleries are simply responding to it. The idea of uncontested authority is evaporating, as is that sense of reverence that was central to the museum as cathedral.

Culture has become more participatory and many have come to expect more from what museums do. DIY curation has become one of the most popular hobbies in the world. The nature of social media interaction is based in part on millions of contesting curators who are constantly selecting, critiquing and competing for attention. The real world is creating patterns and dynamics of enthusiasm and interest that museums and galleries need to respond to. They can be connected to but not contained by what goes on in a gallery collection — let alone the small fraction that is on its walls.

Our cultures are splintering, diversifying and evolving and telling us we need more town squares. Perhaps the real question is whether museums and galleries are the right places to become them. Should we really expect the cathedral to become the town square? Is it within their institutional DNA to become meccas of participatory projects? Or is it best that we build our town squares elsewhere?

Museums and galleries, like all cultural institutions, have to resolve how to balance the history, values and intent of many who love and value them against the rapidly evolving cultural landscape. New forms of practice, new demands on infrastructure and new audiences create new battles for legitimacy and attention. Museums unwilling to evolve risk being left behind and having to defend their legitimacy.

Yet museums and galleries have one huge advantage over the major performing arts companies that are also trying to grapple with the same challenges. They can be plural. They can try many things at once. They have the flexibility to innovate through experimentation. Indeed they can be both conservative and experimental, large and small, avant-garde and conservative simultaneously. Regardless of which approach proves successful, that may prove be the key to continued relevance in changing times.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 john walker Sep 30, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    What is the difference between a museum with no collection and a hall for hire?

    Museums that have gone down the public entertainment path have a problem , they are competing with things like ‘wet and wild world’ but mostly they do not have the same budgets .
    About the most successful of these sort of ventures is the Questacom , which is a fantastic science based theme park , but it costs to get in – these things are not cheap to run.
    The aircraft museum at temora is an another successful example but again it is not cheap and it has a lot of very enthusiastic backers.
    I am skeptical about “contemporary art’ ever generating much in the way of enthusiastic paying audiences.