In her recent opinion piece for the New York Times, “High Culture Goes Hands-On,” Judith H. Dobrzynski argues that cultural institutions, in an effort to participate in the “experience economy” and attract evermore visitors, are diluting their unique identities as places where:
“People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.”
Instead, Dobrzynski sees an alarming shift towards programming that is increasingly focused on delivering social activities and interactive gallery experiences to patrons. Museum sleepovers, dance parties, interactive kiosks and installations like this summer’s “Rain Room” at the MoMA PS1 are all cited as examples of this shift. It’s an interesting take, and it prompted me to consider how her thesis aligns with my own thinking about the visitor experience. My thoughts:
1. Experiential activities and installations can drive traffic.
This type of programming varies the visitor experience for existing patrons, and may help bring in new ones at the same time. The most popular events generate valuable publicity for the institution. In my opinion, and I’ve written about this before, there’s an element of “when in Rome…” which, in this case, translates to using the tools and activities that today’s visitors (consumers) are accustomed to using in order to connect with their favorite brands.
2. Museums must use programming and marketing strategies that reflect consumer trends.
To stay relevant, museums have to be current with proven marketing and outreach strategies. It’s the responsible path for any institution to take in a climate where arts funding is constantly at risk. While museums are repositories, or “treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal,” much of their relevance depends on a dialog with the public. As living organisms, which museums should certainly be, they must be allowed, encouraged even, to try to new approaches to nurturing that dialog. We, as visitors, should salute a museum’s desire to innovate and respect its ever-developing expertise. It is the institutions that don’t experiment that are more worrisome.
3. However, experiential events should not displace authoritative, educational programming.
Really what Dobrzynski is talking about here are spectacles, performances and game-like adventures meant to entertain. Or at least that’s how she frames it up. But if “experiences” are a trend in our culture, it only makes sense that contemporary art would reflect this. And museums, for the purposes of this post, are about art.
I haven’t visited any of the shows referenced. They just didn’t seem to offer the immersive and educational experience that I expect and look forward to when I visit a museum. Also, I’ve experienced rain before. But there’s always a chance, and a pretty good one, that these shows will build new audiences for art and boost museum membership rosters. I, like everyone else, have the freedom to ignore activities that don’t interest me. This seems fine, as long as there is still core programming that does appeal to me. It is up to the guardians and leaders of each institution to ensure that a balance is struck between traditional and experiential programming.
But I do think it is incumbent on museums to experiment, to try. Isn’t this how art is created? How innovation happens? Sometimes the experiment will fail, or the trend will fizzle. What worrisome trend will encroach on cultural heritage in ten years time? And sometimes the experiment will succeed, changing the dialog and refreshing the visitor experience yet again. I believe that museums can honor their histories, continue to be repositories of art, and at the same time evolve how they engage in a meaningful way with modern audiences.