A few days ago, while sitting with a small group of museum directors talking about how to engage the next generation of museum visitors, I could not help but remember a series of conversations I have had over the past few years with my son that began with the phrase "because I am the parent and you are the child." At the beginning of a child's life, it is the parent's responsibility to provide an environment that is based on protection and safety; this trumps all other concerns. Power in the beginning of our relationship favors me as the parent -- and in the end I know that the balance will be recalibrated as my son increasingly takes on authority as I age.
What does this have to do with art museums? Hear me out. I think that traditionally art museums have taken on an authoritative role, believing that speaking from their position of intellectual strength and expertise were the best way to address the visitor. Museums also tended to believe that their visitors (or some significant portion of them, anyway) were much like my son: needing to be guided firmly, to be acculturated, and to be kept safe. In the last few years, technology has clearly changed the public's expectations -- and the terms on which communication can take place. I believe the arts are more relevant than ever, and that there is an opportunity for arts institutions to recalibrate how they engage their communities. We need to listen, observe, share, have conversations with the public and be willing to change how we operate as we hear new perspectives.
Every day art museums enable people of every demographic and socioeconomic background to experience remarkable works of human creativity. The best end result is a transformative experience for the visitor. But museums may sometimes leave visitors confused about why the art on view is important (the "my five year old could do that" syndrome) or feeling as though the price of admission was not, in fact, worth the value of the experience. So what's next?
Today is Art Museum Day in North America -- a day dedicated to showing the importance of art museums in society -- organized annually in concert with ICOM's International Museum Day. For 2012, we asked our members to offer free or discounted admission to their museum. We are also trying something new: encouraging all member museums to participate in an AAMD-wide initiative to hear directly from visitors, asking them to answer the question: "I visit my art museum because..." Museums will share the responses with the public. Museums visitors have also answered this question on Twitter all week long with the hashtag #ArtMuseumDay. These strategies are a small step in recalibrating the balance of power by actively encouraging visitors to share their points of view, and agreeing to share that feedback with the world.
On behalf of AAMD, I am interested to see the answers to the question "I visit my art museum because..." coming from visitors to our 200 plus member institutions in the United States, Canada and Mexico. I think it will shed valuable light on the reasons why people do, in fact, support their local art museums -- and, at the same time, help our members be more responsive to the needs of their community.
I'm heartened that our member museums have embraced the call to ask hear directly from their audiences and I'm hopeful that a diverse range of visitors will respond by sharing their valuable perspectives.
Please be sure to check back on http://www.facebook.com/artmuseumdirectors to see what visitors has to say.
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