Museums have long suffered from the perception that they are stodgy old institutions, out of touch with the rest of the world and at their core, elitist. It's a reputation both deserved and undeserved. After all, most museums offer an abundance of programming for children and families and welcome people of all kinds. Why then, the lingering feeling that museums are closed off to all but the privileged? I'd wager to say that it's largely related to the way museums talk to their public. With the best intentions, museums craft crisp, thoughtful communications that often alienate the very visitors they hope to garner. Imagine my pleasure then, to see my own local museum -- LACMA -- trying a different approach, and really succeeding.
In September, LACMA launched a blog, "Unframed", its first significant entry into the new media field. If you haven't seen it yet, maybe you've read about it. "Unframed" has been widely praised by influential arts bloggers and newshounds for its smart and illuminating content and I have to agree, the entries are great. They really take readers behind the scenes of the museum, demystifying it and humanizing it. My favorite entry was about the homespun element of a recent photography installation. I was surprised to learn how intimately involved the curator was in every element in the presentation of her show. I'd never read about an exhibition in these terms and it was wonderful! Just what this museum, what all museums, could use. A new way to talk about the art and the exhibitions that makes museums the deeply important institutions that we all agree they are.
"Unframed" beautifully set the stage for LACMA's just-launched celebration of Urban Light, its 202-streetlamp-strong sculpture by LA artist Chris Burden on Wilshire Boulevard.
The museum has invited the public to contribute their own photos of the object to an online exhibition curated by the head of the photography department, Charlotte Cotton. And LACMA is delivering information about Urban Light, from interesting tidbits about the artists, to little-known details about the beloved lamps, in new ways. Urban Light has its own Facebook and MySpace pages and even a Twitter account devoted to it telling its story! Then there's the soon-to-launch wiki page... it goes on and on.
Perhaps it's not surprising that LACMA, of all museums, has come so far. Its director, Michael Govan has transformed the institution he once called a "sleeping giant." The evolution started where it should, with the art. Govan famously ushered artist John Baldessari in to the museum to create the exhibition design for Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images. In the installation, Baldessari put cloud-printed carpet on the ground and wallpapered the ceiling with a freeway theme, literally turning the world upside down. It was a far cry from the white box approach of so many museums. Just this past summer, LACMA re-opened its Latin American galleries, which were reenvisioned by artist Jorge Pardo. Pardo created undulating casework for the ancient objects, painted the rooms in vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow, and green, and hung spectacular feathery lamps from the ceilings. It's a sight to behold and something I've truly never seen anything like before.
It seems to me like a sign of Govan's success that he can now turn an eye toward the way the museum talks about itself. I asked him about his latest success, a new communications style at LACMA. I was curious to learn what motivated him to try something so out of the ordinary for the museum. His answer was spot on, as always - he reminded me that nothing is out of the ordinary for LACMA anymore.
All photos © 2008 Museum Associates/LACMA