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A new breed of curators at US museums has the job of playing with visitors’ expectations

By Jori Finkel. Museums, Issue 255, March 2014
Published online: 31 March 2014

A “micro-concert” in the Hammer Museum’s cloakroom, organised by Machine Project

The Henry Art Gallery in Seattle is seeking “a director of education and public engagement”. In January, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York hired a “director of public programmes and public engagement”. Both are new positions.

Museums across the US are hiring staff under the “public engagement” rubric, often as part of their education departments. Today, the New Museum in New York, the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles all have curators or directors of “engagement”. Five years ago, none of them did.

At first glance, this species or sub-species of museum professional looks like the art-world equivalent of the “chief innovation officers” cropping up in Fortune 500 companies: a sexy new title for a hybrid position that can be hard to pin down. Is this an old job dressed up in cutting-edge clothes or a sign of a real shift in the way ­museums operate?

More dialogue than monologue

“It’s probably true to some degree that it’s a buzzword, a trendy label, right now,” says Katie McGowan, an artist who became the curator of education and public engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit last summer. “But at the core, the fact that these positions are cropping up indicates that museums are looking for more programming where visitors use their brains. It’s about interactivity.”

The idea that museum visitors are passive viewers of art, McGowan suggests, is giving way to a notion of museum-goers as active participants. Visitors’ growing sophistication as media consumers as well as artists’ desire to make participatory work both play a role in driving the change.

Allison Agsten, the curator of public engagement at the Hammer Museum, says: “We are all more interested in dialogue than monologue.” She says that museums are working hard to show their “more human side”, often through social media.

“But then you have visitors going to that institution and it’s the same chilly, maybe flat, experience,” Agsten says. “That’s where public engagement comes in.” She has seen variations of her job title crop up all over the place since her hiring in 2009 “raised the eyebrows of my colleagues”.

The title means slightly different things at different museums. Agsten focuses on realising artists’ projects—from the year-long collaboration with the artists’ collective Machine Project that resulted in “micro-concerts in a cloakroom” (see below) among other events to the recent “scent concert” staged at the museum by the Institute for Art and Olfaction.

Distinct from public programmes, such as book readings and film screenings, her responsibilities at the Hammer resemble that of “public practice” curators at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In Detroit, meanwhile, McGowan oversees education initiatives, public programmes and artists’ projects, such as the hair-braiding salon installed in the museum by the Zimbabwean artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti in 2012.

At the Whitney, the chair of education, Kathryn Potts, who just hired Megan Heuer to oversee “public programmes and public engagement”, uses the term to refer to a mix of live events “beyond your usual panels, talks and symposiums… that might challenge or surprise the visitor”.

Potts says that artists are largely driving this shift. “It’s not just that the museum wants to bring artists and ­audiences together, but that so many artists today want to connect with audiences directly,” she says. One example is Fred Lonidier, an artist in this year’s Whitney Biennial (until-25 May), who will be conducting a “teach-in” on labour issues in April.

Meanwhile in Seattle, Sylvia Wolf, the director of the Henry Art Gallery, did not emphasise artists’ projects in her job posting as much as a goal of “broaden[ing] the community’s appreciation of and participation in the ­museum’s collections and exhibitions”. She says: “Education suggests we have the knowledge and want to pass it on to others. Engagement suggests we are learning together. We are a learning organisation that is working with our constituents.”

“Another thing worth noting is that it actually puts the public in the title of one of our senior management positions,” Wolf says. “I think that’s ­significant symbolically.”

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