Contemporary Art Museum

Paula Calvin - Western Director, Frye Museum, Seattle, WA, Facilitator
Patrick Blythe - Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, CA
Judith Boelts - Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NB
Merle Culley, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
Rouxle Dreyer - High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Renana Greenberg - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA
Gwen Guillet -RISD Museum, Providence, R.I
Ellen Harden - Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, CA
Susan Lane, Frye Museum, Seattle, WA
Madelyn Mayberry - Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IO
Mary Therrien - Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

I. Recurring issues that are common to contemporary art museums or museums with contemporary art galleries.

  • Public being turned off to contemporary art
  • Docents being turned off by contemporary art
  • Viewer resistance
  • The difficulty of introducing new art
  • Fear of new art
  • The segregation of contemporary art
  • We then aggregated these into two main issue areas: the public domain and docent issues.

II. Public Resistance/Learning Curve

  • Docent’s role – don’t defend, create an atmosphere of looking, put the art in context
  • Address viewer questions as a desire for more information
  • Acknowledge the reasonableness of viewer’s attitudes
  • Grant their right to question
  • Contemporary art is meant to challenge the viewer
  • Ask “How does the art make you feel?”
  • Meet the artist halfway 
  • Create an atmosphere of respect for each other’s views
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Ask the viewer what music they think of when they see the work of art

III. Making Docents Comfortable with the Art

  • Ask the artists to write the didactic
  • Walk through the exhibit with the artist, if possible
  • Acknowledge art challenges you
  • Accept that some docents will never feel comfortable with the art
  • Make connections for docents to other objects in the museums, by docent
  • Create a study group
  • Use one piece as a gateway
  • Use props on tours
  • Offer ideas of how to structure the tours
  • Have Gallery gatherings
  • Mention recycling in art – old oils painted over, found art
  • One museum has a class on “The Art of Not Making,” on the issue of “anyone can paint that,” which reflects disdain for contemporary art

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