Several semesters ago, a discussion with my arts entrepreneurship students about barriers to market entry turned into a discussion about barriers to audiences – physical barriers. I commented that the fixed seating in a new performing arts facility with a large youth audience created a barrier to their engagement as audience members. A music education student said something to the effect of “but the kids need to be taught to sit down and be quiet when they go to a performance.” I responded (as I often do) with a question: “Why?” “To listen to the music,” Then another question from me – “When a six-year-old hears music what do they want to do?” “Dance” came the answer from another student. For many children, their first experience in a theatre or concert hall is being told to sit still and be quiet. They learn that their natural behavior is bad, joyful response is bad, and view their arts experience as just another authoritarian space – like school. They are barred from entering the audience by their own playful natures. But in that moment, the music student’s assumptions about what it meant to be a good audience member began to shift.
I thought about this class discussion as I read Judith Dobrzynski’s opinion piece in the NY Times and follow up post on her Real Clear Arts blog. In it, she claims that the trend in museums toward interactivity, toward more experiential exhibits, is causing museums to multi-task too much. Perhaps she’s right about that part from a management standpoint. But she goes on to say that what she labels “visitor engagement” “changes the very nature of museums, and the expectations of visitors. It changes who will go to museums and for what” (emphasis mine). That, it seems to me, is a good thing. Arts organizations have for years been decrying their declining and graying membership and subscription bases. If visitors change and visitors change their expectations, perhaps the sound of membership rosters circling the drain will not be so loud. Dennis Kois responded on Slate with a “both/and” argument: museums that include the traditional contemplative experience Dobrzynski favors AND experiences like Big Bambu. [I almost always prefer the wisdom of the “and” over the tyranny of the “or.”]
For some people who go to the museum to “play” with Creed’s balloons in Cleveland or stand in line for hours to control the rain at MoMA, it is their first time at a museum. Which brings me back to my classroom discussion. Carl Jung would say that art connects to our inner child. If you want a first-timer to voluntarily return to the concert hall or museum year after year, for Pete’s sake, let the kid dance!
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I think that expanding the kinds of music people feel comfortable dancing to is the way to go. No reason that we need a crushing disco beat in order to let the music move our bodies. Nothing like a little Debussy to inspire some brand new movement!
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Letting the Kid Dance is good for certain kind of music, not others. Are we putting more resource (and thus value) on the music that invite dancing than those that do not? Can the museums find ways to create experiences for the classics equal to the balloons and the rain? Is it the job of the museums to do that?
I don’t think Judith Dobrzynski is saying not to let the children dance, or run through the rain or eat pizza in the museum or any number of other “engagement” vagaries. What she is rightly suggesting is that stretching already tight budgets and staff might take them away from the other equally important institutional work they are dedicated toward.
And of course museum director Dennis Kois is jumping on the politically endorsed “engagement” lingo bandwagon, that federal and state ideology is were his funding hopes rest.
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