The art of luring the young

June 02, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

ONE OF THE MORE intriguing findings of last month's audience participation survey by the National Endowment for the Arts was that the proportion of young people visiting art museums increased significantly over the past decade, even as symphony orchestras, opera companies and musical theater lost ground among the same group.

It's unclear whether the increase in museum attendance by young people reflects a growing attachment to the fine arts or merely a change in fashion that has made museum galleries hip places.

But it's interesting to speculate that museums, which a generation ago were thought of as stodgy old places filled with ancient objects gathering dust, might indeed be doing something that young people find attractive.

For example, I recently happened upon a fascinating article published in Curator magazine a few years back by art historian Joaneath Spicer, who suggested that the preachy tone of traditional museum exhibits, with their smugly knowledgeable labels, actually turns off more people than it inspires.

Spicer, who is curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Gallery, argued that museums can engage more viewers on a personal level by designing exhibits in the form of conversations rather than lectures. It is a strategy that museum curators increasingly seem to be adopting as a way of piquing the interest of audiences of all ages.

By way of analogy, Spicer cites the work of linguist Deborah Tannen, whose research focuses on the differences in the way men and women converse and the resulting communications gap.

The traditional, expository museum exhibit, which piles up impersonal facts and the logical development of ideas with little concern for the inclusion or involvement of the viewer, is typical of the male conversational mode, Spicer suggests.

By contrast, women "tend to emphasize dialogue versus monologue, the personal versus the impersonal, to accept, even encourage, the participation in conversation of the less informed," Spicer writes. "Women tend to put issues as questions."

These differences can profoundly affect even such basic issues as what information is considered significant.

"Does expression involve piling up facts or searching for and establishing connections?" she asks. "Should conversation involve proving points, establishing hierarchies or categorizing objects, as it is likely to do in the male model?"

As an alternative, Spicer suggests that women's conversational mode may be more appropriate in involving viewers in the intellectual and imaginative perspective the curator wishes to convey.

"Women have a tendency to seek collective agreement, to involve the listener in the decision, to help others 'buy into' the plan, to use what Tannen felicitously calls 'rapport talk' versus 'report talk,' " she writes.

"In what may be called the 'male model,' " she argues, "putting a question is weak and may imply ignorance. Women generally don't make the same judgments about how an issue is phrased. Putting an issue over which they may have rather good control as a question is natural and a way of not closing off discussion. It assumes that ownership is most satisfying when shared."

What makes Spicer's ideas especially intriguing (aside from the fact that they have been successfully exploited by at least two well-received exhibits at the Walters) is the way they mirror trends evident in the most avant-garde contemporary artists.

The art of today is different from the art of the past because it demands a new kind of imaginative involvement on the viewer's part and because its communicative strategies also invite the viewer to share ownership in the creative process. Today's art, like Spicer's museum exhibit, is more a conversation than a lecture.

One can take the analogy a step further. I suspect that this momentous change is in no small part due to the growing influence of female artists on the art scene and that their works explore themes derived from feminist theory.

Recently, for example, the New York Times reported that the unprecedented number of women and minority artists now represented by the country's most prestigious museums and galleries marks a major demographic shift in the art world.

Female artists today represent the cutting edge of the international cultural avant-garde. It should come as no surprise that their communicative styles, so different from those of the past, are revolutionizing not only the art of our time but the way it is presented as well.

If young audiences today are being drawn to museums rather than to symphony halls and opera houses, perhaps it is because they find the (feminine) conversational mode more congenial to their outlook and sensibilities than the (male) lecture mode. What they are seeking may be a sense of involvement and ownership rather than cultural faits accompli.

It can be argued, of course, that art museums are inherently more responsive to such shifts in taste than symphony orchestras and opera companies, whose repertoire and performance traditions necessarily change more slowly.

Still, it would seem those institutions most threatened by the loss of young audiences have something to learn from the museums' successes. Orchestra administrators and opera company directors concerned about how to lure young people to the box office might well take a leaf from Spicer's thoughtful and provocative essay.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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