An art museum provides a very specific sort of context for its contents. As a visitor walks through the collections, there is a kind of underlying thesis at work: these things all fit, in one way or another, into a broad category.
It isn’t as simple as “If it’s in a museum, it must be art”, but then again… it almost is that simple. I think that idea explains why we all sometimes respond so strongly when we encounter an element of an exhibition that doesn’t immediately fit our own perception of what the parameters for contents of the “Things that Go in an Art Museum” category of objects are (or should be).
Of course, when you encounter something in a museum that challenges or redefines your categorical divisions between types of things (art…not art) you are in a good place. It is exciting to be prompted to think about things in a new way. A tricky thing for the curators, educators, and designers who work to plan and present an exhibition is that the point where a challenge to existing perceptions about an object is located varies tremendously from person to person. What is challenging to one person may seem quaint and reassuring to another.
The current Star Studio exhibition is a good example of this dynamic. The show is called More than Four Legs: A Closer Look at Chairs. It features 20th century chairs from the collection of Carla Hartman, as well as a chair from the collection of Oldfields. The show is designed to encourage visitors to look closely at the chairs in the exhibition, and to prompt discussion of the choices made by designers, as well as to trigger personal interpretation of aspects of chairs that we might not consider as frequently: is this chair masculine? Feminine? Is it severe, or decorative? Is it funny? How was it made? What type of chair would I design? (By the way, because this is a Star Studio show, you have the opportunity to answer the last question in the drop-in studio by creating your own chair model from paper).
For many visitors, other questions need to be addressed before they are ready to engage the individual chairs…Is this a store? Are these chairs art? Were they made by a machine? Are these rare or especially valuable chairs? In other words, how do these objects fit into my understanding of the “categories” dialogue described above? For many people, an art museum is understood to be a place that collects and shows rare and valuable things made by artists (and there are likely to be strongly held notions of who an artist is). Finding the beauty (both conceptually and aesthetically) in a mass-produced and still readily available object can be a leap if your parameters for identifying and relating to art have not yet been stretched beyond the framework of rare, handmade, and essentially non-utilitarian objects and images.
The exciting thing is that once a visitor makes the leap to looking at these chairs as the culmination of the talent and creativity of the artists who created them, in the same way that most visitors understand a painting to be, the door is opened to looking at other objects the same way—to being attuned to the degree that art, creativity, and design are present outside of the museum, in their daily life.