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The Willing Visitor & the I’d Rather Nots

This post was written by IMA Public Affairs intern Margaret Sutherlin. She is a senior at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN, and plans to graduate as a double major in English Writing and Political Science. Post graduation she hopes to find a job before attending graduate school.

Working at the IMA for the past few weeks has only seemed to heighten this nagging observation I noticed years ago. There are two types of people when it comes to any, but especially, an art museum visit: those willing visitors and those who would simply rather not. Each side is a simple preference, like cats over dogs, or vanilla over chocolate, Cubs or Cardinals. The preference exists in our families and friends, each side representing itself at one time or another. But this ‘preference’ to go or not go visit an art museum, seems to be a bit of an annoying, elusive thing to solve or make sense of. I have rarely heard of a middle ground on the subject, nor experienced it, and it always seems to be people either do or do not want to go to an art museum. In a recent 4th of July adventure to St. Louis I experienced the two-sided argument once again.

Fireworks in St. Louis. Photo: Childgrove Country Dancers Web site

As it was in Indianapolis, St. Louis’s July 4th was plagued with rain. I was visiting a close friend. As a good hostess, and to silence my references to the fact neither of us had been to the Saint Louis Art Museum, my friend allowed me to drag her to the museum to enjoy the soggy morning indoors. Needless to say my friend, a nursing major, is one person that definitely falls into the category of individuals who simply tolerates a trip to the art museum. But I wouldn’t classify a high risk cardio floor as my cup of tea either.

Anyway, as my friend zipped through the Impressionist galleries, I couldn’t help but notice a little girl, maybe five or six, whining about being wet and bored. (I can’t blame her; it was, after all, the 4th of July.) In her damp pink sweatshirt she miserably meandered around, until she spotted the three foot Degas bronze sculpture of a ballerina. She was instantly dragging her mother to the piece and slowly circling it, completely blank faced with awe and deeply fascinated with the work. At the back of the statue, she grinned and as she played with her own curls, quietly pointed out that the ballerina had a satin bow in her ponytail. After that she was nothing but cooperative smiles and continued her admiration of the works in the area. I expect she now will likely fall into the category of ‘willing visitor’ to art museums.

"Little Dancer of Fourteen Years" by Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917; Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, c.1880, cast c.1920; bronze, gauze, and satin; 38 1/2 x 16 1/4 x 13 3/4 in. (97.8 x 41.3 x 34.9 cm); Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mrs. Mark C. Steinberg 135:1956

So, what is it that makes people love or dislike the art museum experience? It’s a difficult question, seeing that everyone has their own preferences, and most are probably informed ones. For the little girl in St. Louis and me, it was a single piece of art that kept us coming back. Perhaps it is an engaging docent who can personalize the experience, making it a true learning and discussion process, or the use of something familiar during the experience, say technology for the younger generations.

The issue of engagement with these two types of preferences has made my internship so interesting. With the IMA’s vast offerings that combine history, design, art and nature, how can the experience on our campus continue to be defined as something beyond that of the average art museum? The idea of participation makes the art museum much more exciting, and one the IMA has, in the past, been challenged on. Art itself can speak, but how many people can hear it, understand it, or even find the right path to relate to it? The options to engage and encourage participation are going to distinguish the boring museum of the ‘I’d simply rather nots’ with the art museum of our contemporary society. People want things tailored to them, whether that means they’re spoilt and lazy, or simply need to be taught how to understand. The IMA should continue to develop our options and teach how to employ them, in order to achieve this understanding and connection to the preferences on each side. The many things available should ensure a participatory, enlightening experience on our campus, ones that are to focus on the viewer’s eye and the teaching moment of the 500 year old painting. To connect with art and the IMA there are many available options, but the new challenge is going to be developing these as preferences.

Filed under: Art, Musings, Travel

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