A case of “Museum Legs”

Right now author Amy Whitaker is giving a talk at Macalester College about her new book “Museum Legs: fatigue and hope in the face of art.” But just a short while ago she was in an MPR studio. I talked with her about the book, the exhaustion people feel when confronted with museum exhibitions, and how she thinks museums need to change in order to cater to modern day art lovers.

Whitaker says she was initially inspired to write the book by a quandry she experienced in her own work with museums. Museums are reporting better attendance numbers than ever, but at the same time, whenever she went with friends, everyone seemed to have glazed eyes. tired feet and a numb brain within the hour.

You know when you go to a museum that everything is really important – that’s why it’s there. And so you start ‘box-ticking’ in your mind “yep, saw that, saw that” as opposed to having open-ended curiosity toward the objects.

Think about the way that you go into a bookstore or a library – it’s humbling – you have to confront your own mortality, that you will never have time to look at everything there. It’s just that the nature of looking at a book is so different from looking at art – because images are so immediate – that you feel that you can see everything. So it’s a question of re-training your habit, going to museums to just look at a few things, accept that you won’t see everything, enjoy it and then leave.

Whitaker says this is not just a problem resulting from our expectations, it’s also basic economics.

Museums increasingly charge for admission, and they purposely price it similarly to a movie ticket. The result is they’re sold as all-you-can-eat buffets but meant to be experienced like perfume counters. Plus people are more overworked and busy than they ever have been, and so the quality of “looking” has changed…

We live in one of the most visual cultures of all time and imagination and creativity are important to fields far far outside of art. I would really like for museums to be free so that people can just drop in and see a couple of works of art. I would like for people to feel a sense of public ownership and for museums to invite many more people into the conversation around art. If museums, for example, feel a need to expand their footprints architecturally, that they should have studio art making space. People would be able to relate a lot better to art if they had a physical experience of making a work of art at any level. The same way someone who took Suzuki violin lessons at the age of five is better able to enjoy a symphony performance.

Whitaker thinks you local museum should be like your local library. You might stop off on your way home from work for a half-hour, or go on your lunch break and just sit in front of a couple of works of art. She says they need to work on hospitality as much as anything. Rather than expanding their buildings to create more gallery space, or throwing seemingly non-art-related parties to get new people in the door, Whitaker suggests they work on telling people more about what’s already there, and making sure they know they’re welcome.

I wouldn’t write a whole book to point a finger at museums – I would write a whole book to invite people to think about what’s possible and to think about how museums can have a closer relationship to creativity. They (modern art museums) did when they were first founded, many of them were created as artist studios. Then they grew and became public institutions. Now they have a choice about resisting or embracing commercialization.

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