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Keynote as Leitmotif or Counterpoint?

Posted By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, Baltimore Museum of Art, Monday, July 22, 2013

Holland Cotter, the well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning staff art critic at the New York Times, began The Association of Art Museum Curators conference with a dare. Mr. Cotter exhorted attendees to avoid cautious, obvious shows in favor of experimentation. He implied that it would be productive to forget entirely what art exhibitions ‘should’ look like. Mr. Cotter began his remarks with a brief autobiographical sketch, which underscored the fertility of unorthodox paths. From studying poetry with Robert Lowell at Harvard, to writing criticism while living among conceptual artists in pre-gentrified Soho, and later studying art history in India and Kashmir via Hunter College and Columbia University, Mr. Cotter has always encountered art as lived experience. He recalled a number of exhibitions that recreated that immediacy, including the Japanese galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum, which share an immersive presentation style, as well as the rule-breaking, category-redefining Museum for African Art shows curated by Susan Vogel and Polly Nooter Roberts in the 1980s and 1990s. Most recently, Mr. Cotter found this inspiring ability to bring art into a living space at the National Museum of Bamako, where the textile exhibit combines the graphic impact and immediacy of contemporary commercial cloth with fine, canonical textiles.

As a new curator, the encouragement to break new ground is of course exciting, and a major critic’s respect for art exhibitions that introduce topics outside of Europe or Euro-America is better still. Yet if it were not for the pressures currently facing Museums, the exhortation to ‘be bold’ would seem almost clichéd, the sort of bromide frequently heard during graduation addresses. Mr. Cotter’s keynote became more meaningful over the course of the conference, as it became clear that the embrace of testing, measurement and "Big Data” puts museum staff at a crossroads. The data-gathering efforts presented by Rob Stein’s discussion of the Dallas Museum of Art’s new Friends program, or Sebastian Chan’s tour of innovative museum efforts around the world, will certainly give us a better understanding of our audiences. Will we use this new knowledge to continue to challenge our audiences? Or will we wield the data in a way that blandly appeases some perceived majority of visitors? When Salvador Salort-Pons described the Detroit Institute of Art’s process of exhibition design, with the curator defining the "Big Idea” of the show and the education department developing the in-gallery delivery methods, I recalled Mr. Cotter’s definition of exhibitions as "materialized thinking.” Will we harness the considerable expertise of curators and museum educators to promote deeper thinking through exhibition practice? Or will the limits of audience testing (or funding for robust measurement methods) shift our focus to simpler narratives? Nina Simon’s discussion of audience art-making and participation made Cotter’s final words—that art should be seen in the context of life, and not in the context of art history—seem apposite in an entirely new way. In an increasingly connected and user-driven world, how will museums balance visitors’ desires to make art, and thus enter art history, with our commitment to preserve and present the historical tradition? Throughout the conference, the presentation of tools and theories of audience engagement prompted new ideas. Yet Mr. Cotter’s words recalled the end goal of all of these techniques—to surprise, inspire, delight and ultimately transport visitors.

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