Friday, September 20, 2013

The Art Museum: A Visit to RISD

For the last museum field trip for the students, we chose the RISD Museum – our only visit to an art museum.  24 kids and 4 adults arrived for a day of looking at art.

The students arrived at the Museum after a week of summer rain – and they were pumped up.  We were self guided, so no staff came out to give us an introduction to the Museum. That was fine with me as, after all, the students had rated the brief introductions at other museum experiences extremely low. In hindsight, this was an error on our part.

The RISD Museum is a very different environment that the previous museums we had gone to. There are 2000-year-old fragile objects open to the air within. Guards roam the galleries kindly asking visitors to keep a reasonable distance from the artifact, don’t run, and be quite. OK this last one has always bothered me. The theory here is that you will disturb other visitors, but since so many labels in art museums often lack even basic context, how exactly are visitors supposed to learn within these walls without talking? If art is directly connected to emotion, why are we asked to be so dispassionate?  I must admit that some of the kids broke all of these rules. All of the students shot through the galleries in just short of a run – the guards’ radios crackled for our entire visit.

Finally we got to a show of current artwork – “Locally Made.” Here was artwork that was visually compelling, but not easily understood.  Many of the students stopped to try and figure out what these might be about. “It’s like ‘Where The Wild Things Are,’ but there’s a dead guy next to him,” one of the students remarked while looking at a canvas. The description was apt. The friendly and relaxed guard engaged the students while explaining why they should not touch the art in a very respectful way. 

The group came back together for lunch, and we decided to re-group. What could we do with the kids that would interest them? The program for the day included this:

Micah Salkind curates The Re-sounding City from 7/23-7/28.

In “The Re-sounding City” six Providence DJs spin one-hour sets that speak to their experiences of life in The Creative Capital. Curators and DJs Micah Jackson will be on-site to talk and dance about the Assembly with audiences, asking them to contribute drawings and text indexing their impressions in archival leger, a document that will compliment audio recordings of the one-hour performances. — Micah Salkind

Perfect and very cool! We thought that the kids would find this both appealing and familiar. After lunch we marched over the Contemporary Art Gallery just as the program began. The music was not too loud, the space did not have fragile items in it, and the staff was friendly and excited. The students spent the next 30 minutes horsing around and chatting with each other. I asked the Writers Block staff what was up – did the kids have any connection to this music? The answer is no – they are too young. As teenagers their musical experience is often limited to today’s pop tunes. While friendly, the staff did not engage the students despite the program description.

So now what? How could we get these kids involved in this museum? How will we fill the 2 hours left before the bus comes back? I decided to try my own role as tour guide. “Did everyone see the mummy? How old do you think this is?” (Guesses ranged from 200 to 20,000 years.)  My guided tour could not compete with the kids next to them. These students had now spent over 5 weeks with each other and were much more interested in just hanging out with their friends than listening to me –or anyone else for that matter.

Toward the end of the visit some of the students slowed down and engaged with the art. There was a piece of Herman Miller upholstery fabric designed by Alexander Girard and a video art installation that made the kids stop and question what was going on. The fabric pattern appeared to be cursive writing – but was not quite readable, and the video appeared to have a narrative which was just as allusive. They thought the fabric was cool, the video art – just confusing. I had to agree with them there. Who is video art for anyway?

At the end of the visit I wondered:

  • Should we have read them the riot act when we got there?
  • Could we have better prepared them for a successful visit?
  • Would the kids that had never been to an art museum before be able to have a better experience next time at an art museum, now that they understand a little more what is expected of them as visitors?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that for most students this museum clearly communicated to most of these kids – ‘we are not the place for you’ despite institutional efforts to address a wider audience. If the Hempstead house is to be successful reaching much larger audiences, we must identify when, where and how our historic house inadvertently sends the same message.

Robert Kiihne of RK Exhibits will be participating in the teen audience research this summer and will draft the exhibitions component of the interpretive plan in the fall.

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