Audience participation in art galleries – has the pendulum swung too far?

Has the pendulum determining modes of audience participation in art galleries swung too far?

When an art museum looks like a community noticeboard, when people are coming in droves for craft nights in galleries and are barely, if at all looking at the art, when children’s art carts are popping up like mushrooms and adults are being corralled into acting like children, when gallery visitors are encouraged to think that art objects have no more resonance than any other crafty object made by … anyone. Then perhaps, in some instances the pendulum may have swung too far. But this need not be a cause for alarm, wait it out and the pendulum will swing back, hesitate and swing back again, hesitate and swing back again. The only instance where I might see this as a genuine cause for alarm is if we start believing that the split second of stasis when the pendulum hesitates at the end of its swing, is some kind of destination. And we lose sight of the complexity, fluidity, instability and unpredictability of what we are really navigating here: people in all their glorious multiplicity and that which we call art, which may indeed be ultimately undefinable  – does it get more complex than that?

I believe art must stay at the heart of the gallery experience. If we ask museums and galleries, in a bid to ensure their relevance and sustainability, to service their community in a purely quantifiable way, we risk dislodging the primacy of the direct encounter between art objects as central to achieving their missions. Art is such a costly endeavor that if it isn’t central to our missions, then why frame what we are doing through the art lens. There are undoubtedly cheaper ways of creating community hubs. The quality and long term efficacy of the art encounter is hard to measure and the attendance generating nature of festival styled events and participatory activities in galleries can overwhelm the quieter aspect of contemplative experiences. The insistence on developing and increasing new audiences could lead us to lose sight of the value of research and collection based practices when trying to meet the ever increasing demands for participatory experiences.

Cultural institutions are spaces of community and should be relevant and inclusive – and yes we can have fun and conversation and activity in them. But, I propose that we do need at times to temper our delight in the genuine relational encounters that are being facilitated and remind ourselves about the validity and resonance of unmediated encounters with the art on exhibition.

Art must not become an incidental aspect of what our art institutions are offering. I have worked in art and education for over a decade and am the curator of a family focused interactive exhibition program in a regional gallery, on the edge of the urban sprawl in Sydney, Australia. I am an indefatigable advocate for the transformative potential of the art encounter and a zealot for engaging people with art in multiple and diverse ways that encourage them to stop, to look, to consider, to connect, to respond and to make. My curatorial bias is to develop exhibitions with young audiences in mind from the beginning of the curatorial process, and from that position then seek to ignite the curiosity of all ages. I love the art I select and want to give other people the chance to love it too, and this may mean facilitating messy, crafty, playful, discovery based, non-traditional encounters between the audience and the object. These encounters privilege the young and young at heart, in a bid to ignite the curiosity of non-art audiences who are often drawn to the encounter through a desire to support the growth and development of young people in their care and to ignite their own youthful curiosity. I do believe that inter-generational engagement offers the grown-up another chance to be delighted and excited by cultural experiences that they may not encounter without the impetus of entertaining and educating the young people in their care. The interactive components in galleries are designed to illuminate the art and/or amplify some aspect of the material or cultural provenance of the object on display. And in my experience this means participatory strategies for children often act as a gateway into the object for audiences of all ages. 

It is useful when contemplating art encounters to remember that what we are navigating is the complexity of the artists’ lived experiences as revealed through the catalyst of the art object, which is then apprehended through the prism of a particular mind at a particular moment in its history. This is not easy territory to navigate.

I am a devotee of interdisciplinary exhibitions that include interactive components that facilitate inter-generational connection. I am also a complete advocate for the primacy of the direct, unmediated encounter between audiences and art objects of quality. Many times in my life, galleries, especially large public institutions, have been spaces for quiet contemplation, offering solace to my momentarily weary soul, a place to recharge, before re-entering the slip stream. And yet, I am also an advocate for inclusive participatory practice in art museums, tempered with this caveat: let’s not stop the audience participation pendulum swinging at any point on its trajectory. Instead let’s look forward with enthusiasm and rigour to navigating the competing demands on our cultural institutions and know that if we’re generating debate, we’re playing an important role – cos apathy is the enemy.