"Audience engagement" has long been a buzzword in the museum world as museums continue to fight for and reestablish their reason for being. In November 2015, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles hosted Engage More Now, a free, two-day symposium that asks museum professionals, artists, and the public how they can engage with each other. Claire Ruud, our director of convergent programming, reflected on this event in a post for Exchange, an online forum initiated by the Hammer.
on Engage More Now
The title of the Hammer’s recent conference on public engagement — ENGAGE MORE NOW! — expresses the urgency to define (and explode) the relationships among contemporary museums, artists, and audiences. Early on in her comments on the SITE Santa Fe biennial, the curator Candice Hopkins crystalized the core questions prompted by this imperative: Who is engaging whom, and why?
Conversations about engagement, then, are conversations about the politics of museums. Many participants expressed a healthy skepticism of reductively marketing museums through “audience engagement.” The artist A. L. Steiner used the University of Southern California as a case study, pointing to an article published by USC News titled “What Can USC Learn from Apple, Starbucks, or Even the Grove?” to highlight the pitfalls of engagement in an “experience economy.” USC, Steiner said, emphasizes a memorable experience over teaching and learning — a real pitfall for all institutions today. Similarly, Johanna Burton, the New Museum’s curator of public engagement, eschewed a consumption-based model of engagement that confuses creating something “engaging” with “constructing mutual commitments between institutions and the publics that intersect them.”
We fundamentally agreed on what we did not envision for museum-audience interplay — creating more “memorable experiences” to be consumed within an “experience economy.” But what did we agree that we were envisioning? We discussed such diverse examples of “engagement” as the Phoenix Art Museum printing wall labels in Spanish, LACMA's decadelong program at Charles White Elementary School, the New Museum’s digital archiving project XFR STN, and the community organizing work of Ultra-Red members. On the institutional side, I recognized four divergent goals in the projects discussed: (1) to increase the size of the audience, (2) to increase the diversity of the audience, (3) to change the quality of the engagement with the audience, and (4) to facilitate artists’ engagement with the audience. The tensions between these goals were regularly acknowledged, perhaps most bluntly by the curator Lucía Sanromán, who asserted that the relationship among institutions, artists, and audiences is antagonistic, asking, “How do we [artists and curators] engage without hiding or being beat up by the process?”
on museum engagement through education
Part of the answer seems to lie in explicitly distinguishing and prioritizing artist goals and institutional goals for every project. LACMA’s vice president of education, Sarah Jesse, frankly admitted to the tension between artists’ and museums’ goals and the stresses and compromises that it induces. Her simple and practical advice was to “articulate nuanced goals that are appropriate to resources and can be designed for and measured.”
How to set and measure goals is a pressing question of its own, as leaders and funders alike search for ways to articulate and quantify the impact of the arts. Museum education departments have been the first to respond to funders’ demands for evidence of the effectiveness and impact of the projects that they underwrite. This experience is informative as we consider the ways in which we set and measure goals of museums’ audience engagement initiatives and artists’ social practice projects. Every metric brings some goals into focus and distorts others. The territory is complex, but those who tackle it will control the terms of engagement.
On an institutional level, our critical challenge is to be crystal clear about the kind of framework we are providing for artists to plug into. At one extreme, that framework might lie in what Burton casually called “museum as concierge” — creating an environment that enables artists’ social practices. At the other extreme are museum-driven initiatives focused on the public — such as free admission or the development of wall text and educator-led programs. The Hammer’s collaboration with Mark Bradford’s Art & Practice falls closer to the former end of the spectrum, while LACMA’s school program falls toward the latter. But in reality few initiatives are “purely” artist- or museum-initiated; collaboration requires negotiation between the poles.
on museum engagement continued
Every institution makes a host of very practical decisions that reflect — and construct — its theory of public engagement. What does the organizational chart look like? What goals are set, and how are they measured? How are resources allocated within projects and to the infrastructure that supports them, like visitor services and the website? What is the time frame for development and execution of projects? What expectations are articulated of the artist? Of the institution? These practical decisions define the character of an institution — its capacity for sustained engagement with particular audiences, its ability to flex with artists’ practices, its priorities and commitments.
Through the conference the Hammer positioned its engagement strategy firmly toward the artist-initiated. Structurally the museum has incorporated education into the curatorial department. Its former curator of public engagement, Allison Agsten, pointed out that her position had been vacant for several months and provocatively asked whether, as curators and artists incorporate public engagement more into their practices, a public engagement or education department is necessary.
Working inside an institution, I am particularly interested in the way that institutional histories, bureaucracies, and staff personalities shape our answers to the questions “who is engaging whom, and why?” Each participant at the conference answered differently, based on the participant’s particular position within a particular institution. On a practical, feet-on-the-ground level, dozens of individuals see and activate different aspects of engagement within an institution. The conversation includes marketers, visitor services reps, educators, artists, curators, and audiences (and there are many). Interests are never completely aligned. Clarity of purpose, acute listening, sustained engagement, and (as a result) trust and mutual commitment will be required of every institution if we are to forge responsive and relevant organizations that attend to both artists and audiences without succumbing to the pressures of the experience economy.