Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Want More Visitors? Don't Be Pretentious

One concept that I was taught as an undergraduate twenty years ago has stuck with me throughout my career. My museum studies professor told us about famed child psychologist Robert Coles who practiced in Boston. He took his patients to the Museum of Arts for his sessions with them. Many of these youngsters lived within walking distance of the Museum, but had never visited. They were afraid to go into the imposing building. Many of them were from underprivileged families. Their parents told them that the museum was for other people and not for them. They couldn't relate to it. The institution seemed pretentious.

Coles set out to break down barriers by bringing his patients to the museum. His visits helped raised the self-esteem of those he introduced to the institution's remarkable holdings. He sought to raise the bar for their visions of the future by allowing the young visitors to realize that these resources were meant for them too. They could appreciate aspects of the same culture that wealthier patrons enjoyed. They shouldn't feel shut out. They too could be uplifted by the creations of men and women, some of whom had backgrounds similar to their own.

Cultural institutions walk a fine line between inspirational culturing and pompousness. It is a line about which we should always be aware. We should aim to inspire and educate, but we must do so with an eye toward relating to an audience on their level. We should give patrons something to relate to with high culture peppering our efforts when appropriate.

This past weekend, my husband and I went to see the re-release of "Metropolis." Released in the 1920s, this German silent movie tells the story of class distinctions with a sci-fi bent. The movie is 3 hours long. After waiting in line for an hour at the Coolidge Corner Theatre to get good seats, we were "treated" to a half-hour diatribe about the film before we got to see it. For one, I just wanted to see the film. As a former art history student, I am not always put off by highfalutin lectures, but that was not why I came to the theater that day. For another, I had already read about most of what was told to me in the lecture. The movie was going to be long enough as it was. To be sure, most of the audience was made up of geeks like my husband and me. If they wanted to know more about the film, they could have researched it when they got home.

The role of a cultural institution is to present culture and help start a conversation about it. If the audience wants to evaluate the high brow merits of a film, they will find a way to do that. All you have to do is give them an outlet. It doesn't have to be an in-your-face presentation. If the audience doesn't want erudite, don't turn them off to your institution by forcing it down their throats.

Here's another example...about two years ago, I took my four-year-old to see a local ballet production of a fun fairy tale. My daughter was just starting ballet and I thought it would be fun to amend her studies with a trip to a performance. The first hour of the production included dances from Swan Lake and other famous ballets. The dance we came to see was last. Nothing in the advertising for the program told us that they were going to include anything other than the fairy tale. By the time what we came to see went on stage, my girl was wiggling and no longer interested. Did the ballet win a little fan by trying to culture us or by showing us what they were capable of doing? No. In fact, we will never go see one of their productions again.

We run the risk of driving people away when we insist on promoting high culture without thought to relating on the audience's level. More troubling to me, when we aim to show off the refinement all cultural institutions can possess, we can make many people feel excluded. A cultural institution should be about inclusion and not exclusion. If you show your visitors how your holdings and activities are about them, people are more likely to relate to you and support you. Aim to demonstrate that your institution is a reflection of humanity, showcasing items made by people like you and me -- perhaps these creators had a special talent, but they are still only human. In general, people don't like pretentiousness. We can usually spot it a mile away and if you are like me, you try to keep your distance.

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