Monday, March 15, 2010

Hanging out in Museums

I see the issue of Edmund Capon’s retirement from the Art Gallery of NSW is in the news again. Not that Edmund has said he is going to retire, but rather that at 69, the view is that it is probably going to be this year that he feels he has achieved enough. His language indicates this namely "We’re getting to that stage where I think the pace of evolution in the AGNSW needs a bit of a kick up the bottom and maybe, you know, I’m holding that up". The potential successors are already being rolled out from the art gallery director recycling file, including Michael Brand, ex-National Gallery of Australia and Art Gallery of Qld and more lately director of the Getty Museum, from which he resigned 4 years into his 5 year contract last month, Christopher Menz, who recently resigned from the Art Gallery of SA (see previous blog) , Tony Ellwood current director of the Art Gallery of Qld and Timothy Potts, ex director of the National Gallery of Victoria, and currently director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Whilst all worthy candidates it would be good to see a few new faces from the younger generation of art curators being considered.

Edmund’s reign at AGNSW has been a highly successful one, but it was interesting to read of the critics already circling, albeit anonymously. One frontrunner for the job who asked not to be named was quoted as saying "there’s not nearly enough space and there’s too much of an ad hoc approach in which the Gallery tried to be all things to all people". Others argue it is geared to the casual tourist rather than artists, scholars and residents.

I’m not sure I agree with either. Yes there is always the need for more space but by moving the paintings store off site and opening up the space as the new John Kaldor Galleries, there has been a significant increase in exhibition space. And in terms of popularity with residents, there is no doubt that AGNSW is the place to hang out. I was there of an evening last month when the Gallery was open and it was chock a block with an enthusiastic crowd doing everything from exhibition viewing, and eating at the cafe to just hanging out.

And hanging out is an increasingly critical part of why successful museums are successful. AGNSW is lucky with its location – not sure I would like to hang out in Sydney at the Powerhouse or the Australian Museum for example, but that is helped by the way that the main space encourages engagement. It is a welcoming space, unlike, for example the foyer at the National Gallery in Canberra, or the Art Gallery of SA.

Hanging out is part of the social phenomenon of new museum going. James Christen Steward, the new director of Princeton University Art Museum has articulated this well. He believes museums should be a space for everyone, even those without the intellectual curiosity to look at the collections. "We need spaces in which other forms of community engagement can happen, where it’s possible for people from every walk of life to come together to hash out what’s needed to have a satisfying life". Steward identifies the building lay out as critical to this, but has also initiated a series of moves to aid the social process including
- re wardrobing the attendants
- opening until 10pm on Thursday nights
- getting colleges within the university to stage social events in the galleries
- more frequently changing exhibitions

Yes, it is easier for an art museum to do this than a natural history or science/ design museum, but not exclusively. Both the Natural History Museum in London and the American Museum of Natural History in New York have been trail blazers in this aspect of creating a socially welcoming environment.

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