A pair of googly eyes, giant versions of the type elementary school children might affix to their craft project, stare at people from a crisp white wall at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA for short, pronounced “smoke-uh”). Motion capture cameras allow the eyes to keep watching visitors even as they move.
Museum goers on this September night were rather captivated. When they were before the piece, person after person would move slightly to the left, then the right, then pace back and forth, staring at the oversized pupils as they followed them.
The work, titled "Google 2.0," was funny, and thought provoking, it seemed, quite popular with SMoCA’s visitors.
The visitors themselves, too, were interesting, if only for the fact that they were all rather young – college aged to early middle aged. Many times it’s only older people attending museums. The number of people who visited museums dropped between 2002 and 2012, with the exception of those 65 and older, whose numbers continue to rise, according to a study from the National Endowment for the Arts.
As a result, museums are increasingly working to get more young professionals and millennials in the doors. Sara Cochran, interim director and curator at SMoCA, puts it, “every museum is trying to attract younger demographics.” At SMoCA, she says, “demographics are really a mix but we do tend younger than some of our fellow museums.”
Heather Lineberry, a senior curator and associate director at the ASU Art Museum, stresses engagement with students, the community, and artists repeatedly as she talks about some of the recent developments at the museum.
“We’re always looking for ways for people to utilize the museum as a discovery space, as a social space, as an educational space and as a communal space,” she says.
Lineberry’s office is slightly disorganized, but not in a haphazard, disjointed way. The piles of papers and books lend an intellectual feel to the clutter. On the walls of her office hang smaller works of art. One wall is completely filled by a giant wooden bookshelf, stuffed to the gills, while on the wall next to her computer hangs the mission statement for the ASU Art Museum. Emphasizing the collaboration and the “exchange of ideas, perspectives, and experiences among artists, students, and the public,” it’s very clear that she takes the statement to heart.
“There’s a movement among contemporary art for artists to engage more deeply with their audiences, with daily life, and with societal challenges,” she continues, saying that such a movement allows audiences to have a deeper connection to the work, and prompts collaboration and discussion, making the museum a safe space for the exchange of ideas.
Lineberry likes to tell a story of a student who would come to the ASU Art Museum regularly during a break in his classes. Some days he would come in and look at the artwork, others he might use the free wifi to get started on his homework. Others, too, he would just use the couch to take a quick nap. He made the museum his space to think and live. “There was a level of ownership of the museum space that I found really positive,” she says.
One example is the 2011 exhibit It’s not just black and white by artist Gregory Sale. Sale used art to address the United States’ incarceration problem, working with former convicts and victims and their families to create art that could start a conversation about one of the most pressing issues our country faces today. He then took the opportunity to have panel discussions and talks with both Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and activist Angela Davis.
“He felt that, in order to take on this massive challenge, we must have all voices at the table, and a museum is a non-threatening space to have those conversations, as well as an inspiring space to think about those problems in new ways,” Lineberry says.
Lineberry says that events now make up about forty percent of the ASU Art Museum’s total attendance and help keep museums relevant.
More than just allowing for greater interaction, such efforts build ties to the local community. One of the challenges, according to Lineberry, is the relative lack of name awareness in the area.
“In the past, we’ve been a sort of well-kept secret,” she says. Now, the museum is working more to make sure that students and the community know that this is a community space, open to the public, in her words, “a place for people to gather with artists and to collaborate and exchange ideas.”
As part of an effort to further this, the museum has First Saturdays. On the first Saturday of every month, the museum has extra programming aimed at children and families. Artists engage the families with projects connected to the artwork, encouraging deeper connection with the work. The museum offers tours for school classes and works to make sure that children get exposed to contemporary art early and often.
Social media, for instance, is a crucial part of nearly every entity’s public relations. Mark Scarp, communications manager of the Heard Museum, which shares the stories and art of Native Americans, says “part of dealing with the rise of the internet comes from using social media, our Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, to interact with more people and maybe reach some people who might not otherwise have heard of us.”
Currently the museum has just under twelve thousand Twitter followers and over twenty three thousand followers on Facebook.
The American Alliance of Museums notes that around eight hundred and fifty million visits are made each year to museums in person, and another approximately five hundred thirty million online visits, according to data from 2006. Websites, too, are of paramount importance and digital visitor-ship has certainly grown.
“We put a lot of effort into our website, which is the predominant way people experience us,” Scarp says of the Heard Museum’s website. “Just about a year ago we redesigned our website to be more interactive.”
Cochran, too, emphasizes SMoCA’s website, and says that they’ll soon be putting all of their collections online for people to see virtually. More substantively, though, it seems that museums are stressing engagement between the exhibitions and events and the visitors to the museum.
Many of the exhibits offered by museums are now interactive. The Heard Museum’s main summer exhibit, called “Super Heroes: Art! Action! Adventure!” encouraged museum goers to create their own superheroes.
Visitors could design, cut out, decorate and wear their own superhero capes. In addition, guests could make movements that were recorded and analyzed in order to provide them with recommendations as to which animal might be their superhero’s companion. Interaction and engagement allow people to build a personal connection with the subject matter.
Like It’s not just black and white, too, its exhibits often invite community participation, though perhaps none more so than “Feast on the Street,” a 2013 event. Clare Patey, the museum’s international artist in resident at the time, and local artist Matthew Moore created a harvest banquet to gather the community while simultaneously encouraging discussion about sustainable practices and food growing. Nine thousand people attended the event, which had a mile long community table, while representatives from community organizations and ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability did sustainability talks and demonstrations.
Many people have a sense of museums as boring places, filled with people staring at artwork and artifacts hanging lifelessly from the tall white walls. More and more, though, the museums want a conversation with the public, a place where they are engaged and inspired by what they see. A place where the people may stare at the art, but the art, like Google 2.0, stares back.