I was in St. Louis this past weekend, and I happened to catch a talk that Rene Franklin, from the St. Louis Art Museum, and Lisa Chang Harper, from the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts gave for UMSL’s Monday noon series. It turned out to be much more interesting than I’d expected – St. Louis has some awesome alternative education programs in the mix.
One insightful point they discussed was the need for museums to meet communities within the groups they already belong to. “You only go into communities asking, not telling,” Rene said. This is an idea that I feel like a lot of museums – and educational institutions in general – forget or just give up on. The idea of meeting people (visitors in this case) where they’re at is one that validates their life experiences and knowledge base; it assumes that the ‘student’ has something to teach the ‘teacher,’ and that the teacher is ready and expecting to learn. It was a breath of fresh air to hear a museum professional say it in such plain language.
This issue is only the beginning of a larger one – how to get people into the museum, especially those in demographics that traditionally do not frequent museums. It was a particularly interesting conversation because most of St. Louis’ major museums (both the Art Museum and the Pulitzer) are free. A giant deterrent for most institutions is an entrance fee. However, as the speakers pointed out, just because a museum is free, doesn’t mean it’s inviting. According to Rene, museums are leisure activities, so the number one factor as to whether you will choose to go to a museum is how comfortable you feel there. That’s why her department at the Art Museum works with people who come to them with an already-existing community – because they are entering the museum within their community’s comfort zone.
One last idea that stuck with me was the fact that the Pulitzer Foundation hired a social worker as their Community Builder. Why isn’t this a more widely held practice? It seems quite ingenious for the way museums are heading towards community education and involvement. One of the most impressive programs Lisa mentioned was Staging Old Masters, a theater project that worked with former prisoners and homeless veterans, using art and performance to help them develop practical skills for their future lives and employment. This is exactly what museums and arts organizations should be doing! I have to hand it to St. Louis museums – I didn’t know such interesting and wonderful initiatives were going on. I hope to see more like them.