22 Feb
Interieur met kaartspelend gezelschap, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-27.865

Interieur met kaartspelend gezelschap, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-27.865

The Danish word hygge is hard to translate.  Books like the Little Book of Hygge, often translate the word as coziness.  These authors go on to share how that word is but a scarce approximation of its actual meaning.  This Danish cultural norm, a sort of way of being, is central to that nation’s high level of happiness.

Currently Pinterest is alight with hygge with pictures of arm knit blankets, roaring fires, and mugs of warm coffee.  Strictly speaking, hygge is about home life, but there are certain tenets that could help make art museum’s more appealing.

Create Sanctuary

Sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety.  Art museums can feel like a sanctuary for those who already feel comfortable there.  But, there are unspoken codes of behavior.  Innocently point at artwork and you might catch the ire of a guard.  Bring a selfie stick, and you will meet another guard.  Should you wish to find a restroom, you will likely need to find another guard to help you find the way.  The signs are so subtle that they fade into the background.  In many ways, the challenge for museums is that they are only sanctuaries for those who are already initiated.  Yet, most museums profit, both fiscally and culturally, from attendance.  So, how can they help others see these spaces as a sanctuary?

Belonging is Key

Belonging is a central element in hygge. When you belong, you feel comfortable participating in the experience. Belonging is hard for museums, in certain ways.  Museums has many special interest groups, starting with the trustees, and moving down to the members. These groups often revel in their connection to the museum, and why shouldn’t they, as they paid for the privilege.

How can museums make all people feel like they belong in the museum community? This is the big question for museums.  There is no one golden bullet, oh if there was.  But, there are small steps.  Let’s go back to the guards.  They are basically the hosts to this party.  They spend more time with the visitors than any other department.  The Walker Art Museum has a wonderful staff, dressed in t-shirts and broad smiles, who makes sure to place welcoming visitors and safeguarding the art as equally important.

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Met Museum 56.70a-c

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Met Museum 56.70a-c

Human Scale

The human touch is essential in hygge.  Think about your most convivial moments in life.  There was the food, the décor, the music.  Or was it the people, their stories, their laughter.  People turn settings into stories.  In large spaces, the quality of human interaction is dissipated.  In intimate, human-sized spaces, you can engage with people in direct ways.  This is the same with art.  Small spaces encourage connectivity.  For better or for worse, I became an art historian because of the Cloisters.  In high school, I trekked to see the oil paintings in their glory.  I still remember stepping through a tiny door into an irregularly shaped room to gaze upon the Merode altarpiece.  This small work, resplendent in its workmanship, seemed to fill the space.

Human scale is not just about architecture.  Few museums have the architecture of the Cloisters.  Human scale is also about choosing to employ the space in ways that focus on people.  Seating groupings imply that one should linger.  Legible labels, rather than tiny print, implies that one should read.

In its essence, hygge is about setting the stay for most people to have an enjoyable experience.  In many ways, most art museums focus on installing art with an eye towards education and learning with little concern for the visitor’s pleasure. Yet, how can people learn if they don’t linger?


16 Feb

The Art of Facts: Four Ways that Art Protects You in the World of “Fake News”

Anna Adkins, Spirea Aruncus, Met Museum 2004.172

Anna Adkins, Spirea Aruncus, Met Museum 2004.172

  1. Observation: They say seeing is believing. Sure, there are plenty of invisible, real phenomenon, including the gravitational pull that prevent you from flying off the earth as you read this. But, so much of our understanding of the universe is based on observation.  Attempt to draw something you see.  For your drawing to have any verisimilitude at all, you will need to really look closely.  You will face surprising thoughts like, “Even though I know the top is round, it sure looks like an oval.” In other words, you will spend time understanding the object that you are drawing.

How it helps you with fake news? First, the better you understand something, the more likely you will be able to fish out falsity.  But, even more, observation is a skill. With honed skills, you can become astute at assessing any variety of information.

  1. Sources: Most information about artwork is interpreted by curators and educators, based on research. Museum visitors receive information from several sources (labels, educators, family guides). If it is on a label, you can assume it is verifiable or generally accepted. The informed museum visitor also knows to take the information overheard from another patron, about the aliens who made this sculpture, for example, as unlikely.

How it helps with fake news? It’s all in knowing the source. You learn to know where to find information that in generally acceptable and when to disregard information.

Deep Vessel with Handles, Met Museum  1992.252.1

Deep Vessel with Handles, Met Museum

  1. Uncertainty: When I used to work in museums, I often said, “the only thing we say categorically is that you can’t say anything categorically”. Museum labels are often filled with conditional phrasing. (Notice how I constructed this sentence conditionally). While the labels offer generally acceptable information, they also often highlight where there are debates.  There is so much about art that isn’t or can’t be known.  Take ancient Japanese pottery.  Made 4000 years ago, this civilization leaves no written records.  Art historians don’t know why they created these pots.  Were they functional? Ceremonial? We don’t know.

How it helps with fake news? One challenge is that as elements emerge, news stories change.  This can make some criticize traditional news sources as being incredible.  Instead, the nimble thinker, say one who has faced much less scary challenges thinking about art, can handle these complications with ease.

  1. Meaning-Making: Understanding art is about making sense of visual information, most often through reading textual information or hearing oral information. In other words, it is all about being good at making meaning from all sorts of sources.

How it helps with fake news? You can use your skills to decide if something is fake news or #alternative facts.  You can decide how likely something is to be real or factual where visual or textual. You will be able to sniff out fake news and appreciate real sources.

03 Jun

What makes Rembrandt Rembrandt?

Whenever I pass Rembrandt toothpaste in the aisle, I can’t help but try to imagine that branding meeting. What makes the name so puzzling? Maybe it is all that time i have spent trying to make compositional sense of the master’s etchings. Or maybe the general impression i have of the brown backgrounds and dour expressions in his portraits. But, I have always thought that the name is ill-suited to a product purporting a sparking white smile.

So, imagine that branding meeting. Five guys, who took art appreciation in college because it was a graduation requirement, sitting in a brightly lit room pitching names. What about an artist, one says. You know like using this toothpaste is like making your face into a masterpiece, he elaborates. Great, the other says encouragingly. Well, there is Picasso, right, one guy calls out. But his people don’t look like people, one counters. And, Da Vinci, another guy suggests. That Mona Lisa has weird eyes. Hey what about Rembrandt? oh Rembrandt, they all say. they all ponder this suggestion trying to conger up the look of Rembrandt in their minds. And, then decide, almost in unison, that there must be something there that made Rembrandt famous. And, if it was good enough for Rembrandt, it is good enough for them.

With a nationally traveling exhibition considering What makes a Rembrandt [painting] a Rembrandt, I wonder what makes the idea of a Rembrandt, a Rembrandt. Along with toothpaste, there has been silverware, bands, and x branded using Rembrandt’s name. What about Rembrandt makes his name garner such recognition?

05 Apr

The Art in Museums

Given 75 million dollars, and an abiding belief in the role of museums in the common good, what sort of institution would you create?  The You Museum of Art? The You Museum of Culture? The Klatch of  Stuff? 

Recently, I was sitting at a table in the midst of a wonderful debate about the merits of adding Art to the name of a  cultural organization and the inevitable drawbacks.  The word “art” carries a certain je ne sais quoi that makes donors swoon and prance.  After all, art has the ultimate cache—it costs a lot and proves you know why the price tag is so high.  Art is at once a commodity and signifier of intelligence. One just seems fashionable for wearing the best of Issey Miyaki’s spring line. One seems brilliant for owning a Pae White, because the act of owning appears tied to the act of understanding.  In other words, to consume is also to get it. 

Those who work in public art museums know the secret to this whole thing.  There doesn’t have to be anything to get.  It can be as simple as paint on an old wood board.  Appreciation can just be about liking the surface. Or it can be as complex as explaining all of humanity, faith, God and heaven on said board.  Appreciation can then be about understanding gold ground altarpieces in the context of the liturgy of Gothic Siena prior to the Black Death.

When visitors ask about value, they certainly mean cost.  The art market sets the price, but the value can be completely disengaged from the debate.  The viewer can choose this value.  One person’s penny print can be another person’s Ukiyo-e masterpiece 200 hundred odd years later.   In a consumer capitalist society, this nuance is hard.  Add the complexity of the ever-quickening paceof mass media, when a song lasts for a minute and an advertisement for a second in our ever fracturing common understanding.  It is hard to see yourself standing on the long slow road of art history just a blimp between the Lascaux Caves and something I couldn’t begin to fathom 3000 years from now.  When you think about it in that way, it doesn’t matter how much that Damian Hirst cost yesterday or even within our lifetime. 

Art can be a scary term connoting cliquishness as much as culture.  The term also offers unabated belief in the truth that humans make things that are valuable to society, forever, for their material essence. That actual object, not its apish digital simalcra, is special.  I would rather tackle these fears about art, and then help people understand that they got it all along. 

So, back to my brand spanking new museum.  I would proudly hang the biggest banner I could afford, and despite the rising cost of steel, I could still get a pretty big banner with all that imaginary money.  I would yell this is a museum of ART.