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Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

More on Arts and Accessibility

Just a day after pointing out a great column by David Hoppe, I find more supporting evidence of how cultural institutions are reinventing themselves in order to maximize attendance, as opposed to focusing on their core artistic mission. This in the form of the Detroit Institute of the Arts $158 million renovation and expansion. The whole concept is to make the arts more approachable. Here’s a quote from the article:

The reinstallation promises to vividly alter how everyday visitors experience the museum, transforming the DIA into a populist hub for culture that strokes the masses without, the museum hopes, offending connoisseurs.

The mantra is accessibility.

Instead of relying on traditional art history, geography or chronology to organize the collection, the DIA is experimenting with themes and stories that connect the art to everyday life.

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Cater to the masses and “hope” that you don’t offend the connoisseur. Later, we’re told how the museum is adding “kid friendly features”. Maybe they could rename it the Childrens’ Art Institute of Detroit.

What is the inspiration for this?

The DIA’s visitor-friendly philosophy grew out of a confluence of trends in the museum world. In the last 25 years, museums have become cultural malls serving audiences that are larger, more diverse and less arts-educated than ever. Attendance has soared, fueled by blockbuster shows, and education departments have grown to meet the needs of nonspecialists. Audio tours have become ubiquitous, as have outreach events like Friday Nights at the DIA and hip Web sites.

It’s nice to know that the DIA will now be a “cultural mall”.

This expansion has not been without its critics. For example:

Writing in the Metro Times in January, critic Christina Hill ridiculed the DIA’s plans, accusing the museum of talking down to its audience and arguing that paintings and sculptures are inherently interactive because when you look at art intensely, it speaks volumes.

The root of the DIA’s dilemma is money. The museum operates with a stunning $14 million per year deficit, driven largely be a decline in state aid from $16 million per year to $0. And the DIA has a comparatively paltry $100 million endowment. The financial realities of the arts today are a legitimate challenge that will require creative and non-traditional ways to address. The era when local corporations and rich individuals cut checks to cover the majors in some sort of quasi-aristocratic ritual are over. Most of those local corporations are now owned by even bigger out of town corporations, for example. The solution, however, is not to transform the arts into some pop entertainment operation. That’s just a going out of business sale where you don’t actually close the door. Rather, I again believe the root of the solution is in regaining the cultural vigor and self-assurance that these organizations once had.

Detroit’s problems are probably particularly severe because of the unique challenges facing that city. But I’d argue that the trend is one that is firmly entrenched around the country.

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Topics: Arts and Culture
Cities: Detroit

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