By Aleema Ash
Five guards dressed in crisp police-like uniforms stand tall, dotted evenly across the entry foyer. Their eyes follow my every move through the large glass doors as I enter their terrain. A guard storms up to me and tells me that I have to check in my bag in as it is larger than the accepted 30x30cm dimensions. I reluctantly hand over it over and receive a number printed on laminated card that smells mildly of disinfectant. My plastic water bottle is confiscated and thrown into the rubbish bin. I move away from the desk and once again the guard’s eyes fix on my every move. I pretend I know what I am doing and where I am going but I can’t remember the last time I visited an art gallery. There are no signs in sight and I am lost but I don’t dare ask for directions. My footsteps echo in the large atrium that spans 3 levels. People gaze down from the floors above. Are they staring at me? They look so at ease. I feel small – a dot – in a large, unfamiliar, open space. I mutter under my breath ‘this place is not for people like me‘ and I return to the bag check, hand over my ticket, collect my bag and exit the building all under the watchful eye of the guards.
Accessibility, community engagement, and cultural diversity are terms that have been central to Australian political debate over the past three decades. This has resulted in the formation of a number of government cultural development policies prompting Australian cultural institutions (public art galleries, museums, libraries, and heritage organisations) to provide equal access to services for all citizens. According to Richard Sandell, Head of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, cultural institutions and more specifically, art galleries are paying increased attention to their audience by focusing on ‘representation, access and participation’. There is now emphasis placed on attracting traditionally under-represented groups including ethnic minorities, physical and intellectually disabled people, economically disadvantaged communities and the old and the young. Many art galleries are allocating significant resources to audience research in an effort to better understand their visitors and identify barriers that exclude certain groups from visiting their institutions. Through these findings potential audiences are identified and appropriate programs and initiatives are being developed to target these groups. However, despite these recent developments there is little evidence to suggest that the ‘typical’ visitor to public art galleries in Australia has changed. As stated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011), the research findings vary, yet overwhelmingly the ‘typical’ visitor is well educated, English speaking and middle class.
The Australian Council for the Arts confirmed last year that there is still a large portion of the population who consider art galleries to be inaccessible, irrelevant and elitist. The real or perceived barriers to visiting the art gallery are complex and interrelated and include, but are not limited to: external or situational factors (physical barriers, cost and timing); personal factors (personal feeling, perceptions of the experience being irrelevant, unwelcoming, challenging, ‘not for me’); and product specific factors (cost of attending; the physical location; limited information being provided; signage; frontline staff). As evident in the introductory narrative, the visitor experience can be negatively impacted by a number of factors indicating that a successful strategy requires an integrated approach across all departments (marketing, education, public programs, design and frontline staff).
Who are these ‘people like me’?
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s report in 2010, the number of Australians attending art galleries is increasing steadily with 25% of Australians’ (aged 15 years and over) visiting a public art gallery in 2009-10 compared with 23% in 2005-6. The figures also show that participation increases dramatically for higher income groups with higher educational status. According to the report, those who have never visited an art gallery (non-visitors) are overwhelmingly represented by lower income earners who left school before completing grade twelve. Non-visitors are also more likely to be male, have English as a second language (ESL), and reside in regional areas. These findings demonstrate that irrespective of recent art policies and cultural initiatives, visiting art museums remains a fairly restricted social practice.
A recent study conducted by this year by The Australian Council for the Arts notes that while Australian’s perceptions towards the arts are becoming more positive, there are still strongly held beliefs that the arts ‘requires understanding to appreciate them fully’, and that arts ‘attract people who are somewhat elitist or pretentious’. Efforts to breakdown the elitist image and consequently increase participation in under-represented groups have not made a significant impact to the ‘typical’ or ‘regular’ visitor profile. It seems that public art galleries, although offering free entry, maintain the illusion of democratic access, while in practice they still cater for the visitor who is well educated, English speaking and middle class.
Breaking down the barriers for ‘people like me’
Are museums forever destined to reinforce class and cultural structures? Or can they break down barriers and become more socially inclusive? In addressing this problem, public art galleries have initiated a number of strategies to try and attract ‘non-visitors’ to the gallery.
One such example is the Queensland Art Gallery’s recent exhibition 21st Century: Art in the First Decade (December-April 2011). The exhibition was a free-entry, collection-based show surveying contemporary art of the last decade. The exhibition occupied the entire Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) with more than 200 works by over 140 artists from more than 40 countries. 21st Century: Art in the First Decade had broad appeal with a number of large-scale participatory works that could be easily interpreted and enjoyed by a range of audiences without prior contemporary art knowledge. This was particularly evident with the Carsten Höller Left/Right Slide that had a strong presence in the large entry foyer of GoMA. The two spiral slides spanned three levels of the gallery and allowed kids and adults to slide down what the artist calls the ‘happiness producing machine’. Visitors were also invited to sit down and collaboratively build a giant white Lego city in Olafur Eliasson’s The cubic structural evolution project 2004, take a wish from Rivane Neuenschwander colourful ribbon wall, I wish your wish, and enjoy a coffee in the Internet Memes lounge – located prominently in the exhibition space – before exploring the other 197 works. GoMA was alive and buzzing with the sound of laughter and sheer excitement echoing throughout the building. This exhibition painted a very different picture to the visitor experience evoked in the introductory narrative. There was not a guard in sight and staff were dressed in exhibition branded t-shirts positioned throughout the entry foyer loaded with information brochures.
The show attracted unprecedented attendance figures with over 451,041 visitors over a 20 week period (despite being closed for 5 weeks during the Brisbane January floods). Tony Ellwood (2010), Director of the Queensland Art Gallery commented ‘the exhibition demonstrated that contemporary art in the twenty-first century was a very inclusive and varied experience, engaging the widest possible public through ideas, direct experience, spectacle and narrative’. To assist different audiences with interpreting the exhibition, multiple platforms were utilized to connect audiences with contemporary art and ideas in ways which were meaningful and relevant. The various platforms included: interactive and online engagement through the comprehensive website, social media sites, live webcasts, exhibition-specific blog and iPhone applications; didactics panels (adults and children-specific), and a suite of publications (adult and children-specific); extensive public programs including artist talks and workshops; volunteer guided tours; targeted education programs including MyGen 50+ and New Wave Teens; three cinema programs; and the extensive Kids program including the 10 day Kids Festival. By offering multiple modes of interpretation the exhibition spoke, using the words of sociologist Nick Prior, to the ‘critic as well as the tourist, the artist as well as the ‘ordinary visitor’ and in its design it strived for ‘interpretation’ and ‘contemplation’ as well as ‘spectacle’ and ‘experience’’.
Perhaps because of its popularity, the exhibition received mixed reviews. Whilst some welcomed the broad appeal and hailed the participatory nature of the exhibition, others criticised the Queensland Art Gallery for turning contemporary art into ‘mass entertainment’. Christopher Allen, the Australian’s conservative art critic, emphasised this, ‘it is a kind of achievement to lure such people from the shopping centre to the art gallery, but they have to be entertained with gimmicks and bright colours…The [exhibition] lacks real thinking’. As stated in Rosemary Neil’s article in the Australian, to this Ellwood responded: ‘there are a lot of people who seem to think that engaging children, and large numbers of teenagers, young adults in their 20s, is something to be dismissive of . . . I see 20-year-olds walking in with their mates, by choice — I’m just proud of that…they sense that there’s an inclusiveness and a welcome here that other people seem to find almost irritating’.
There’s still work to be done to welcome ‘people like me’.
Public art galleries, like other cultural institutions, have experienced rapid change over the past three decades requiring new management approaches and evolving work practices (Sandell, 1998). Increased pressure by the government has required public arts institutions to become more inclusive, more accessible and communal. There are some significant efforts being made by public art galleries to actively broaden their appeal and attract diverse audiences (an example of this being GoMA’s 21st Century: Art in the First Decade exhibition). However, these efforts do not go without harsh criticism from the media and other arts professionals.
As indicated by the statistics presented by the ABS and the Australian Council for the Arts there is still a lot of work to be done before art gallery’s become truly socially inclusive. While it is essential for museums to invest in audience research and develop strategies to prevent negative audience experiences, in the end it will need to be a collaborative effort between the arts sector professionals, government, media and the community. It will take time, effort and commitment to shed the traditional image of ‘elitism’ and ‘exclusion’ and ensure that ‘people like me’ feel welcome to roam freely within the public art gallery. Whether or not this can become a reality remains to be seen.
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Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011). Perspectives on Culture: Art Gallery and Museum Attendances. Retrieved from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4172.0.55.001
Australia Council for the Arts. (2010). More than bums on seats: Australian Participation in the Arts. Retrieved from: http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/71256/
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