I had a conversation recently with Nina Simon, probably the leading spokesperson for museum reform in the United States, about museums and audiences. Speaking to her gave me the occasion to share with her a story that, for reasons that may be obvious below, I rarely recount publicly, though I think about often. When Nina asked me if she could use the story in her popular blog, Museum 2.0, I realized that it was about time for me to share it myself
The story centered on a performance I attended at my college when I was studying in England in 1990. It was early in the school year, email had only recently become available and I had just spent a couple of hours in the college computer lab with other foreign students corresponding with friends back home, composing DOS messages in glowing white text on black screens. In the evening, I walked across the plaza to the auditorium for the performance along with all the other foreign students who had nothing else going on. The show was billed as a comedy and it started off more or less like a stand-up comedy act. But the performer gradually became more and more active and theatrical. He also became increasingly lewd and at some point began shouting manically at the audience, building up to a finale, where he turned his back on the audience, dropped his trousers and bent over so that only his bare, white behind was visible under the spotlight on stage. Then, as if trying to prove that he was capable of going far too far, he took out a Roman candle, shoved it in his butt, and lit the fuse, so sparks and flares began flying out towards the stupefied audience.
And, while this was happening, all I could think was that those white flares flying through the air would become hundreds of email messages launched from the computer lab the next day. The association was instantaneous, as if the recurring bursts from his butt were electronic messages themselves containing the words: “You wouldn’t believe what I saw last night…”.
Now, over twenty years later, as the director of a museum, I can't escape the sense of that event as a kind of ghastly creation myth at the center of what I am continually trying to do at my institution. I am interested in the way that art and creative acts have the power to ignite stories.
When the museum engaged artist Jon Rubin for the project Thinking About Flying, which gave visitors the opportunity to take homing pigeons from the museum and release them from anywhere in the city, I was not just interested in creating meaningful experiences for the individuals who actually took the pigeons home with them. I was thrilled that those participants were moved by the experience but I was also happy to hear so many others – people who never went near the pigeons – tell us they simply loved the fact that there was a museum in their city where visitors can check out pigeons.
When our visitor services manager Andy Lynes developed a program called Presidential Waffling, where he served waffles in the museum café while screening the presidential debates, the impact was far beyond the actual participants eating waffles and watching TV. I value programs like that because I want to send a message that, like all the artists we exhibit, as an institution, we strive to break away from conventions and we encourage our visitors to do the same.
Thinking About Flying, Presidential Waffling, and other artworks and creative endeavors have the potential to be meaningful to both immediate visitors and secondary observers. They impact both visitors who experience them in person and the people who see the signal from a distance, who feel the energy and get inspired to do something creative themselves.
The insight I got from the guy with the Roman candle up his ass is that art’s ability to reach distant viewers, to ignite new stories, is not an incidental aspect of art. It may be its very essence.