January 18, 2012

How Visitors Changed the Oakland Museum

The new art gallery spaces at the Oakland Museum of California are different from the typical row of paintings on white walls designed to provide a contemplative experience. The Oakland installations look like they were designed by a history curator, or perhaps by an animated group of teenagers. The traditional artist and period categories are largely missing, replaced by a lively mix of many different organizational techniques. The impact is jarring at first--Look here! No, look here! But then, as you spend more time, it is engaging--What's this? Why is that here? Have you seen this?

One thing the exhibition isn't is contemplative, and that is perhaps the point. Most visitors don't have the background to enjoy many art museum exhibits. A didactic exhibit that sought to explain would be deadly.  The OMCA opens up access to the art by seeking to engage visitors and then to validate individual responses. The spaces are inviting. The experience is comfortable. The result is visitors who have a fulfilling aesthetic experience and are, perhaps, inspired to learn more.

This is not the approach most art museum directors would choose. Contemplative experience are what many visitors expect, but it works here.

The Museum has published a book about their transformation: How We Visitors Changed the Oakland Museum (the strike-through is theirs). Lori Fogarty, the Executive Director, writes in the foreword:
When I first began here, we couldn’t capture the right word for what we were doing – except that they all began with “re.”  Remodel?  Not quite right – sounds like the kitchen.  Renovation? Suited more for an old farmhouse.  Reinstallation? Who knows what that means.  Reinvention? Well, only if we’re tossing our history aside. 
As we moved further into the process, however, I began to see that this project involved much more than the physical change of expanding galleries, enhancing the infrastructure, and improving our visitor amenties.  This project touches every aspect of the Museum – from the way we work together as a staff, with our visitors, with our community – an ultimately the vision of this institution.  We are transforming.  And, as the dictionary so aptly notes, this means changing our composition and structure; our outward appearance; and most fundamentally, our character and constitution.
(The quote is cribbed from the Arts Forward blog.)

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