In a previous post, I demonstrated that museum visiting has changed dramatically throughout history, and that museums today must think of new ways to relate to visitors. Roughly within the last generation, museums in the United States have begun working to create and nurture lasting relationships with the public, and have begun to focus their energies on more fully and deeply engaging visitors with public programming and education. One aspect of this new focus is allocating spaces within the museums that are dedicated to engaging visitors through art-making activities, social discussions, and nontraditional learning.
Examples of this trend can be seen at several major New York art institutions. Three in particular are exemplary, and to highlight their work in this area, I spoke to Leslie Schultz, president of BRIC; Prerana Reddy, director of Public Programs & Community Engagement at the Queens Museum; and Kathryn Potts, associate director of Education at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In these conversations, we discussed how and why each institution developed these spaces, and the ways in which they help make the institution seem more democratic and welcoming to the communities they serve.
BRIC’s main building, the BRIC Arts Media House, features an architectural element that signals to visitors that they should come in and hang out: a large, wide set of cement steps right at the entrance. The steps are similar (albeit on a much larger scale) to the brownstone stoops in the surrounding neighborhood of Fort Green, Brooklyn. The BRIC “stoop,” visible from outside through the museum’s glass walls, is about 36 feet wide and 8 feet tall, cascading down to a central exhibition space that provides 3,000 square feet for event staging and art exhibitions. BRIC’s mission is to serve the community by exhibiting art, producing concerts, staging performances, providing artist workspaces, establishing media channels, and providing educational programs for all Brooklyn residents. The Media House was thereby constructed to include a small café, a public media center, two performance spaces, a TV studio, and artist workspaces. The building, designed by Thomas Leeser, won an award for design even before it opened in 2013.
When I asked Leslie Schultz how the stoop became part of the architectural plan, she answered, “It’s really important to understand BRIC’s origins in order to appreciate what direction we gave the architect. BRIC is first and foremost a cultural institution, and it was born in a public park. We started our presenting in a wide open, completely unrestricted space.” She went on to relate how BRIC — then named the Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn — launched the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival in Prospect Park with the cultural and civic mission of revitalizing Brooklyn through the arts. By way of architectural direction, Leeser was given a list of abstract adjectives — “informal, welcoming, inviting” — and he responded with the plan for the Media House. According to Schultz, the staff consider BRIC a “presenter of free cultural and arts programming,” and a city leader in this regard. The stoop is a quintessential signifier of BRIC’s focus on making people feel that the organization is for them.
While the Queens Museum is primarily housed in one main building that includes education spaces and artist studios, it has broadened its service remit beyond art educational programs and exhibitions. By developing two satellite locations as spaces of direct contact with potential visitors, the museum now participates in community-led health initiatives, political struggles, and social campaigns.
Beginning in 2005, the Queens Museum staff started working to convert Corona Plaza at 103rd Street from a parking lot to a community gathering space by staging street parties and cultural festivals. Hosting these public events helped to generate a network of community partners, including local business owners, community leaders, and artists, who helped produce future events. These partnerships were key to the successful initiative to turn the space into an official public plaza that was permanently closed to vehicle traffic in 2012. The Department of Transportation granted the request because the museum successfully demonstrated that it is a stable and responsible neighborhood force that will continue to provide participatory public programs to engage the community.
The second community space came about because in 2011, Queens Museum commissioned artist Tania Bruguera (in collaboration with Creative Time) to create a resource space for immigrants in the neighborhood, particularly those who may never have attended a museum, do not come from a museum-going culture, or whose first language is not English. The Immigrant Movement International space, a storefront near the 7 train on Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, Queens, now serves as a platform for artists interested in immigration issues to collaborate with immigrants, while simultaneously providing services and classes that are useful to these populations. For example, one program taught English through performance art, and another developed a children’s orchestra.
In our conversation, I asked Reddy why the Queens Museum is so responsive to its geographic community. She said, “Our location is in the middle of a park surrounded by a bunch of highways. We are not on the art circuit. If we are going to be relevant, we have to relevant to the local context and the people around here.”
More than the Queens Museum or BRIC, the Whitney Museum has, for several decades, been a central institution in the New York arts scene — a position anchored by the prominence of its Biennial and its independent study program. However, these aspects of the museum have not previously made it particularly visitor-oriented. Rather, the common perception has been of the museum as a fairly stodgy institution concerned with cultivating institutional authority on the subject of American contemporary art. But that began to change with the museum’s move to the Meatpacking District — a much younger, hipper neighborhood — last year. The shift is obvious even in the new building’s architectural scheme: whereas the former building was a gray, Brutalist citadel uptown in Museum Mile, the downtown structure abuts the new Highline Park, offering large, open-air terraces and myriad window views.
The most convincing indication of the museum’s new focus on public engagement is how it has made use of the entire third floor of the new building for education and public programs. According to Potts, this was part of the plan from the outset. This main space, named the Laurie M. Tisch Education Center, includes the education department offices, an art space and gallery, and a theater space, with both of the latter fluidly configurable for varied needs. Having these spaces has allowed the Whitney to create programs that tie public interest to the museum’s collection and exhibitions. For example, for a “family day” taking place in conjunction with the Frank Stella retrospective, the museum worked with artist McKendree Key to construct a gigantic room-sized marble run that sought to physicalize aspects of Stella’s work for young visitors.
For Potts, that program is illustrative of the expanded education possibilities now available to the Whitney. There are also opportunities such as the “open studio” programs, in which artists and educators work on projects with children and their parents, and for adults there are events like the screening and public conversation about Andy Warhol’s Soap Opera that took place last year. These programs, according to Potts, make the education department’s work more visible. As she says, “We’ve been able to do a lot more programs where people can just come and find our spaces. I think that’s a way for us to build an audience to come to the museum and appreciate and learn more about us.”
Energetic growth and expansion in the art institutional scene in New York show no signs of stopping. In the next few years, several institutions — including the Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Hispanic Society, the Caribbean Cultural Center, and Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery — are moving and enlarging their spaces. Part of what will help these institutions continue to thrive is to use this new construction to nurture more intimate connections with their communities.