I have found that art museums are, for the most part, fairly quiet places. They seem to operate on the same dynamics of a library. For example, though museum workers rarely will, the environment has somehow conditioned me to expect someone to raise a finger to their lips and “shh!” me if I breathe too loudly. When I read about the debates on the concepts of art during the 19th century—what is art? is art moral or immoral? is the artist insane for making a splatter-painting and asking $5,000 for it?—I imagine that many of these thinkers had lengthy and animated conversations in front of works of art and museum patrons. It seems like back then art museums used to be more warm and invigorating, their works the subject of thoughtful conversation. Today, museums have evolved into colder spaces for hushed whisperings and silent reflection.
Part of the museum experience is allowing the art to sink in and permeate your mind. I honestly can’t do that by just standing in front of a painting and looking at it in silence. Okay, so I understand that some people like to concentrate quietly on the painting before them, but I feel that many others like to delve actively into the art to make it more alive for them. Furthermore, talking about a painting or sculpture with others allows for different insights into the work. For example, I might only talk about the artist’s use of shadows and how they might reflect a darker personality, whereas one of my friends might point out the quality of light in the work and how it serves to illuminate the combat between good and evil. That interpretation actually widens my horizons on the matter, which is important when discussing the different messages a work of art can impart. And yes, we can talk about the painting outside the museum, but once you’ve seen more than 800 works, how can you bring that single canvas to the forefront of your brain (unless you’ve got a photographic memory, in which case, you’re incredibly lucky) and talk about it in detail?
So what can we do if we want to have those spirited gallery sessions of yesteryear? GMOA has programs for group tours and interactive art sessions. We’ve had a plethora of student groups who have already come through and there are other events such as Family Day for families to gain a greater appreciation for art through activities, discussions and seminars. We’ve even gone a step further to implement the Artful Conversation program, which invites patrons to join Carissa DiCindio, our curator of education, to discuss one of the pieces in the galleries—all of these certainly amount to a step in the right direction, but what about for the rest of the museum community? Should curators install soundproof glass chambers to separate the “talkies” and the “silents”? Should there be loud days and quiet days during the week? Or should each work be put online for viewers to scroll through and discuss/silently regard at their leisure? GMOA has even begun work on a new collections database that will eventually put many of its works online. Ironically, while there is no easy answer when it comes to art, the question still inspires very passionate discussion, which is a good start.