Written by Jenn DePrizio, Director of Visitor Learning, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Since participating in the 2014 Gallery Teaching Marathon held at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during the NAEA conference, two questions have been swimming around in my mind:
- Where do our expectations for behavior in gallery experiences come from?
- What does satisfaction look and feel like in an art museum experience?
Issues of expectations and satisfaction are part of the work we do each day. We plan gallery talks, tours, and programs with intention and hope that we meet the needs and expectations of our visitors. During the Marathon, I participated as both a learner and facilitator in the varied gallery experiences that ranged from using thinking routines to creating poetry to using movement as a way to express personal interpretation of a work of art. Since that day I have been thinking deeply about expectations and satisfaction from both points of view as learner and teacher. The reflection that follows begins to dig into the questions posed above.
Where do our expectations for behavior in gallery experiences come from?
As a teacher I approach each learning opportunity with my own set of expectations. For the Marathon, I paired up with my Gardner Museum colleague Michelle Grohe (Director of School and Teacher Programs) to offer an experience we called “VTSing VTS.” We wanted to move beyond the heated debates that sometimes surrounds Visual Thinking Strategies. We simply wanted to engage in conversation about a work of art with our colleagues using the method, and then talk about what the experience was like — hence our title “VTSing VTS.” One of the misconceptions about VTS is that it can only be used successfully with young children or those unfamiliar with art, i.e. beginner viewers. So, Michelle and I were curious to see what a VTS discussion would be like with a group of non-beginner viewers, specifically our art museum education colleagues. We wondered, “What would museum educators do with the open-ended question ‘What’s going on in this picture?’” with this work of art: An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Collar of Thorns) , by artist Yasumasa Morimura.
We anticipated that some members of our group may have prior knowledge to contribute to the conversation—maybe someone would be familiar with this artist’s work, maybe someone would think it looked like an image by Frida Kahlo they’d seen before, maybe someone would have first-hand knowledge of photographic processes. We hoped that through our group dialogue we could dispel the myth that these kinds of comments should not be shared. Often in VTS discussions with non-beginners, participants hold back and do not share background knowledge they may have about the work being discussed. Is this because they think they can’t or shouldn’t? If so, where does that restrictive idea come from? Because we wanted everyone to authentically participate in the discussion, before turning it over to Michelle to lead the VTS discussion, I encouraged everyone to share whatever they wanted to express —observations, questions, prior knowledge, etc. The resulting discussion was one in which many ideas were contributed and numerous questions were posed.
What does satisfaction look and feel like in a museum experience?
Prior to the VTS discussion, we wanted to take the pulse of the group in terms of knowledge and experience with VTS, so I asked a simple question about what was on their minds about VTS. There were many thoughtful responses, but one that stuck with me is “I am wondering if this experience will be satisfying.” It’s a natural feeling to wonder if what you are about to engage in will be enjoyable and fulfilling. But in this case I wonder if some of this skepticism may have been based on the fact that the discussion would be entirely generated by the group with no art historical content added by the facilitator. The content of our 20 minutes together talking about a work of art would come entirely from the participants with the skilled facilitator (Michelle) paraphrasing and linking comments.
So, I’m curious, do we need art historical information to be satisfied in an art museum experience? Throughout the Marathon, we had participated in a number of gallery experiences that did not include any art historical information, discussion of artist intention or biography, etc. In those instances, the facilitator encouraged us to experience the works of art through poetry, movement, creating sound effects, and sometimes even silence. Is it because VTS is based on words that participants expect the facilitator to contribute certain words, i.e. information? How much of our criteria for satisfaction is dependent on the type of experience we are having? If our experience is word-based, do we expect the facilitator to provide art historical content? And if our experience is movement-based or poetry-based, do we have the same expectations?
For me, VTS discussions are always satisfying—even when they are not (more on that in a moment)—for many reasons. At the Gallery Teaching Marathon, what was most satisfying for me was getting to know my colleagues better. By listening to the way people talk about a work of art, I caught a glimpse of the way they think. I learned how comfortable they felt (or did not feel) when offering a divergent opinion. I discovered that even seasoned museum professionals can feel self-conscious about taking the conversation in a different direction. I was given a privileged peek into who they are. It’s not every day that we see others in an authentic, vulnerable way like that. The final comment of our VTS discussion offered a different interpretation of the work of art. As a teacher I appreciated greatly that someone was brave enough to offer an idea so different than the rest of the group. This is what I cherish about open-ended gallery experiences—the opportunity for every visitor’s voice to be heard and valued equally.
Can we be satisfied by not being satisfied?
All of this thinking about satisfaction has led me to another question: When is not fully being satisfied a good thing? A desire for more from an experience does not have to be a negative thing. It is the curiosity that is sparked, the debate that is started, the challenge to one’s way of thinking that is necessary for a transformative experience. It is precisely that hunger for more discussion, deeper understanding, and expanded knowledge that propels our thinking and understanding of art and ourselves. So, can we be satisfied by not being satisfied?
Weeks after the Gallery Teaching Marathon, I am appreciative for colleagues who were willing to experiment and discuss our teaching practice. There are many, many ways that we can encourage our visitors to have meaningful experiences with our collections. No one technique can accomplish all that is possible with a work of art. What happened in the galleries at MCASD during the Marathon reinforced my belief that our teaching practice can and should be diverse and far-reaching. I hope we can continue to be open-minded and supportive of the work that we each do. For me that would be so satisfying.