A recent study published by the James Irvine Foundation (October 2011) entitled Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation draws insights from nonprofit arts groups and experts to explore a new model for understanding and supporting participatory arts practices, a growing trend here in the United States as well as across the globe. Here is how the reports’ authors begin to frame this “siesmic shift” towards a participatory arts culture:
“Technology has fundamentally changed the way people interact, learn, and think about culture. Contemporary notions of creativity, shaped by Web 2.0, center on shared construction of cultural identity and an ethos of participatory experience…. The open, free and instantaneous exchange of digital content affords people the resources to control their own creative experiences and make their own meaning. Interactive experiences of all sorts are now an expected norm.” (6)
But, then the report got a lot more interesting to me…
“This shift is about more than just technology. People are thinking about the experience of culture differently than in the past, placing value on a more immersive and interactive experience than is possible through mere observation…. Americans are activating their own creativity in new and unusual ways … [as] part of a larger ‘participatory economy’ in which social connection eclipses consumption. Americans want to meet the people who make our products, share in the work of the makers, and make things ourselves.” (6)
The report’s human-centered focus brings much-needed attention to the ability of the arts (and arts institutions) to connect people, to create shared experiences, and to contribute to the cultural fabric of the communities in which we live and work.
For art museums (and museum educators, especially), the report provides an extremely meaningful tool for reflecting on how we involve audiences in shaping their own experiences and making their own meaning. The report’s “Audience Involvement Spectrum” provides a nice, workable model for audience engagement, from “receptive” involvement (the type of spectating and educational enrichment occurring in the vast majority of arts museums) to increasingly “participatory” involvement (the types of crowd-sourcing, co-creation, and public artistic experiences that more and more art museums are slowly striving toward).
The report is worth a close read. It asks some essential questions about arts programming in the 21st century, and I think art museums would have much to gain by thinking more about how they fit into this new landscape of active arts participation. As museum educators, we have our hands on the wheel when it comes to programs — and the Irvine report clearly and strongly states that “attracting the next generation of audiences and visitors will require a transformation in programming” (11). At the core of this transformation is both thinking outside the box (‘the box’ in this case being the rigid walls and traditions of art museums) and letting go of institutional and curatorial authority so that visitors can feel comfortable and empowered to shape their own creative experiences.
If you have a chance to peruse the Irvine Foundation’s report, I’d love to hear how your institution’s programs (or your own teaching philosophies) fit on their spectrum of audience involvement. Has your institution embraced any of these aspects of participatory arts practice? Do you value these types of creative, artistic experiences when you visit art museums yourself (or do you shy away from them for more passive types of engagement)?