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Speak Out: Response to Culture Track ’17

By Kathleen Arffmann
arttimesjournal November 29, 2017

There is a study here about the arts by LaPlaca Cohen that was published in arttimesjournal. LaPlaca Cohen is a firm that worked with The Met over 30 years ago and I had direct contact with them because of my knowledge of the museum audience.

The survey, as always, is professionally done, but I do not agree with many of the underlying assumptions. Specifically, I do not agree that the "essential aesthetic experience" for new audiences has changed or can change.

The reason people come back and there is a" roll" or natural increase in audience attendance is in the uniqueness of "seeing" for the first time. This is meant in the most theoretical sense. What museums need to do is build on that experience and that takes serious painstaking research, because a museum needs to know first what the audience wants to know to enhance and stimulate that elusive experience. Furthermore, it differs from person to person depending on education and ongoing visits to art museums, or how frequently they visit.

One of the easiest ways to build attendance is make people comfortable: seating, restrooms, easy access rest areas where visitors can collect themselves before going on with their visit. The Met has done a good job of addressing these basic needs. Maybe, it could be better, but compared with the past, lion strides have been made.

If attendance is slipping, one needs to look elsewhere. As museums become more crowded, viewing conditions become intolerable, especially if an aesthetic experience is at stake. One might be able to see a costume exhibit with dense crowding, but with painting, sculpture and such, one needs more time. You can't be pushed along by crowds and expect to have more than the New York experience of saying, "oh, yes, I saw that too!"

What I mean by in depth research in order to build audience rests with finding out what most people want to know about a subject. I have found people who have the educational background will do their own research, head for the bookshop or find other means to answer their questions. It is the new and infrequent museum-goer that needs the most help. There have been recent attempts to collect data from audio guides. It would be interesting to see what was found. There may be some answers here.

Recently, I visited the Greek galleries at The Met hoping that some of the stories and images on the Greek pots were included in the wall texts or audio tours -- no such luck. The young lady at the audio desk said that's what she wanted to know too. I always had the bad fortune of being an ordinary museum-goer.

Until it is fully understood how to build on the aesthetic experience, it would be wise to increase the asking price with great caution. It took an awfully long time for attendance growth to reach the current levels and I would be very sad to see it decline.

Kathleen M. Arffmann
General Manager for Visitor Services 1973 -2005
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Full dates of employment 1971-2005