Lowering the barre

Jan 10, 2007 at 12:00 am

For several years I was happy to spend much of my small salary from teaching art history on buying the work of local artists and supporting the Detroit Institute of Arts and its oldest auxiliary, Friends of Modern Art. For my husband and me, a wonderful chunk our social life revolved around FMA events: too many vodkas at parties in the Great Hall before lectures, (overly) long formal dinners surrounded by Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry frescoes (and sometimes dreadful bores at our table), special access to exhibitions so that one unforgettable night I was completely alone in a room full of van Gogh's portraits!

Yet in December of 2005, I made a painful decision: I would not renew my DIA or FMA membership. If asked, in 2006, "You goin'?" I'd say, "No." It wasn't about the money, nor had I committed an unforgivable social faux pas. No, it came down to the ballet barre. And more importantly, what the ballet barre meant for the future of the museum.

Let me explain.

In 2002, the DIA hosted Degas and the Dance, a gorgeous exhibition. A room near the exhibition's end, however, simulated a dance studio, complete with mirrors and a ballet barre which patrons were encouraged to use. Imagine the sight of the overweight and the hyperactive hoisting their legs unsucessfully toward the barre. Not pretty. Yet Graham Beal, director of the DIA, in a series of e-mails with me in late 2005, defended the faux ballet studio as an essential "educational activity."

How so, please?

In a similar vein, for the museum's 2005 exhibition of Gerard ter Borch's work — a 17th century Dutch master of painted fabrics, especially satin, and fur — the final gallery was dominated by a "touch station," an awkward attachment to the wall from which dangled bits of bad polyester satin and hideous fake fur. The "educational" purpose of those modern simulations was lost on me, and their intrusion almost ruined my visit. Beal responded to my objection by writing that although "we were not entirely pleased with the Ter Borch touch station ... We will, nevertheless, be doing such things in the future."

More such things in the future meant that for the later 2005 joint exhibition of the work of sculptors who were also lovers, Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, the DIA installed a show so dependent on oversized melodramatic signage — I swear it was as lurid as: "Their Passion Was Overwhelming! Their Love Was Too Hot to Last!" — that a colleague and I feared being thrown out we were laughing so hard. Some of the sculpture itself, as if an afterthought, was crammed against walls so it couldn't be experienced fully. Yet the love affair — priceless! That was the final straw for me, and I instigated the e-mail exchange.

Beal has since gone public about the DIA's plans to include many such "interactive" stations in galleries as they reinstall the museum's collection during its renovation. He also sent this crucial statement to me: "Our research is leading us to reverse priorities and, rather than cater for our fellow art historians (a vanishingly small percentage of the population!) and hope others will catch us, we now plan installations that engage visitors through topics and issues to which they can easily relate and bring the art history in later."

My question is this: How low will the museum set the barre for visitors in the future? (Sorry.) Will they be seeking patrons looking for playgrounds rather than the joys of art? Those wholly ignorant of tactile pleasures? Only aficionados of romance novels? Maybe Beal considers my belief, that a painting or a sculpture is inherently "interactive," hopelessly idealistic, but consider: You look intently at a painting, it speaks to you (OK, not literally, but figuratively — just give it a chance); you look more intensely, it speaks volumes — an endless exchange. Must there be bells, whistles and touch-screens? If you can manipulate a computer mightn't you also try manipulating the parts of your brain receptive to sensory pleasure?

Beal's new DIA will be a noisy place, nonconducive to thinking. His research on visitors, he claims, "runs counter to the old requirement of quiet contemplative places for unmediated interpretation by the self-confident visitor." That statement reflects a rather low opinion of Detroiters, doesn't it, since museums in "world class" cities, such as the Met in New York and the National Gallery in D.C. have stuck with the older, quieter museum model? Because their residents are more "self-confident"? Give us a chance.

Beal also makes the claim that "the DIA has carried out a great deal of research into visitor behavior, expectations and response ... (and that) my colleagues have become regarded as leaders in the field." Really? On frequent visits to major museums around the country I have yet to see anything comparable to the barre or the fabric "innovations," unless Can-Can music at Chicago's Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit counts. A trend I have witnessed, however, is the proliferation of reading rooms, so exhibition catalogues can be studied. Rather than being the beneficiaries of vanguard concepts, Detroiters have been judged as dum-dums who can't engage with art, and must be lured into the DIA on some pretext unrelated to art.

There is, of course, a need to attract younger generations to museums. Many institutions, including the DIA, have done this by promoting festive weekend nights. At Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the museum has actually become the scene for young hipsters on Saturday nights, with videos, DJs and drinks — which is, importantly, an appeal to the audience's sophistication and not their stupidity. There is also the allocation of interactive family spaces where children can be initiated into the museum experience. Messing with the art itself, however — in its "holy" space, as I see it — shouldn't be a solution. Because it's predicated on the assumption that art alone, art for art's sake, isn't enough. And it is.

And by the way, I just renewed my membership. Hope springs eternal.

Christina Hill is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]