We can dance if we want to

Christina Hill, distressed by interpretive features incorporated into recent Detroit Institute of Arts special exhibitions, suggests that this reflects the DIA's "rather low opinion of Detroiters ... [who] 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." ("Lowering the Barre," Metro Times, Jan. 10). Her statement could not be further from the truth. In fact, all of the examples she cites were designed precisely to encourage the general visitor to look more closely at the works in the galleries around them.

The dance studio, for example, was there for any visitor who so chose to try the most basic of dance positions and get a sense of the challenges facing the would-be dancer as well as the fascination that an artist such as Degas would derive from seeing these young dancers progress from their early, awkward efforts to the seamless grace of the corps de ballet. This small room — one of three prominent educational components in the exhibition — was actually "off" the main route through the exhibition and clearly separated from the rest of the exhibition. No art was placed in it. Nearby was a screening room showing a film of young ballet dancers actually practicing, accompanied by the commentary of one of the co-curators of the exhibition, who used to be a professional choreographer. The third component was a room containing computers where visitors could leaf through virtual versions of Degas' sketchbooks to see how relentlessly and repetitively he recorded the dancers' movements as he tried to "get it right."

I could outline in detail the intentions behind the interactive components in the other two exhibitions that so distressed Hill, but what came across to me from her article was mainly her predetermined exasperation toward anything that even remotely threatens to impinge upon her expert meditation as a trained art historian. Because expertise and ownership is what this all comes down to.

The art museum as we know it today was essentially invented in the two decades around 1900 when wealthy connoisseurs teamed up with a new breed of scholar — the art historian — to create places where great works of art could be arrayed in grand spaces telling a story based essentially on stylistic development. You know the kind of thing: Early Renaissance, Renaissance, High Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classicism and thence down through a veritable plethora of "isms" — some famous, many more obscure — to the last decades of the last century. To say that art museums were invented by art historians and run by art historians for art historians is not to belittle these efforts, but simply to draw attention to the framework that most of the rest of the world has had to negotiate to get close to great art in public collections. Not surprisingly, Hill is extremely comfortable in the traditional museum. How could she not be? It was tailor-made for her and she for it.

But most art museum visitors are not trained in art history or in any of the alternative disciplines that permit works of art to "speak" to them with the ease they do to Hill, to me and to others like us. The reason that the Met in New York and the National Gallery in Washington stick to the "older, quieter model" is not that their visitors are more self-confident than ours in Detroit, but that it is predominantly tourists who are going to visit them under almost any circumstances. In that sense, Hill is indeed "hopelessly idealistic" (her words) in expecting works of art to speak directly to very many people simply through "intent" looking. To recognize this fact is not to insult anyone. Different visitors have different degrees of expertise, but one thing they all have is a high degree of respect for culture and obvious intelligence. How could they not have? They chose — out of many other choices — to devote precious personal time to a DIA visit and I believe it is incumbent upon us to find ways to engage these visitors, most of whom, we know from our research, welcome the kinds of efforts Hill finds so egregiously wrong-headed.

Responding to my statement that much of our research militates against the primacy of "quiet contemplative places for ... the self-confident visitor," Ms. Hill jumps to the conclusion that "Beal's new DIA will be a noisy place, nonconducive to thinking." Well, actually, no. While there will very definitely be different kinds of interactive stations to engage our visitors, they will, by and large, not impinge unduly on those who wish to maintain a more self-contained experience. For those, like Ms. Hill, who recoil with horror at such calculated disregard for their sensibilities, I ask that they remember we are attempting to engage a nonspecialist audience in a process that will increase appreciation of some of the most extraordinary objects made in the history of the world — objects that make the DIA one of a handful of truly great art museums in the United States.

Finally, a personal note. I responded to Christina Hill's e-mail because I knew her to be a DIA member, a teacher and, indirectly, a personal acquaintance. My correspondence with her is technically and legally hers to do with what she will, but to take an ostensibly professional and personal exchange that is over a year old and use it as the basis of a piece of journalism without seeking additional comment strikes me as more than a little questionable.

Graham W. J. Beal is director, president and CEO of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Send comments to [email protected]
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