Free and Open: Towards an Expanded Public

September 29, 2015

I work at the Yale University Art Gallery, an extraordinary encyclopedic collection of art founded in 1832 that is free and open to the public. Six days a week, for a few minutes or an entire Sunday, anyone can walk through the door and linger over an etching, study the history of sculpture, or attend a free program, which range from artist talks to music or student-led book making sessions. The public has access to culture at the Yale Art Gallery but is free and open to the public enough? Does it change and expand the dynamic of who actually visits the Gallery and experiences the collection? 

As the curator of programs, I think about audience, who they are, and the ways they engage, and I think about the multiple communities that surround the Gallery: the university, the city of New Haven, and beyond. At our public programs, we do see a cross section of these communities, but often our audience consists of a narrow band of the public: people who have a connection to the arts, free time, and a level of comfort walking into a building with an elegant but subtle Louis Kahn entrance labeled “Yale.”

This summer, two colleagues and I investigated ideas of audience through a participatory pop-up studio program on the sidewalk outside the museum. Working with art students, we devised a series of Sidewalk Studios, each focused on a single medium: passersby of all ages were invited to make paper, for example, or to draw a map of their day, at a table outside the gallery. The pace of each activity offered us time to talk, to encourage people to enter the Gallery with a tangible prompt, examine surfaces or look for traces of biography, for example, and most basically to find out if people knew about the Gallery. Not everyone did, as was the case with at least one person waiting for the bus at the stop in front of the Gallery. The experience of Sidewalk Studio had me thinking about the symbiotic or reciprocal relationship between the Gallery and the public: each benefits from the presence of the other but how best does this relationship exist and evolve?

My focus as an art historian is on American artists of the 1960s and 1970s, artists who moved outside the gallery often to remote open western land in defiance of New York art world installation limitations and rotation schedules. Walter De Maria created The Lightning Field in Quemado, New Mexico in 1977, a one mile by one kilometer grid of four hundred steel stakes in a region with frequent lighting. If time and funds allow, visitors can register to spend the night in a log cabin adjacent to the field, and to experience the sun set and rise on this field in an artwork that engages duration and phenomenology. Just over a thousand people can visit The Lightning Field in any given year; far fewer still will experience lightning connecting with one of the stakes, an auratic and unpredictable moment captured in an iconic photograph of the work. For a work as inaccessible as this, the photograph threatens to replace the experience, with the document of a work of art becoming the work of art.

Are there ways in which works in a local museum are as remote as The Lightning Field? How do we make original works of art, and the embedded ideas of progress and creativity, available and relevant to as many as possible? Laws may restrict what is available to the public but even in a case such as the Gallery, an institution free and open to the public, there are other barriers that need to be overcome. How do we create a truly reciprocal relationship between cultural institutions and the public, with installations and programs that challenge, provoke, and welcome people in contemplation, dialogue, and exchange?