“What do we want from museums?” As the topic for the final meeting of this summer’s educator-facilitated, public discussion series, Agora, this question fittingly articulated the line of thinking that motivated the program’s unique format and approach. While Agora (named after the ancient Greek tradition of philosophical inquiry) includes many expected elements of museum programming—a set location and meeting time, comfortable seating for the public, a subject for discussion, and a museum educator—the details point toward the distinctiveness of the experiences that ensue: instead of taking place in front of a specific artwork or in an exhibition, the group of participants form a circle in a shady corner of MoMA’s Sculpture Garden; in lieu of an artist or movement, the starting point for conversation is an open-ended question; and instead of providing answers, an educator asks follow-up questions and weaves together the visitors’ insights. In my experience attending each of the six conversations that occurred this July, and facilitating one of them, I came to appreciate how these slight shifts away from familiar forms of programming invite us to think about our desires as museum-goers by first reconsidering the characteristics of the museum itself. With participants exploring universal themes, and sharing and comparing their ideas freely, the Agora programs present a model that prompts us to engage with a new question in response to the first: what do we get out of museums when they become the setting for communal inquiry?
Over the course of the series, participants had the chance to experience this process of collective investigation through a wide-ranging set of six questions about art and museums: What is art? What is the role of the handmade in art today? What is the value in art? Is art urgent? What makes an artwork successful? What do we want from museums? These broad questions highlighted the scope of the subjects that are open for inquiry within a museum, since the relevance of these queries stretches across the Museum and its collections and draws out the connections between artworks, the artists who created them, and the viewers who interact with them. While the topics in question are implicit within all the work we do in museums, they rarely get publicly asked and explored. For example, when visiting an art museum, how often do you take time to question and discuss the criteria that go into deciding what gets displayed? The conversations on the definition, success, and urgency of art all touched on this point in various ways, with participants voicing ideas such as how artists can demand certain attention for their work by describing it in deliberate way, or how visitors can inform criteria by expressing their support for (or even just buying admission to see) particular works or exhibitions.
Aside from initiating discussions that might not otherwise take place in the museum, the free-flowing approach of the Agora programs seemed to have the additional effect of generating an informal, personal tone within the groups. At each session, the educator introduced the topic and offered an initial thought before opening the question to the group. As we sat in the tranquil and open setting of the Sculpture Garden, there was a sense that any and all reflections on the question were pertinent, since there was no work in front of us carrying evidence to indicate right or wrong answers. In the conversations that ensued, there was a balance between comments about personal experiences and references to particular artworks or art historical facts—a combination that acknowledges the many ways that artworks are meaningful to individuals, as well as to artists and cultures. Since people can now tap in to this network of significance wherever they are by viewing artworks and interacting in conversations online, we were also able to use live tweeting as a way to open each Agora’s explorations to participants outside the garden. The individuals who actively followed and engaged with the MoMA Talks Twitter feed during these sessions not only contributed to the weaving of perspectives that took place within the conversations, but also demonstrated the exciting potential for collective investigation to simultaneously connect multiple sites.
By offering a way to engage with a museum from a personal and collaborative perspective, the process of communal inquiry can yield any number of outcomes: insight on new subjects, models for interpretation, opportunities to delve deeper into topics, or a feeling of connectedness among visitors, to name a few. But above all else, I am energized by the way that this process gives each person the chance to take on the role of an active participant who can ask the question, “What do we want from museums?”—and then fulfill their own answer. Once we start framing our own inquiries, we can see that a museum’s collections, history, and associations offer countless opportunities for discovery, exploration, and interpretation—opportunities that we can take advantage of repeatedly and from multiple vantage points.
This summer’s Agora series was just one example of the ways in which we in the Adult and Academic Programs department are inviting visitors to take on this role and connect with the big ideas that exist under the surface of what you see at MoMA. The same spirit of investigation and personalization unites our other initiatives, including our participatory Gallery Sessions, interactive Studio Spaces, and collaborative Peer Learning Groups. Join us in these ongoing experiments and let us know what you take away from the experiences!