How many times have we overheard visitors looking at Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel or an Abstract Expressionist work for the first time wonder aloud, “But why is this art? How did this make it into a museum?” (And, let’s be honest, how many times have we seen a new piece and silently asked ourselves the exact same thing?) How many times have we heard friends, family, or even strangers on the subway express hesitancy or concern about visiting an art museum or gallery for fear they “won’t get” the art?
Someone once told me that modern art lives in its stories, because so many works of modern and contemporary art are greater than the sum of their physical parts. They must be understood more holistically: the time and place surrounding a work’s creation, its immediate and long-term impact on the art community, the artist’s intention and process, etc. In working in the Interpretation, Research, and Digital Learning team in MoMA’s Department of Education, it’s my job to aid in the creation of educational video content about MoMA’s collection for moma.org and for our online courses. And while it’s a respectable and simple enough strategy to have an educator or curator rattle off some facts about artists’ process while standing in front of the work in the galleries, as an institution that celebrates the contemporary visual arts, shouldn’t we be on the cutting edge in terms of the content we release? Shouldn’t we, as an institution that specializes in not only art education, but art appreciation as well, seek to make modern and contemporary art not only accessible, but exciting and alive for our audiences? These questions about how to tell engaging and informative stories led me first to the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, and then on to Los Angeles, where I picked the brains of colleagues working in digital media at the <a href=http://www.lacma.org/" target="blank">Los Angeles County Museum of Art</a> and The Getty.During my time at the San Francisco film festival, I managed to attend screenings of eight films (seven narrative features and one documentary) and Q&A sessions with such esteemed and innovative storytellers as filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, actor Richard Gere, and acclaimed investigative journalist and virtual reality pioneer Nonny de La Peña. While I enjoyed seeing so many well-crafted narrative works from filmmakers around the world, I have to say that the film that most surprised and captivated me with its storytelling was Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Combining interviews, archival footage, artwork, contemporary headlines and news reports, and music, Stanley Nelson’s documentary not only enlightened me about a subject I initially knew next to nothing about, it made me invested in actions and consequences several generations removed from me. Later that evening, I went to a talk hosted by Nonny de la Peña about her work in “immersive journalism.” Immersive journalism is the term applied to her process of pairing archival audio footage of various real-life events (ranging from an air raid in Syria to the Indy 500) with virtual reality software to allow people to “experience” those events firsthand.
These two radically different approaches got me thinking. A story well told can be an incredibly powerful thing. It has the ability to connect people to events generations and continents distant. I realized that the reason why I was so able to connect with these pieces was that I didn’t feel bogged down with facts and figures and history. Rather, I was invested in the outcomes of the “characters” in the narratives, as if I were watching a fictional story unfold. I was drawn in by the drama and the tension between the various protagonists and the circumstances of the worlds in which they exist. In a word, I empathized. I found myself wondering, how can museums make people feel this emotionally invested in art?
This question is why I traveled to Los Angeles to talk with the digital media teams at LACMA and the Getty. I was curious about how they combined high-quality animations with storytelling strategies to produce creative video content (like a Getty video about the process of mummification, or a LACMA video about an Elizabeth Taylor photography exhibition). It was a great experience to meet with the teams behind video and digital content at these institutions, discussing the process of taking a visitor “inside” an artwork so they can better understand the process of its creation and its impact on the art world.
In the 21st century, it isn’t nearly enough for a museum to simply house great works of art. Due to their challenging and (forgive the pun) abstract nature, modern and contemporary art exhibitions are not always “curate it, and they will come” affairs. Modern and contemporary art can be strange, discomforting, inscrutable, and sometimes downright ugly—and deliberately so. It’s up to us as educators to reach out to our audiences and assure them that museums are for everyone, and to alleviate their fears that they aren’t smart, educated, or privileged enough to be touched by art. After all, who doesn’t love a good story?