Peeping Toms

Many of us just like to look. Museums can do that to you.

Marvin Albert is talking a mile a minute, jumping from idea to idea, gesturing at his photographs clustered together on the Frye's walls. "This exhibit isn't art. It's not even artsy photography. I just wanted to know how people behaved in museums. Did they talk, sleep, eat, make love, try to touch the paintings? So for three years, I traveled to art museums all over the world, including Washington, just shooting human behavior."

Looking at People Looking

at Art: The Photographs of Marvin Albert

Frye Art Museum, 622-9250

ends January 31, 1999

Several hundred black-and-white photos cover the walls in front of us, grouped by subjects—kids and teachers, families, loving couples. Like a forgotten chapter of the Kama Sutra, people and art are posed together in every conceivable position: kneeling before paintings, mirroring sculptures with their bodies, stepping up to the art and clenching their fists as if challenging it to fight. Some people sit alone in the dark with art; others sleep curled up on museum benches, exhausted, passion spent.

Although Albert calls his work "non-quantitative social science research," he has a strong compositional sense and an artist's eye. He captures our postures, gestures, and stances exactly. In fact, museum staff have seen patrons unconsciously copying the behavior in the photographs, then laughing as they catch themselves.

Our body language in museums demonstrates the mysterious union between humans and art—that somehow, inanimate paintings, sculptures, and photographs have the power to make us feel passionately alive.

Albert demonstrated that power in his opening-night slide lecture. The audience gasped in horror at the images: a Pietà smashed by a madman with a sledgehammer and a Rembrandt ripped and slashed with a steak knife. The horror we felt provides one proof for the power of art: Because we consider it worth loving, others may consider it worth destroying.

Albert considers museum-goers a kind of "art family." The Frye's intelligent mounting of the show makes a photo album of that family: pensive, solitary figures, kissing couples, crowds huddled around the fiery warmth of art.

But not everyone burns with the same passion for visual art. Reliable estimates from the NEA suggest that at most, only a third of adult Americans regularly attend art museums. Why doesn't everyone feel the same passion for art? What sets the art family apart?

Research in the area suggests the strongest factor relating to adult museum attendance is level of education. Americans with graduate or college degrees are significantly more likely to attend art museums than those with lower education levels. A more specific factor is art education at a young age, through museum trips, art appreciation classes, and art lessons.

Museums strive to expand the art family, a difficult task in an increasingly diverse community, where the privileges of education are unequally distributed. To make the task harder, we have decided, through our elected representatives, that federal and state funding for the arts should be severely cut.

Some museums mount blockbuster shows as a response to these sometimes conflicting demands; these exhibitions, well-advertised and enjoying corporate sponsorship, will generate higher attendance and serve to expand the art family while maintaining a positive financial picture. High attendance figures also convince funding sources that the museum is a good business risk. Since blockbuster shows are designed for broad popular appeal, the increased audiences bring less represented communities into the art family.

Albert's thoughts on blockbuster shows are worth sharing in detail. "The King Tut show changed museum attendance forever. Since then, blockbuster shows bring people to museums who would never, ever go before. Rightly or wrongly, art had always been perceived as an activity for the elite. Blockbuster shows were a big leap forward in democratizing art museum attendance." There is, however, a downside to blockbuster shows: "The overhead. They're incredibly expensive to rent and display. The insurance alone costs a fortune. Plus, blockbuster exhibits put art museums into competition for people's limited disposable income and leisure time. The other players in that market are Disneyland theme parks, touring stage shows, and other types of museums."

Blockbuster shows have caused controversy in the art world since their inception. Before the blockbuster era, museums may have been temples of elitism, but they were also quiet places to visit your favorite pieces of art. Some commentators feel that blockbusters have irrevocably changed what museums are and the reasons that we go to them. Adam Gopnik, for example, a New Yorker art critic, said this of the Museum of Modern Art's blockbuster Matisse show in 1992: "Though museum attendance, geared to big shows, is going up, membership is going down . . . the 'regulars' who used to come at every lunch hour seem far fewer; the traffic appears to be composed largely of tourists and day-trippers, and it flows dutifully past the pictures."

Attendance is up in museums, but who is attending, and why? Gopnik compares the loss of the traditional museum audiences to a similar change in theater attendance. "We end up visiting now, rather than really attending: We go once or twice a year, as though we were paying a visit to an Amish village."

The exhibit of Marvin Albert's photos at the Frye hardly constitutes a blockbuster. Rather quiet and graced with gentle humor, it's nevertheless one of the most interesting Seattle shows this year. Big shows raise big questions: How should museums fulfill their civic role in a changing community? What are the long-term consequences of museum programming strategies? In defiance of the changing nature of museums, we are still in love with art, and Marvin Albert has caught us in the act.

Correction: The review of Michael Fajans' exhibit ("Primary Colors," 10/29) described his work as a mixture of photography and painting. Photographs are used as source material but the finished pieces are painting only.

 
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