Not long ago, the National Endowment for the Arts released some survey results that turned a lot of heads. It seems that in 1997, the most recent year for which statistics are available, an astounding 68 million American adults made a visit to an art museum. If that remarkable figure is correct, it accounts for slightly more than 1 out of every 3 adults in the population.
What's more, each of those adults made an average of 3.3 trips to an art museum. These numbers represent an amazing fourfold increase since a 1991 survey prepared for the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. The steady decline in already minimal art education in America's beleaguered public schools might lead one to suspect the numbers would be going the other way, yet even accounting for survey discrepancies, the reverse apparently is true. Compared to performing arts such as classical music and theater, art museums are by far the most popular choice of Americans attending arts activities today.
As the 20th century closes, what does the appearance of these unprecedented numbers mean? The expanding popularity of art museums signals a profound alteration in the place these institutions traditionally have occupied in American life. Once a touchstone for the specialized discipline of art history, art museums are becoming something they've never been before: a form of mass entertainment.
Talk to different people, both within the art museum field and without, and you'll get lots of different explanations for the phenomenon. A few are idealistic, most are practical.
In an increasingly fragmented and materialistic world, the idealists suggest, people are hungry for something they can't get from going to the movies, surfing the Net, shopping at the mall or spending the day at an amusement park. Press them on exactly what that "something" is, and after vague gestures in the direction of intangibles such as authenticity of experience or spiritual renewal, voices start to trail off.
Pragmatic answers are more numerous. Typically, an art museum ticket costs less than an evening at the opera or a theater matinee. Families can attend, without the added expense of baby-sitters. Your time is your own at a museum, too, where you, not the 8 o'clock curtain or the two-acts-plus-intermission, can control the pace.
Art now gets fairly steady publicity in the general media--including otherwise art-unfriendly TV--thanks largely to astronomical sums paid for paintings and sculptures today. Museums offer multiple activities--restaurants, stores, lectures, films, children's game rooms--that appeal to diversified audience expectations honed on the familiarity of suburban malls. Tourism is one of the largest and fastest-growing industries today, and museums, increasingly promoted by internal marketing departments and advertised by civic tourist agencies, are a natural for travelers in search of things to see and do.
The explanations go on. Which ones are correct? Take your pick.
Or, more probably, pick several or even all of them. Despite our fondness for the myth of the magic bullet, rarely if ever does a single cause explain a widespread social effect.
Still, there is one common denominator that deserves special mention. In 1997, the same year represented by those NEA statistics, Philippe de Montebello, director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, offered a pointed explanation for the public's rising attraction to art museums--especially larger encyclopedic museums such as his own. His remarks, made in the keynote address at the convocation of the College Art Assn.'s annual conference, have been widely discussed in the museum field.
Aside from the real and significant pleasure to be had in contemplating wide varieties of wonderful works of art, De Montebello said, the public derives something quite specific from its museum pursuit. In a world of ever-shifting fashions, increasingly fast-paced change and constantly slip-sliding relativities, where today's accepted truth is tomorrow's disappointing fiction, people crave the security, confidence and stability that come from the museum's implied promise--which is that the art inside represents enduring quality. What's here today will not be gone tomorrow. A growing public expects to find at the museum some constant against which the relentless topsy-turviness of modern life can be tested.
"I am absolutely convinced of this," De Montebello said.
I think he's exactly right.
I also think it doesn't matter that this commonly expected sense of "enduring quality" inside museums is itself mostly a fiction. Every art professional knows that museum collections are composed of objects that represent a wide range of quality and divergent, even contradictory values; they know that even our sense of what constitutes quality is anything but fixed. Some art holds its favored place in seeming perpetuity; other art falls from favor or gets rehabilitated or finds a new perspective from a hitherto unseen angle.