UMFA Blog

What are museums good for?

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Guest blogger: Jazmin Gallegos, UMFA ACME Intern


Museums are structures which house collections of artistic, historical, scientific and cultural artifacts. But what other purposes do museums serve?

Here at the UMFA, we found this to be an especially relevant question right now as we are in the middle of a temporary closure period; our doors are closed, but how does our reach extend beyond the building itself?

Some would see a museum closure as a daunting task. The UMFA saw it as an opportunity. As a way to stay connected with our community during 2016, the UMFA launched ACME (Art. Community. Museum. Education.), an outreach initiative dedicated to rethinking the public role of museums. The program, which will extend into our reopening, comprises two parts: ACME Sessions, roundtable public dialogues where participants can dream and articulate new models of education and engagement through art, and the ACME Lab, a physical space for art experimentation slated to launch at the UMFA in spring 2017.

The first ACME Session was held March 9 at the City Library in Downtown Salt Lake, and the question of the night was, “Museums: What Are They Good For?”. The UMFA couldn’t answer this alone, so we invited the public, as well as a panel of some of the most influential leaders within the Salt Lake City art and science community, to join in the conversation. The directors from the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU), The Leonardo, The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) weighed in on the importance of museums to the community, and instigated a number of conversations that we hope to see carried on.

The evening began with socializing and refreshments, followed by a warm welcome and introduction to the ACME initiative from UMFA’s director of education and engagement, Jorge Rojas. The presenters then addressed the group as a whole, before splitting into breakout sessions where deeper conversations could be held with the individual directors.

Kristian Anderson, UMOCA’s executive director, began the night by talking about ways UMOCA is addressing contemporary and social issues relating to Utah. Anderson focused on experiences and asked visitors to share an instance when they may have felt uncomfortable or unwelcome within a museum. He made it a point to bring up why museums may feel intimidating and how programming can become more inviting, especially towards under-represented audiences. One program he highlighted within his own museum is the Artist-In-Residency program (A-I-R) which supports artists from outside of Utah in an economy that has little room to spare for the arts.

A crucial topic throughout the night was accessibility. Sarah B. George, executive director of NHMU, spoke about simply getting to the museum. The conversation centered on assessing and facilitating higher attendance from areas around the valley that may have difficulty reaching the museum.

As conversations escalated, Leonardo director, Alexandra Hesse, prompted a dialogue about authentic museum experiences and addressed what it means to create free or cost-effective programming. The Leonardo is working to best serve the community, and their central location gives them the potential—and also the pressure—to draw a vast and diverse audience.

Meaningful content was another topic of interest among ACME Session participants. Gretchen Dietrich from the UMFA asked people to share their museum experiences and why they felt them significant. She and guests focused on what curators chose to create within the galleries and why those components are so crucial.

During the Q&A portion, Rojas asked how the UMFA is connecting with minority communities that tend to be overlooked. Dietrich responded with the exhibition, Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as an example. “We had to fight for that exhibition,” explains Dietrich. “It was a way for the UMFA to represent artists from regions of the world that need to be better recognized for their contributions.”

As the night concluded, and a rich exchange of ideas had been made, Rojas thanked participants for their effort to help the UMFA understand what the community would like to see once the doors reopen in 2017. As a participant from Hesse’s breakout session put it: “impact is a two-way street.” Two-way learning, from both the community’s perspective as well as what the museum itself can learn, is necessary for change.

The first ACME Session focused on museums and the challenge they face to improve visitor experiences. The next session, “What’s Hip-Hop Got To Do with Education?” will take place on Wednesday evening, May 11, at the Glendale Branch of the SLCPL. Based on the idea that knowledge is the “fifth element” of hip-hop, we will ask questions such as: “What kinds of learning take place through hip-hop?” and “How can hip-hop culture help us rethink our approach to education?” Whether you’ll be attending again or for the first time, we hope you will join in the conversation. See you May 9!

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