Over the course of four gatherings at the Saranac Art Projects hosted four “State of the Visual Arts” symposiums. Moderated by teacher and artist Scott Kolbo, the symposiums brought together panels of artists, teachers, media members and arts professionals to discuss topics related to the visual arts in Spokane such as venues, critical dialogue and patro nage.
The fourth and final symposium brought together MAC director Ben Mitchell, and Spokane City arts director Karen Mobley to discuss patronage. The panel defines patronage as audience members of cultural events, who generally coming from diverse backgrounds and educational experiences.
Mobley cited at least two studies on arts audiences, one of which took place at the Denver Art Museum. Her summary of the results reveals that while people such as those in attendance at the symposium might go to museums seeking an intellectual opportunity, the vast majority of audience members go to cultural events simply for the experience. Additionally, simple experiential factors such as parking, seating, perceived elitism and even aversion to perfume can discourage the general public from attempting to attend a cultural event.
So how do we create and encourage patronage in Spokane?
The forum seemed to arrive at a two part answer. First, art education from an early age is vital. Schools and parents must provide young children with art experiences such as museum visits, crafts, theatre and public art. Such early exposure to the arts provide lasting impressions, even into adulthood and shape future attitudes towards the art and culture.
The second answer is that arts organizations must meet patrons at their level. Not only do we need to provide quality artistic content, but we must also be aware of the factors that might possibly detract from the experience: parking, accessibility, noise levels, perceived elitism, quality of food offerings and so forth. Karen Mobley pointed out that most men don’t actually like going to the opera, but they like the effect that this romantic date has on their wives.
Since the symposium focuses mainly on the visual arts, let’s ask how we can make contemporary art galleries more appealing to patrons of all kinds? The first thing I would address is the “awkward factor” that many people feel when they enter a sterile, quite gallery. People may not know how to behave in the gallery space, which creates tension, and if a visitor has trouble connecting with the art works – they just don’t ‘get it’ – the tension is compounded. Food at art receptions can help break the tension, unless visitors feel uncomfortable taking food without invitation to do so.
Artists and art appreciators have a responsibility to help their so-called “normal” friends to learn the social protocol for art galleries. Visitors are not expected to have an instant reaction to the art work that they can articulate right away. While we hope that people will want to spend time looking at our artwork, it is ok to take a quick glance and move on. We also hope that people will spend money when they see an artwork that inspires them, but again, galleries do not require visitors to open their wallets. Most museum and art gallery visits last for a very short time.
Personally, I still feel some awkwardness in certain art galleries, but I have learned how to conduct myself after attending many First Friday Artwalks.
What are your experiences in art galleries, museums and other cultural institutions? There is plenty of space for feedback in the comments. Feel free to tell me if I am completely wrong.