To say that participating in Center for Creative Photography's Next Conversation in Tucson was an honor would be a gross understatement. The event was described this way:
The Next Conversation brings together colleagues from all facets of the world of photography to talk about issues important to the field and to CCP. There are no keynote speeches or panel presentations. Instead, there are a series of focused discussions in which you bring your expertise and your voice to the conversation.
Participants from all across the photography industry were invited to attend and engage in conversations on topics such as the role of technology, the photobook, photography's place in the museum and academy, the state of photojournalism, the photography market, the definition of an archive, conservation. . . The choices were staggering. Almost as staggering as the attendees - some of the most recognizable names in the museum, editorial, curatorial, publishing, educational, and gallery worlds. And working photographers too!
There were many nuggets of wisdom to take away from the event, as well as questions raised that will take me a while to fully absorb and determine my position on. But I do want to talk about one session that definitely stuck with me.
Julia Dolan (Portland Art Museum) and Mitra Abbaspour (Museum of Modern Art) moderated a discussion titled, "What is the place of photography in museums and the academy?". This was a particularly engaged group, and it was interesting to hear opinions of both curators and educators. At one point, someone implied through a comment that he did not feel curators needed to accommodate people who are unfamiliar with photography (I believe "dumb it down" was used) and instead should focus on creating shows for the people who know what they are looking at. I should say, this felt very out of line with the spirit of the conference, and as you can imagine (if you have ever heard me speak or read anything I have written), my head just about exploded.
In my opinion, there is nothing "dumb" about not having an arts education. It is increasingly not being taught in schools, which is causing not only a lack of knowledge, but a lack of appreciation for art. It is not about being smart or dumb, it is about having exposure or not having exposure. He asked me if I thought museums should be held responsible for picking up this slack, and I feel that everyone needs to pitch in to fill this huge gap in art knowledge and appreciation. Otherwise, we will be left with an increasingly aging crop of arts lovers, patrons, and collectors without younger generations to replace them.
I believe, and there is research to support this, that in order to engage new audiences with art, we need to create opportunities for them to engage with art in multiple ways (visually, intellectually, emotionally) and in a manner that is not intimidating.
Nate Larson, a photographer and educator based in Baltimore (and all-around great person), shared a fantastic program he helped facilitate at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The museum was putting on an exhibition called SEEING NOW: Photography Since 1960, and they reached out to Nate to collaborate. Nate created the QR Code Project, where he invited his students to write personal essays about their reactions to certain photographs in the exhibit. People who viewed the exhibit could go beyond the wall text and (using their smartphones) read another person's personal reaction to the image they were viewing. This is a great example of how to engage viewers on multiple levels and break down some barriers to entry to appreciating art. Go team!