Stories of sudden enlightenment as well as irreparable embarrassment abound in museum culture.
A little girl and her father were looking at an exhibit that contained intricately carved ancient Buddhist religious objects, when she suddenly asked, “Someone made these?” “Yep,” her father answered, “someone made these all by hand.”
Mark Masuoka, the new CEO and executive director of the Akron Art Museum, nodded with delight. “And at that moment you see a child’s concept of the world go from this,” he held his hands about three inches apart, “to this,” and he spread his hands as wide as they could go.
Here’s another story: A collector was visiting the museum where he had donated several important objects. Accompanied by a friend, he approached one of the objects he’d given and leaned in toward it, pointing to something he was discussing. Suddenly, across the gallery, came the booming voice of a scowling museum guard: “Do not touch the artworks!” The collector, who hadn’t actually touched the piece, was visibly embarrassed, and the friend had to talk him out of making a scene.
At that moment the collector was transformed from someone who felt a personal connection to the museum to one who felt ostracized.
It’s exactly the opposite experience that Masuoka wants visitors to the Akron Art Museum to have.
Masuoka said in an interview last week that he wants the museum to be not only fully involved with the cultural and social life of the city, but also to be an example to all other museums of the best possible experience a visitor can have.
“We can change our language, change our signs and do all the right things to be what we say we are, but the hard part is the behavior, such as the smile you get from a security guard instead of a scowl,” Masuoka noted.
“You still can’t touch the artworks, but you can make the experience much more positive, and that’s what we want to do. We want to change the expectations of how people interact with the museum. You may not find documentation of best practices [for museums], because it may be something that no one has done before. We are asking them to consider the possibility.”
Also last week, the museum received a multi-year, $750,000 grant from the Knight Foundation that specifically tied the funds to more community interaction and public outreach on the part of the museum.
Masuoka said when he heard about that, he wanted to cheer.
“Because that’s what I’m all about, developing new audiences and increasing museum interaction with the community,” he said. (One of Masuoka’s signature moments was hiring an artist to create a rainbow every day at 3 p.m. over the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Neb., where he was formerly executive director and CEO.)
He added: “I also think of it as a continuation of an amazing gift from the Knight Foundation in continuing to support this museum. It’s supporting our core exhibitions and giving the community a way to enjoy the work.”
The significance of the grant, he said, “is that it helps the museum start to rethink what its role is and start to dream bigger as to what our role is in the country, or what art museums are in general — that’s a really big question — what impact can an institution have on the quality of the life of a city? What role does this museum play as a conveyor and as a cultural hub?”
He thinks programs and activities will draw people in, but that the museum also “has a larger role to play in our city through art and artists,” and the grant aligns itself remarkably well with what he already wants to do here.
“I think increased public outreach is on the mind of every museum in this country,” Masuoka said, “connecting to their audiences and vice-versa.”
He wants the museum to be not just a presence in the community, but part of its lifeblood.
“Based on my past experience, it’s encouraged me to understand that it can happen, and it makes a huge impact and a significant difference in the quality of the life of the city,” he said.
Getting input from the people he works with has been key to Masuoka’s planning. In his first few weeks on the job, he has been familiarizing himself with the museum and its staff, talking about current activities and what’s planned for the future.
“We’re going to break new ground here,” he said. “In the conversations I’ve had with the staff, we’ve been breaking it out, and maybe, just maybe, the Akron Art Museum could be the example of the best practices of organizations that want to be part of the life of their cities.”
Masuoka said he’s also met with the museum’s Board of Trustees and even made a small change to the mission statement.
“Our mission statement used to read ‘enriching lives through modern art’ and now it reads ‘modern and contemporary art.’ ” (In art world terminology, modern art is generally considered to be movements like Cubism and Surrealism; the contemporary art era begins after Postmodernism, and includes art up to the present day.)
“It may seem like a small addition, but considering the bulk of the museum’s current collection, it’s really just this amazing snapshot of contemporary art, and since we’ve already been participating in that, it gives us the opportunity to focus on a direction we are already pursuing,” he explained.
“Now we can operate as a contemporary organization.”
Enjoying the collection
He said he spends time every day walking through the galleries, looking at the art and sitting down to read, surrounded by the collection.
“I think it’s important to spend time with the collection and really understand it, and I think it’s important for anyone who comes to the museum to give themselves time to really look at the art and understand what it’s about. I have no doubt that will lead to a better quality of art experience,” he said.
“I know in our society that’s hard. It’s all about the present and moving quickly, but I guess what I would like to propose is that anyone walking through the Akron Art Museum slow down and take some time and look.”
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or firstname.lastname@example.org.