ASU Art Museum Emphasizing Inclusion, ‘Reimagining’ The Concept Of The Museum Itself

By Anthony J. Wallace
Published: Tuesday, August 10, 2021 - 8:46am
Updated: Tuesday, August 10, 2021 - 2:12pm

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ASU Art Museum
Kristin Bauer
Part of ASU Art Museum's efforts to become more inclusive and welcoming is to expand the idea of what art can be to include things like banners and posters. This is a piece of text-based art by Tempe-based artist Kristin Bauer.

Imagine you’re at an art museum. How do you feel? Are you comfortable? Do you feel welcome? 

“If we're in an environment where our emotional safety is threatened, we're unable to access our higher order thinking,” said Laura Jean Morizio, Ph.D., researcher and associate lecturer at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, “because we're so focused on maintaining our sense of survival.”

Morizio studied interior design and how art can promote empathy and she says if people don’t feel at ease in the museum for whatever reason, they’re not likely to get much of anything out of the experience. And museums, such as the ASU Art Museum, have been thinking hard about this very thing recently. 

“It's just not working now,” said Miki Garcia, director of the ASU Art Museum. “We can look at attendance across the country, we can look at boards across the country, we can look at leadership across the country. We are not serving all the people — we're just not.

Part of the ASU Art Museum’s plan to address this problem of not serving all the people is an ambitious initiative called "Pilot Projects." 

ASU Art Museum Director Miki Garcia
Alonso Parra/Lamp Left Media
ASU Art Museum Director Miki Garcia is helping to lead the museum’s Pilot Projects initiative to welcome more people into the museum and promote social justice.

“'Pilot Projects' is a series of artworks, interventions and public programs that began last year in the midst of the pandemic, as well as in reaction to the murders of George Floyd and so many others,” Garcia said. 

The initiative goes to the core of what a museum is and how it interacts with the public. 

“I'm a Latina ... My life's work has really been about reimagining what museums can be for more people,” Garcia said. “What if we actually created vehicles for audiences to come in and share their lived experiences, along with our knowledge, and then we would then co-create meaning together?”

This summer, the ASU museum is preparing for an exhibition on art and the history of incarceration. And instead of closing to do that work, like a museum might typically do, they are offering tours to anyone who wants one, to give people the chance to see behind the scenes. 

“We want to shift the conversation of the museum, this belongs to you all,” Garcia said, “the students at ASU, but also the people of Arizona.”

Melody Buyukozer Dawkins, Ph.D., works for Slover Linett Audience Research and recently, she’s studied “culture and community during times of crisis” with a special focus on the pandemic. She and her colleagues surveyed 120,000 Americans and found they were aching to get back out into the world and connect with their friends and community in the wake of the pandemic. And they wanted cultural organizations to be active in bringing the community back together.

“We also wanted to see if different racial and ethnic groups were affected by the pandemic, especially in relation to the arts,” Buyukozer Dawkins said. “And then we did see some differences across groups, and some of them are really unique to Black and African American participants.”

They wanted to know why. So the researchers interviewed dozens of Black Americans and found that by and large, they enjoyed museums and felt comfortable there. But the respondents did have some reservations about museums and other cultural institutions — depending on how welcoming and trustworthy they seemed. 

“Let's say that you go to a museum, and you see a lot of workers who are frontline workers, and they're all Black. And then you see people who are in higher positions, and they're all white. That made a space not welcoming,” Buyukozer Dawkins said.

One theme that kept coming up in Buyukozer Dawkins’ findings was authenticity.

ASU Art Museum
Tim Agne/KJZZ
ASU Art Museum in Tempe.

“We ask people about what they think about the Black Lives Matter statements museums or other institutions post during this time. Does that make them trustworthy?” Buyukozer Dawkins said. “And across the board, everybody said, ‘No’ … They said show and not tell. So who was on your board? Who was making decisions? Are your workers happy? Is your place welcoming?”

And at ASU, part of the greater project to reach more people, is to demystify the museum and  the art world itself, which can seem pretentious and exclusionary. Miki Garcia wants to expand our preconceptions of what art worthy of being in a museum is, to include things like “sound art, food art, social practice,” she said. “I think people are really intimidated by art. And they think that art is a beautiful painting on a wall.”

Garcia compares art to jazz. 

“Sometimes you don’t know what it’s about, but you can feel it, it can move you,” Garcia said. “It can inspire certain memories and trigger certain things about you.”

The ASU Art Museum’s incarceration exhibition opens in September, and if "Pilot Projects" pans out the way Garcia hopes, more people than ever will feel comfortable enough to be moved by the art. 

This story was adapted from the original Hear Arizona podcast series State of the Arts Arizonanow available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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