Monday, August 17, 2009

Dia: Beacon - The Opposite of a Love Affair

I love MASS MoCA. I hate Dia: Beacon. Both museums exhibit modern and contemporary art in rehabilitated and converted factories. My affection for the former and my distaste for the latter led to an important realization: I feel ambivalent about art from the second half of the 20th century. To understand and enjoy works of art from this time period, I need interpretation that is both well-written and accessible.

My first, engaged experience with contemporary art was at MASS MoCA, as part of a Davis Museum fieldtrip in college. Although I had never been to a contemporary art museum, I never felt alienated, nor stupid. There was clear, introductory wall text and concise labels throughout which provided information about the artist, the materials used, and often a brief explanation of the piece’s purpose or its context in a greater movement or cultural moment. I was also gratified by the high level of participation the museum encouraged. I still remember my pleasure and delight at being allowed to sit amongst the finches in “Library for the Birds of Massachusetts,” a giant aviary stocked with bird seed and books. Now, every time I get a chance to go to Western Mass, I always go back to MASS MoCA. I’m never disappointed.

So, by the time, I got to Dia: Beacon on Saturday, I felt comfortable looking at contemporary and modern art. I was also looking forward to seeing how another museum rehabilitated and converted a factory space. The physical museum is glorious. There are broad galleries, flooded with natural light from windows and skylights. The floors are luscious, distressed, blonde wood. The ceiling rafters are exposed and in the Flavin gallery, fluorescent tube lights nestle along them, creating a sort a dialogue between those pragmatic fluorescents that light the space, and the artistic fluorescents that are Flavin's artwork.

Despite how enamored I was of the physical space, I was alienated and provoked by the installations’ interpretation. The wall labels are perfunctory—an artist’s name and the title of the work (I'll admit, good for those who like unmediated artistic experiences). For those who need help understanding contemporary art, there are receptacles with laminated, essay-like labels. Unfortunately, those labels are exercises in mental masturbation. The prose is verbose and the sentences are poorly constructed. The label writers try too hard to conform to an academic style that favors jargon over comprehension. “Mythemes of glass, axiomatic status, and the phenomenology of color" are all vaunting phrases--precocious to the point of illogic--that communicate nothing. And, ultimately, the labels made me mistrust the art. The interpretation was so overwrought that I had to wonder, is the emperor naked?

I was also shocked that there was no way to participate with the museum. In fact, one form of engagement—photography—is not allowed at all. Most museums encourage their visitors to take part in some way, whether through picture-taking or in more active, creative ways. At MASS MoCA, I’ve contributed to an exhibition that asked visitors to write on sticky notes and I’ve shared my impressions in (analog) comment books sprinkled throughout the galleries (I've also taken many photographs). At the Brooklyn Museum last week, after viewing a Yinka Shonibare installation, I tweeted my impressions to the Museum's feed on the gallery's computer. After visiting the Met, I became a fan of their Facebook page and I put their hash tag on my photos on Flickr. Social media takes relatively little effort on a museum's part to deploy and provides a number of ways for visitors to engage before, during, and after their visit. It can aid interpretation. It's also becoming vital to audience attraction and retention, especially for a younger demographic.

The audience at Dia: Beacon is a segment that most museums strive to attract—Gen Y. The nature of Dia: Beacon’s collection lures Gen Y to the museum, but I doubt the museum is nurturing long-term relationships. Dia: Beacon does not use any of the new social media to retain or engage a generation which believes that personal expression is an inalienable birth right and that the internet is a democracy that allows any one to tke part in the conversation. One day Dia: Beacons's survival may depend on an engaged Gen Y and it's time they start taking the steps to build their relationships with them. They need to allow photography. They need to create a Facebook page. They should twitter. They should vivify their website. Perhaps if Dia: Beacon uses the new media I might begin to feel like a participant in the museum's mission, and not like a neophyte at the alter of ART.

(Head over to Retrograde Design for Patty's take on our visit.)


  1. Hey hey! Not to defend an institution I've never been to, but from what I understand, keeping up a real social media presence does actually require quite a bit of staff time. I think a lot of places have a staff member devoted full time to making, publicizing, and updating pages. And while I agree wholeheartedly with your point about the labels - why even bother writing something no one can understand without a PhD (and even then, they're probably faking it) - I'm not certain that I buy into the concept that social media is required for a good gallery. I find a lot of uses gimmicky and kind of enjoy a break from technology.

  2. Fair points. My point, and perhaps, I mixed messaging here was that not only did I feel alientated while at the museum by the labels, there was nothing else that allowed or encouraged me to participate in the museum. Even if they hew to a hands-off interpretation style, they shouldn't neglect the opportunities for engagement outside of the galleries.

    I think when social media is deployed smartly (like in the case of the Brooklyn Museum where the computer was as non-intrusive as a comment book), it can actually enhance a visitor's engagement.

  3. Wow i didn't realise when i started reading this what an interesting look into social media use this would be. I think you're absolutely right about this. While i agree with staci that this is actually something that would require a staff member's attention and might not be incredibly simple, social media is not something to be ignored and should be something that a major institution IS focusing time and resources on. Ryan and i spend a lot of time talking about the impacts of social media on our life and it's impact on marketing when we feel like geeking out, i'll be sure to have him read this tomorrow, i'm sure it will give us a good conversation.
    I always feel like such a uneducated klutz when i'm trying to comment on your posts. Everything you say is so well written and it reminds of me of the small math/physics box that i live in.

  4. Sounds like somebody's thesaurus should be taken away.

    Contemporary art with poor accessibility is terrible: I rapidly loose patience and leave the exhibition space. I'm somewhat relieved that you appear to have the same reaction. Though I am apathetic toward social media capabilities - for no real reason, just that at the moment I'm not interested in them.

  5. Lisa and every time I talk to you, I realize how small my arts box is. We all focus on a small area and make it our own. The beauty of friends is that they share their boxes with us.

  6. Just a PS on an old post which I came across looking for pages mentioning both Dia:Beacon & Massmoca, Dia redesigned their website & it must have been after you wrote this.