ON ENGAGEMENT lessons learnt at the Stedelijk Museum

Despite what appears to be an overwhelming increase of the public interest in art and by extension in art related events and subjects, it is well known for those who are more directly linked to the art world and consequently to art and cultural institutions, that beyond the glamour and status associated with artistic environments, lies the challenge of eliciting a public response that is powerful enough to drive the so called ‘art enthusiasts’ to go beyond the easy Instagram swap and move into the pristine but costly spaces that house museums and cultural institutions all over the world.

The attendance challenge surmounts to superhuman crusades at times, as art and cultural endeavors are forced to compete with ever-increasing entertainment offers and countless other experiences that fight to grasp people’s attention, time and investment. Even if visitors are secured, a deeper level of involvement is coveted from them because art and cultural organizations need it to secure their survival. Visitors are expected to become a true audience and engage in a consistent manner and at different levels with these institutions. From straightforward repeated attendance to high levels of patronage, art and cultural supporters are targeted to develop deeply loyal ties with these institutions.

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The Family Room at the Stedelijk Museum. Preamble to the Jean Tinguely Machine Spectacle exhibition.

Even with an understanding of the demands intrinsic to audience building efforts, it is astonishing to witness how many art and cultural organizations continue to neglect potential audiences either by lack of insight or through an unfortunate level of contempt. From museum exhibitions and cultural offerings that are inadequately planned at different levels, to an absence of programs that could expand the attendants’ experience beyond their visits to the venues, there are numerous examples of lost opportunities for audience building. Considering this landscape, it is reinvigorating to find instances where self-actualization efforts are put in motion, recently, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam became for me one of those auspicious cases.

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Detail of the De Stijl magazine as seen at the De Stijl at the Stedelijk exhibition, Amsterdam

Established in 1874, only 4 years after the Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Stedelijk houses a significant collection of modern art and design, including works from the early 20th to the 21st century. A staple in the museum scene in Europe, the Stedelijk is a place to go back to even when trips to Amsterdam are brief. Reflecting on previous visits to the museum, what continues to emerge is an overall feeling of reward and ease, which is probably replicated for many of its museum visitors. More than happenstance, their exhibitions and events are carefully considered experiences orchestrated from the curatorial approach, design and flow considerations, right up to the subtlest points of contact with museum guides and activity leaders.

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Theo van Doesburg. Counter-Composition V, 1924

The attendance to the 100-year retrospective exhibition on De Stijl, which ran until November 2017 was a clear example. De Stijl, an artistic movement that although short lived (1917–1931) exerted an unparalleled level of influence over modern Western art and design, was an enticing enough subject to venture for a few hours into the museum. The exhibition held the promise of a treasure trove of design and art pieces born from this movement and far from disappointment, many of the well-known De Stijl gems were on display: original issues of the De Stijl magazine, Counter-Compositions by Theo van Doesburg and the Red and Blue chair by Gerrit Rietveld. Along with these were others even more enjoyable, perhaps because of the sheer surprise and contrast they elicited: the Self-Portrait with Hat by Van Doesburg, almost Impressionist in style and painted in 1910, only 6 years before publishing the radical De Stijl magazine with all its Neoplasticist dictates. Likewise, the figurative Still-life with Butter Barrel by Christiaan Beekman painted in 1916, or the contemporary artworks that were juxtaposed to De Stijl masterpieces as a way to create a context and build upon the story of their influence on countless other artists, architects and designers to this day.

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Self-Portrait with Hat, 1910.

Succinct but exacting on their gallery texts, each of the spaces offered the necessary background to understand what was on display and how the De Stijl artworks and movement related to their time as well as ours. In more or less 3 paragraphs, each of the gallery introductions addressed different audiences by presenting several levels of depth on the information they provided, and abstained from using unnecessary jargon that could distance visitors from what was essential to understand about the movement or their artists. After walking throughout the 6 spaces that contained this exhibition, it was easy to relate formal characteristics to terms that would otherwise appear arcane: Neoplasticism, Elementarism, Constructivism, all were unfolded with ease using key artworks carefully displayed and juxtaposed within uncluttered room layouts.

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Chris Beekman, Still-Life with Small Butter Barrel, 1916

The last walk through the museum opened yet another surprise: the Family Lab room, which still held a trace of Machine Spectacle, a previous retrospective exhibition on Jean Tinguely, which the Stedelijk had set up before opening the De Stijl view. Perhaps this room was kept due to the high investment required to restore and bring back to life the kinetic pieces done by Tinguely, or simply because the public response to the work justified its continued display, whatever the reason, the participative nature of the Do-It-Yourself Drawing Machine was a pleasure to witness. Visitors from all ages, packed the Family Lab awaiting their moment to either trigger the movement of some machine parts or to sit and draw while the machine continued its playful movement, spinning their drawing surfaces.

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Georges Vantongerloo, Function of lines (circa 1938).

A further turn within the Family Lab opened towards a section where a mysterious chest of drawers marked with apparently random names, and which tacitly invited visitors to pull from a series of handles. A pull of the drawers opened mini ‘cabinets of curiosities’ wonderfully composed by ‘Blikopeners’. Each of those drawers displayed a very personal view on different aspects of Jean Tinguely’s oeuvre, his world, his time and the artists friends who supported his path of creation.

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Young museum attendants drawing with one of Jean Tinguely’s Metamatic sculptures. | Blikopener cabinet detail. Work inspired by the Jean Tinguely Machine Spectacle exhibition.

First hand understanding of this young demographic serves as a key tool for the institution to train themselves on ways to approach younger generations, and empowers the young agents to co-create and propagate content generated with support of the institution. Internally, it helps the Stedelijk to re-energize its own members by introducing new perspectives and to connect with visitors with a more affable way inside and outside the museum (3000+ Instagram followers are an example of their traction), a significant challenge to overcome when art and cultural environments can often be perceived as intimidating.

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Be it through the way the Stedelijk studies and communicates angles about its collection, through their gallery design or the care that goes into the planning of their visitor experiences at different touch points, the overall approach continues to be gratifying and awe inspiring. As inspiring as it was to go through the Blikopener cabinets, for what it revealed about the authors and their art learning journey, and because it continued to attest to the considered efforts of the museum to engage with their audience at multiple and deep levels. One can only wish for this type of conscientious approaches to be born at the core of other art and cultural endeavors, as it would help them work towards the relevancy that might be necessary to ensure their survival.

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