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Are Museums Out of the Picture?

By Mary CATHERINE Brouder, Crimson Staff Writer

The art museums at Harvard University together house the fourth largest collection of artwork in the world. But as plans continue to renovate the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard’s collections are experiencing declining rates of student attendance­—despite the recent efforts by administrators and the Student Friends of the Harvard Art Museums to attract new visitors.

Why aren’t more students touring the halls of the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museums? Why are there no flashy flyers advertising the exhibits dotting the Yard’s many kiosks and sandwich boards? And what can the museum’s administrators do to make their exhibit halls a more integral part of the Harvard student experience?

RENOVATING THE FOGG

In December 2002, James Cuno left his long-time position as director of the Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM), replaced the following October by Asian art expert Thomas W. Lentz. At the time that the transfer of power occurred, the HUAM faced a $1.5 million budget deficit and layoffs of many employees.

Upon his arrival, Lentz said, “My goal is to ensure that Harvard’s art museums not only remain vital to the University, the community, and the field, but that they continue to play a leading role in museum thinking and practice.”

Acting director Marjorie B. Cohn told The Crimson at the time that the outdated Fogg building would require renovations to its plumbing, electricity, and climate control system.

However, today there is no tangible product reflecting the ongoing process of renovation. The current stage of early development is what HUAM Public Relations Coordinator Matthew Barone calls “a needs assessment phase.” According to Barone, “There are no drawings or blueprints or even draft plans for any renovation. You can safely say we are in the very early stages of planning to renovate the art museums.”

The deputy director of the HUAM, Richard Benefield, says, “We have to figure out what we want to be...[and] what is it that we have when all is said and done.” He adds that the HUAM is currently involved in “long-range strategic planning.”

The problems with the slow-paced plans for the Fogg’s renovation are manifold. First, the museums must find places to store the vast collection of artwork while renovations are underway. “We don’t want to just close the door,” explains Benefield. “We have to keep serving the academic community.”

Museums from the Boston area are being explored as possible houses for the great masterpieces of the Fogg’s collection, but the process of finding locations that will guarantee that they will be able to both house the works and display them is long-winded and painstakingly thorough.

Another factor impeding the renovation of the Fogg building is the actual structure. The museum, which opened to the public in 1895, has not been substantially renovated since 1927. Little has been done to alleviate fundamental structural flaws, and certain works cannot be displayed because of fear they would be damaged by the notoriously uncontrolled climate.

“[An] environment where temperature could change suddenly,” explains Benefield, can cause sagging and stretching in some of the world’s most precious pieces of artwork.

The Fogg is an open air museum, unusual in the art world, making climate control even more difficult.

The beauty of the Fogg, in all of its Italian palazzo-styled glory, has impressed patrons almost as much as the artwork itself, but the temperature issue proves difficult to resolve as renovations commence. For now, Benefield says that the museum curators will continue to carefully monitor the building and keep temperatures as constant as possible.

But he leaves open the possibility that, should such repairs be too difficult to undertake, the Fogg building may have to be gutted. Completely demolishing the building, Benefield says, is not an option since the structure is protected by the National Register of Historic Places.

The final step in modernizing the Fogg is making more of the building handicapped-accessible. Many of the museum’s largest and most attractive lecture rooms and exhibition halls are currently inaccessible by wheelchair. Because the Fogg was built long before the American Disabilities Act of 1990, rooms like the Norton Lecture Hall, which seats four hundred, are not handicapped-accessible and frequently underused. The building remains exempt from ADA standards, since plans currently exist to renovate it.

“We don’t want to exclude people,” says Benefield.

LEARNING TO FLASH THE ID

If there is one thing that Benefield wishes to communicate to students, it is to “learn how to flash the ID.” Those little cards, Benefield says, provide “access to this enormous resource which is here for them.” It’s one of the ways that the museums are more accessible to students than many of Boston’s other galleries.

But few, if any, posters advertising exhibitions and events at the museums appear on the bulletin boards and table tents across campus, which frequently announce the latest a cappella jam or Loeb production. Museum administrators can wish all day for student turnout and still not see the kind of numbers that the better advertised arts events on campus enjoy.

HUAM’s assistant director Luann Abrahams emphasizes that the museums are a unique experience compared to the other entertainment options on campus.

“Museums are often positioned as being in competition with other leisure time activities, such as movies, video games, etc.,” says Abrahams. “What we try to do here is not to entertain, but to instead create an environment where people can have meaningful encounters with works of art.”

She says she would like to see students move outside the mindset of museums as simply a nothing-else-going-on-this-weekend visit. “We’re always working on ways to make HUAM more central to the life of the entire University,” says Abrahams, “so that people come here to engage with works of art regardless of their academic background in the subject.”

Abrahams and Benefield face something of an uphill battle. Attendance at the museums has remained somewhat steady over the past five years. Though the annual attendance has increased by roughly three thousand visitors since 1999, the proportion of those visitors who are students has declined. In 1999, the percentage of total visitors who identified themselves as Harvard students was roughly 18 percent, while students made up only 15 percent of last year’s visitors.

Students may be less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a museum visit when faced with the multitude of extracurricular options at the University, even if many of the same students oohed and aahed at the exhibits during pre-frosh visits.

“Instead of a lack of interest, I sense a lack of awareness among the student body,” says Alexis M. Kusy ’07, a member of the Student Friends, an extension of HUAM’s existing membership program that specifically targets undergraduates and offers invitations to exclusive exhibit openings and reduced admission to lectures and concerts.

Although the Student Friends have a group on thefacebook.com with over 300 members, its leaders say that the majority of the Harvard undergraduate population is not familiar with the extent of the museums’ offerings.

“The typical response I hear is, ‘I don’t know much about art museums, but I want to learn,’” says Christopher W. Platts ’06, the group’s president of the Student Friends.

Platts also presents another possible cause for the museums’ empty halls. “It is difficult to get students [to visit] because museums are always there,” he says.

Platts also notes that there may less of a personal social incentive to visit the museums as an undergraduate.

“Compared to other arts, like performing arts, there is not a specific draw—like your friend starring in a play,” Platts says.

But Abrahams remains undeterred by the figures suggesting lagging attendance, warning that statistics are not always reliable.

“Our method of tracking [attendees] is not very scientifc, because we don’t require swiping,” Benefield says. “Hopefully we’ll have a better system in place [for tracking students] with renovations.”

Benefield also notes that it is normal for attendance figures to fluctuate.

“If you looked at the figures for Lamont Library attendance, you would probably see them going up and down, too,” he says.

Besides expecting this variation in its numbers, the HUAM leaders also note that the museums have a principally academic objective, which makes the absolute number of visitors less immediately important.

“Our primary mission is to serve the undergraduate population in their learning and the staff and faculty who do research,” Abrahams says. “Earned income from admittance is not a priority, because the University’s focus is on teaching and research.”

GETTING FRIENDLY WITH ART

Students and directors alike have racked their brains for ways of attracting a wider undergraduate following.

“We want to make reaching out to Harvard undergrads our number one priority,” Benefield says. The best way to accomplish this outreach, however, is open to debate.

According to Abrahams, a campus-wide postering campaign has been considered and rejected for lack of evidence supporting the efficacy of advertising that is not geared toward a specific event. Instead, Abrahams encourages students to join Student Friends and attend one of the many events that the group hosts and publicizes.

The Student Friends have recently implemented black-tie gatherings and now have a schedule of weekly events, two costly and time-consuming investments that may be responsible for the group’s increasing membership.

“Over the past year, our membership has more than doubled, which definitely shows that there is interest once people discover HUAM,” boasts Kusy, who also offers that the Student Friends have developed a mission “to show that the museum can be a social and relaxing location for students.”

Toward this end, the group currently sponsors a number of monthly holiday-themed tours and receptions, using the museum “as a venue for social space” to encourage student HUAM attendance. In this month alone, Student Friends hosted a Valentine’s Day tour of the Fogg and tea, a lecture on the visual and cultural history of Paris, and a professionally-led hands-on workshop on art conservation. Meanwhile, Platts routinely offers guided tours of the museums to friends and neighbors free of charge in an effort to introduce the collections to rookie visitors.

“Our mission is to bring students into the art museums, especially those who aren’t VES [Visual and Environmental Studies] or art history majors [in the hopes of] de-mystifying art museums,” Platts says.

The art museums remain an untapped resource among students. But as Platts teasingly suggests, if students cannot find any other reason to pay a visit, they should go simply to satisfy their voyeuristic fantasies.

“It’s always fun to watch people circulate through museums and watch what they spend time on and what they don’t,” he says.

—Staff writer Mary Catherine Brouder can be reached at mbrouder@fas.harvard.edu

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