museums and the art of performance

Spring Dance, Arthur F. Mathews (1860-1945), c. 1917, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Museum Computer Network recently wrapped up its 41st annual conference in Montreal. The gathering kicked off with an Ignite session where speakers had five minutes (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide) to tell us what’s on their minds.

I couldn’t attend this year but thanks to the MCN organizers, a ton of content was provided online. One of the Ignite talks that really got my attention was “Does Performance Matter?” by The Blanton Museum of Art‘s Director, Simone Wicha. Drawing from her deep background in arts administration, Ms. Wicha offered thought-provoking insight into how museums can learn from performing arts organizations. Here’s some of my key takeaways from her talk:

Respect your audience

Performing arts organizations know that audience is key. From the jump, they establish a symbiotic relationship where one depends on the other. These groups know that without audiences driving ticket sales and making contributions of time and/or funds, they wouldn’t exist. Instead of being annoyed by their audiences, performing arts organizations openly and publicly revere them

Show your passion

In a good performance, passion is evident. It is apparent the moment a dancer hits the stage, or a musician hits the first note. Museums are full of amazing, creative people who are obviously in love with the field (because honestly, nobody goes into this work hoping to get rich), but we could do a better job of communicating that passion to visitors. Maybe if they know why we love museums, they will too.

Everyone is onstage

Performing arts organizations know that the show isn’t only on the stage. Everyone is part of the performance. Think of how many staff encounters you might have when you attend play, for instance: box office staff, parking lot attendants, door greeters, house managers, concession staff, ushers, volunteers–all before the entertainment actually starts. Every person involved with the production is crucial and has one chance to make an awesome first impression and create lifelong fans.

Emotion is everything

In performance, there are usually cathartic moments where the audience is compelled toward an outpouring or purging of emotion. Love it or hate it, the goal is to make you feel something, to regard yourself and your environment in a different way, or empathize with others. Story is at the heart of everything and how it relates to our shared human experience. Museums are full of objects with fantastic stories but more often than not museums collectively say, “Come look at our things!” rather than “Here’s why we keep these things.”

Do you feel that museums can learn from performing arts organizations? Do you know of any museums that demonstrate the qualities Ms. Wicha noted in her talk?