The Little [Contemporary Art] Engine that Could

I think I can, I think I can...

Many of us grew up hearing the tale of a train that, because it believes in its abilities, completes a journey up a huge, intimidating mountain. Occasionally, this story still comes up in adult conversation. Usually in academia, often in Ted Talks, sometimes in the museum world. But how often do we discuss what museum visitors think they can do? 

The official term I'm talking about is self-efficacy, coined by Albert Bandura in the 70s. Essentially, having high self-efficacy means you think you are able to do something, or you believe in your own capabilities.  It boils down to something similar to the term most people understand: confidence.  It is also critical to the moral of The Little Engine That Could; if you think you can do it, you can.

In the context of museums, I looked at how much confidence people had about their ability to make sense of or interpret a contemporary artwork. I call this confidence in their existing ability interpretive self-efficacy. It's a concept I created to bridge what museum professionals hope visitors do in an art gallery  and the official academic construct, self-efficacy.

Why worry about visitor interpretive self-efficacy? Museums aim to facilitate the visitor's experience. We want to see people invigorated in our buildings; we want them to make connections, entertain ideas or stories, form opinions, and generate discussion. We want them interested. Spending two years learning about educational psychology, I deduced that researchers have interest development whittled down pretty well, and self-efficacy is closely tied to interest.

That, and I got tired of overhearing the cynical reprieve, "Why is this art? I could make that." echoing through contemporary art galleries across the country. I had a feeling this wasn't because visitors want to challenge the artist to a talent duel on a new TV series. Instead, I thought it might have something to do with visitors feeling unable to grasp what was going on in the artwork. To figure out if I was right, I picked up a set of clipboards and got to work.

Here's what I did:

Talked with 89 visitors to the Blanton Museum of Art and 71 recruited student participants from the University of Texas (I'll explain that distinction in another post!). 

Asked them to look at three contemporary artworks (pictured at right).

Required half of the group to read the labels. For the other half, I covered the labels and made sure nobody peeked. 

Provided time to respond to two sets of scales for each artwork: one with questions on interpretive self-efficacy and one assessing art interest.

Here's what I learned:

Interpretive self-efficacy, or confidence for making sense of or explaining an artwork, was an important factor determining a participant’s interest in a piece. Art viewers with high self-efficacy had slightly higher interest, and those with low self-efficacy correspondingly had low interest. For all you data nerds out there, yes, this was a significant difference at the .05 level.  A visitor's confidence in their interpretive abilities is significantly related to their interest in a contemporary artwork.

Now, what about the labels? I compared participants with and without labels in order to see if there is a measurable connection between confidence and the availability of information or interpretation that most art museums provide. Participants who read labels reported slightly higher self-efficacy and interest, but did not show statistically significant differences from participants with covered labels. Labels did not significantly increase a visitor's interpretive confidence or interest in an artwork.

On average, participants were more interested in the work than they were confident; mean self-efficacy scores were half a point lower than mean interest scores. This means that although a visitor might not be completely confident when looking at an artwork, interest can still be triggered by the objects in the museum (e.g. curiosity). This might be a no-duh finding, but it's validating to see and exciting that, although people might lack confidence, they are still open to an artwork.

Next time you're in your galleries, looking at your objects, or re-assessing your interpretation, consider whether your visitors feel empowered or at a loss. Do they think they can access the information, considerations, and responses you intend, or do they feel excluded and out of the loop?  Let's get our visitors subconsciously chanting the mantra, "I think I can, I think I can...". 

Are you interested in learning more? Other findings from this study will be posted in the near future. Topics to be addressed include: interpretive profiles, label use strategies, contemporary art label content, interactive activities, and recommendations to increase interest in contemporary art.