[Contemporary Art] Study

Interpretive [Contemporary Art] Preferences

Back in 2014, I talked with a group of undergraduates to learn how interactive activities might influence their experience looking at contemporary art. I was especially curious whether museums could leverage these activities to increase self-efficacy when interpreting artworks. Others have been trying to tackle this topic of increasing visitor comfort and confidence; a recent post by Museum Hack offers tips for combating museum anxiety and Museumphiles postulated that some visitors (and non-visitors)  believe museums are scary, whether due to their lack of education, wariness of being reprimanded for inappropriate behavior inside the institution, or their ability to "get" artwork on display.  In my discussions with 71 students, I found support for these claims of anxiety and discomfort making sense of contemporary art while in an art museum. 

In Museum Hack's post, they suggest using entertainment as a means to engagement, since, "on a basic level, it gets guests laughing, comfortable, and moving — and fosters an appreciation and interest that opens the doors for visitors to care about the material and bring their own reverence to the table."  Although their model relies on a tour to provide this type of interpretive support, I wanted to consider the influence of interactive activities incorporated into exhibit spaces.

This artwork,  2244 M  ódulos  by Isabel Del Rio, was the artwork in the study where participants reported lowest interpretive self-efficacy.

This artwork, 2244 Módulos by Isabel Del Rio, was the artwork in the study where participants reported lowest interpretive self-efficacy.

Students who rarely visit art museums and self-identified as having low experience with art (i.e., are not artists, do not frequently engage with art) participated in a focus group, which included a visit to the Blanton Museum of Art. In quantitative measures, they reported lowest self-efficacy when looking at the artwork pictured above, 2244 Módulos.  Inspired by this piece, focus group participants were presented with following hypothetical interactive activity:

Originally developed for an event catering to middle school students, instructions asked participants to stack tiles to represent how they split their time over the past week, similar to how the artist stacked clay slabs to represent hours of work in a day. 

Originally developed for an event catering to middle school students, instructions asked participants to stack tiles to represent how they split their time over the past week, similar to how the artist stacked clay slabs to represent hours of work in a day. 

Would visitors participate in an interactive activity? Participants were generally intrigued. The majority (39%) said they would participate with the interpretive activity and a quarter of the group said that they would observe it but not personally interact. Another quarter was unsure, or said they would participate in certain conditions, while the smallest proportion (9%) said they do not like interactive activities.

Why might visitors not participate? Barriers to participation included social stigma, disturbing the gallery environment, and lack of interest in the specific activity. Those who said “it depends,” shared that visiting with a social group or children would lead them to participate more than if they visited alone, that they liked interactives in general but were not interested in the activity that they were shown, or that they would participate if the activity addressed a different artwork.

What are the benefits? Participation was believed to lead to increased understanding of a piece, deeper engagement, and higher interpretive self-efficacy. Likewise, participants said they could see interactives as a way to make works more interesting if aesthetics do not initially draw their attention.

What are the drawbacks? Concerns over negative learning consequences were mostly voiced by those indicating high self-efficacy, arguing that an activity would take away from their ability to formulate personal interpretations. There were also complaints that the activity was futile. These individuals were more interested in participating when there was a take-home product or if they were helping the museum achieve a goal.

I like it. I think it’s interactive. It makes you simulate what the artist was doing and it makes you relate to the art in a different way. It makes you think.
— Focus Group Participant

Learning goals and self-efficacy were generally thought to be supported by the activity; participants considered the activity helpful for contextualizing the work within their personal experience and led them to new questions and considerations about the piece.

Although many appreciated the related, but not replicating nature of the activity, some revealed that an activity which did not directly translate concepts presented on the label would confuse them.  These participants hoped for something that reflects what was written on the label to help them build a solid schema to view the work. Others voiced concern that an interactive activity would not fit in with their concept of an art museum environment. Several spoke of art museums as sterile, cold, quiet, serious spaces not conducive to touching, examining, making, or doing;  these activities were considered more acceptable or comfortable in a science or children’s museum. 

It should be kinda close so you know it goes with that art, but I like how quiet art museums are and you can just be in your own head. If it was right there, people might be joking with their friends and it might distract from the other work.
— Focus Group Participant

Participants offered mixed views on when and where an interactive activity might feel most appropriate. Those who were in favor of encountering the activity before or simultaneously with the work thought it was fundamental to building their conception of the work. They wanted interpretive activities where they would expect to find a label in order to see the work while participating. Others preferred to experience the interpretive activity in a removed, unintegrated space after viewing the piece to maintain the calm, contemplative mood of the existing museum gallery and prevent spoiling initial impressions of the work. They said an interactive space situated at the end of a visit is most useful to review and renew ways of thinking about the piece.

Although mixed perceptions of interactives still reign, most participants were intrigued by the thought of "doing" to enhance looking at the art museum. Clearly, visitor expectations of art museum culture came into play, triggering some apprehension. As museums pursue new routes to engage visitors, finding opportunities for visitors to participate appears to be one way to foster deeper connection and comfort. 

Want to learn more about self-efficacy, interest, and contemporary art? Check out my [Contemporary Art] Study series.

Dear [Contemporary Art] Label

At a webinar hosted by the AAM last spring,  I saw a stream of art museum professionals looking for label writing techniques to put to use.  Although the suggestions posited were relevant in any space intended to educate a visiting public, many requested more examples specific to art museums. Over the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Beverly Serrell, one of the presenters and the woman who literally wrote the book on label writing. Her book covers techniques that grasp visitor attention despite the static medium of a traditional label. She agreed that art museum professionals were looking for more specifics, despite the universal approaches she suggests.

So why the insurgence of requests for art-specific label tips and examples? Art museum professionals may be thinking their objects require a particular type of sensitivity. Art interpretation depends greatly on an individual's epistemological beliefs, especially contemporary works which usually are not simply intended to give you an idea of what something looks like (e.g. a portrait). Instead, contemporary pieces beg visitors to think, to test ideas, to consider options...even prompt an emotional reaction. What role does a label have in that?

The easy way out is one many take. Whether by curatorial decision or by request of the artist, labels are omitted entirely, or provide rough basics, like the artist's name and the title of a work. However, most college-aged adults I spoke with for my thesis study suggested minimal label content was an invitation to disengage, rather than inviting non-prescriptive thought and consideration as is intended. One explained:

It's really frustrating to me when all [the label] says is the name, the date. Generously donated by so-and-so.

Visitors turn to labels for interpretive support, but finding nothing there can leave them feeling alienated or frustrated.

Visitors turn to labels for interpretive support, but finding nothing there can leave them feeling alienated or frustrated.

When these visitors look for more information, they are searching for somewhere to start, looking to fill in gaps, or comparing their conclusions against something with greater authority. When a label responds with something they aren't able to build from (e.g., an artwork called Untitled) this magnifies feelings of low self-efficacy (or, confidence making an interpretation) for a visitor who is already outside their comfort zone. Essentially, this label communicates, "If you don't already get it, it's not worth explaining."

Having worked with Education departments in the past, I know this is not the attitude intended by these institutions. They are hopeful that visitors will tap into their critical thinking,  build off of other pieces in the gallery, pick up a rack card and read about the thought that went into bringing these works together into one space. However, for people who haven't been to any museum in a year, they might not be aware of or comfortable with these techniques. It's similar to the experience of walking into a new restaurant; you may be apprehensive about mispronouncing the name of a foreign dish and need to ask questions about the ingredients (what is almond persillade?) before you are confident with your order. Without anyone to turn to, these visitors will simply skip over and move on to something they do have some ideas about.

Up next, I'll share what visitors look for in a contemporary artwork label. Until then, look around your spaces and consider how easy it is for new visitors to get their questions answered. Chances are, your visitors would love more  information; they're just not sure how to ask. 

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.