NUDE GRECO-ROMAN WRESTLING, art-inspired craft beers, live sets by Guidance Counselor, Wampire, and Sallie Ford; it sounds like a fun night out, though maybe not one you'd expect from the Portland Art Museum (PAM). Yet for the second annual Shine a Light—a one-night-only exhibition designed by MFA candidates from Portland State University's art and social practice program—these nontraditional additions to PAM's programming are part of an effort to reinvigorate the museum experience.
Throughout the night, PAM will serve as a stage for experimental performance and exhibition, repurposing its collections and spaces. The rundown: "jingles" by PAM staff about their on-the-job experiences; a breakdancing showcase in Schnitzer Sculpture Court; spontaneous, improvised dance by Linda Austin and Richard Decker; situational audio tours by PAM security guards; pre-recorded walk-arounds pairing music with works from the permanent collection; the opportunity to "marry" art from the walls, or touch reproductions of select pieces; and, like last year, music and beer tailor-made to complement the museum's collections.
While some of this sounds fun, I question the mission behind the exhibition, which is officially billed as an effort to "find new ways to experience art." Given the overall party-oriented focus, it seems like finding "new ways to experience art" is secondary to pulling young people through the door. Jessica Lyness, a marketing manager at PAM, confirms my suspicions.
Lyness says the average age of museum members is 57, though with Portlanders' median age at 35, catering to a younger crowd with projects like Shine a Light becomes increasingly necessary—not only to sell new memberships, but to maintain admission revenues (which dropped by more than $500,000 between June of 2008 and 2009). According to Lyness, PAM is moderately successful in engaging our young city. On an average day the museum pulls 1,000-1,200 visitors. During exhibitions that target a younger crowd—like R. Crumb's Genesis, last year's tattoo exhibit, or the recent Escher show—daily attendance blossoms to 1,700-2,000. (Last year, Shine a Light saw 2,000 people in a night.)
PAM's efforts to target younger audiences are headed in the right direction, but our museum could do more to create programming with mass appeal. Compare PAM's programming with the Guggenheim's YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video: The streaming-video provider solicited submissions from their worldwide community of filmmakers, later selecting 125 videos to be whittled down to 20 by a jury of world-class artists (including Animal Collective, Shirin Neshat, and Takashi Murakami, amongst others). Once selected, the videos will be available online, as well as at the Guggenheim's New York, Berlin, Bilbao, and Venice locations. And a recently announced street art showcase at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art will collect some of the world's most celebrated street artists, like Banksy (whose 2006 LA exhibition Barely Legal saw 75,000 visitors in just three days), Mister Cartoon, and Space Invader, an exhibit that's likely to be of interest to young audiences as well as graff-curious older folks.
These museums are demonstrating a refined vision of the future that relates to younger interests. Shine a Light shows PAM taking steps in a similar direction, though I neither applaud nor condemn this particular effort—it doesn't take the type of risk that starts an important conversation (in fact, it guarantees its own success by bringing in artists with a built-in local audience), but it does represent a willingness to engage younger crowds. That said, I hope PAM continues to target younger audiences while getting a bit outside of their comfort zone—maybe to a place that says something concrete about the world.