by Lindsey Stoll (MA, 2016)
When I first visited The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in June 2016, I immediately went to the galleries. I intended to spend the day carefully looking at every painting, photograph and sculpture on every floor of the museum. Instead, I spent the majority of my time sitting on a bench in the sixth floor gallery, admiring art and looking out at the Manhattan skyline. This bench has become my favorite spot in the museum. To me, it epitomizes what the Whitney’s new building is all about: bringing the outside in. The Whitney’s Education Department’s goal is to capture that sense of inclusion, by creating a space that promotes a sense of belonging for everyone who walks through the door.
The mission statement of the Education Department is: “to create opportunities for visitors with different needs, experiences, and interests to make meaningful connections with the art on view. With the intrepid spirit of the artist in mind, we challenge ourselves and our audiences to think creatively, embrace new ideas, and consider American art and culture in all its complexity.” The Whitney therefore seeks to make the museum a place anyone can enjoy. The Education Department offers family programs, school tours, open studios, touch tours, American Sign Language tours, drawing workshops, and teen events, among other offerings. Lily Foster, Manager of Public Programs at the Whitney, puts it this way: “The Whitney is committed to making complex art accessible and we have a focus on developing strong ties with the community.”
Public programs are a key component of the museum’s mission. The public programs team looks, in Foster’s words, “to connect what we have here to larger contexts outside of the museum.” One example of this is an upcoming discussion between Representative John Lewis and photographer Danny Lyon. Lyon and Lewis have known each other since Lyon began working as a photographer during the Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, the Whitney recently screened a short film of Lyon’s that featured a conversation with Representative Lewis. In conjunction with the exhibition currently on view, Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, Lily Foster and the Public Programs department thought it fitting to invite Lewis to come and have a conversation with Lyon about the context of the photographs on display. Public Programs additionally hopes this conversation will spark a deeper dialogue revolving around Representative Lewis’ current leadership on issues such as gun control and voting rights. Lyon’s photographs examine a variety of scenes and historic moments during the Civil Rights Movement, including voting rights demonstrations, lunch counter sit-ins, and the iconic March on Washington. When I look at Lyon’s photograph of the March on Washington in the fifth floor gallery I find this upcoming program to be perfectly connected.
Creating meaningful connections with the larger world comes about in a variety of forms at the Whitney. They can manifest through an artist talk (as seen in talks like that of Njideka Akunyili Crosby) or through film screenings and discussions. The first program I attended at the museum was a screening of Maggie Lee’s film Mommy, which was followed by a conversation between the artist and writer Leslie Jamison. This program confronted issues of loss, grief, love, and death. It gave those in the audience an inside glance into the work of Maggie Lee and the exhibition Mirror Cells that is currently on view at the Whitney. Public Programs at the Whitney provide a platform for visitors to explore exhibitions at a deeper level, but they also create an opportunity for artists to gather and have conversations with one another. Having artists collaborate with public programs creates a dynamic and personal experience that can often move beyond what is displayed in an exhibition. Foster’s goal is to create programs that “challenge, expand upon works on view and create a collaborative experience.”
So how can we tell if a public program is successful? According to Foster, “the success of a program is often not quantifiable. But we aim to develop programs that are generative and that draw in a variety of audiences.” As an individual who has sat in on several programs, I can attest to this success. Audiences at these programs are often diverse and engaged and I am always pleased to see the mix of students, professionals, tourists, families, and community members that turn out. My favorite part of a public program is when people linger at the end of a program to mingle and discuss what they have just experienced with the people next to them or even the artist or speaker.
My time as a Public Programs Intern at the Whitney has opened my eyes to the ways modern and contemporary art museums can open their doors to a wider audience and can work to create dialogues that extend beyond the world of art. As an individual who is interested in engaging communities with contemporary art, I have found that the Whitney inspired me to think outside the box when it comes to creating programs that not only complement exhibitions or museum collections, but also provide visitors with a unique and gratifying learning opportunity.
To learn more about University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program, click here.