Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994

Deep in the Heart of Cultural Politics

by Lynn Curl
In acquiring funding, much of the art world has concen-
trated on "supply-side" tactics, assuming that improving
the quality of its offerings will improve attendance. Such
assumptions may serve to deepen the arts audience
(more people with the same socio-economic background),
but not to broaden it (more people of various socio-
economic backgrounds). Recently the Museum of Fine
Arts, Houston and a much smaller, new organization
called Project Row Houses have attempted to broaden the
arts audience in two very different ways. The MFAH's "A
Place for All People" is designed to develop the museum's
relationships with three areas in Houston, including the
Third Ward. It began with an exhibit, Speaking of Artists,
which was mounted at the MFAH and explored the con-
cems of living Houston artists. PRH is an art space/social
service provider/community center in the Third Ward, a
community which is 90.8 percent African-American; 51
percent of the live births are to teenage mothers, and the
same percentage of children are being raised below the
poverty line. Both Speaking of Artists, the first component
of the MFAH's five-year plan, and PRH have faced criti-
cism within the art world, proving just how arduous is the
task of crossing social and economic borders in a sensitive
and responsible way.
It would be unfair to judge a five-year program such as "A
Place for all People" before it is even halfway complete.
Likewise, it is unfair to judge PRH, which has not yet had
its first major opening. However, many people within the
art community are uncomfortable with PRH, seeing it as a
"racist" endeavor which will fund only African-American art-
ists. While some of the information put out by Project Row
Houses does specify that African-American artists will be
commissioned to do installations, other literature says-and
the official line is-that commissions will go to people
whose work deals with issues relevant to African-
Americans. A perfect example of such an artist would be
Mel Chin, who is not black but whose work investigates
the tools and functions of authority. All the artists slated for
PRH's first show are black. However, for the second ex-
hibit, a jury will call for entries and select participants. The
bottom line is, nobody knows exactly how to most effec-
tively broaden the arts audience. PRH has one tactic, the
MFAH has another. But PRH seems to incorporate grace-
fully what we know already about museum culture, while
the MFAH and other museums, so far, seem hell-bent on
ignoring it.
As any student of museums knows, museum visitors are a
largely self-selected group, the great majority of whom are
educated and white. Studies have shown that the single
greatest factor determining one's likelihood to participate
in cultural events is education. Museologists and sociolo-
gists have written reams about the way in which class af-

fects the museum goer. The upper-classes have a sophis-
ticated familiarity with aesthetic concerns, an enhanced
ability to interact with "fine art," in short, a hefty supply of
"cultural capital." They often do not use explanatory notes
provided with exhibits, preferring to consult their own
sources. Middle class museum visitors, sociologists note,
tend to clamor for information, listen to the audio guides
and use the touch-screen computers. Lower class visitors
see the museum as an imposing, cathedral-like and often
hostile space. One reason for this is that museums have
traditionally made certain implicit assumptions about their
visitors. An NEA official quoted one "prominent arts leader"
who said that the process of getting public funds for the
arts is the process of "convincing 95 percent of the rest of
the people in the country to support what only five percent
of us really like."
As public organizations who receive non-profit status, tax
breaks and public funds, museums owe a great deal to
more than a mere five percent of this country. Unfortu-
nately, many arts supporters, rather than presenting a
firmly based argument for funding, rally to protect the privi-
leged status of art as an unquestionable, historical given.
Considering the attendance data, however, one must as-
sume that these supporters imagine a sort of cultural
trickle-down effect, implying that when an artist supplies
aesthetics, expression and/or criticism, their ideas eventu-
ally penetrate the consciousness of the many for whom art
is not a part of everyday life. One way to remedy this
situation, we know, is to educate. But, when it comes to
education, museums are reluctant or uncertain. As Vera L
Zolberg wrote 1992, a major art museum director in a
large American city said, "I honestly don't know what mu-
seum education departments are supposed to do."
In fact, the education component of museums in the U.S.
and abroad has, for the most part, only recently grown in
importance-perhaps in response to greater demands for
such programs from funders. Yet the stature of education
has not yet reached that of selection. Educators are not as
important in museum structures as curators-the former
are seen as an advocate for the audience, the latter as an
advocate for the art, or as appropriate arbiters of taste and
value. Art museums attract a disproportionate number of
upper class visitors when compared to science museums,
folk art museums or zoos, which traditionally devote more
activities and exhibition space to education rather than
contemplation. In fact when museums do attempt to con-
textualize art-far more often the case with "exotic" exhibits
such as the versions of Pompeii and Imperial Austria we
have seen in Houston in recent years, they are beset by
political considerations and often flub the job. Imperial
Austria was a perfect example of the common trap: it
asked viewers to accept what they saw as historically con-
textualized and "authentic" at the same time as it aestheti-
cized and de-menaced articles of war, the relations be-
tween the Styrians and the Turkish "other" of the exhibit,

and the privileged position of the nobility in that society. In
short, it confounded the perceptual-emotional experience
with the cognitive-educational one, and well it might. If we

Huerta, Benito; Ballou, Chris & Loftus, Kelley. Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228036/. Accessed July 28, 2014.