Interview by Suzanne Pollak
“You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, We all want to change the world. You tell me that it’s evolution. Well, you know, We all want to change the world.”
This sentiment carries from the Beatles in 1968 to Carrie Barratt in 2021. Barratt is the former deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first woman CEO and president of the New York Botanical Garden, and one of the most curious and caring people I know. From her decades of past experiences and recent work with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and South Bend Museum of Art, Barratt is uniquely positioned to revolutionize how people experience museums.
What follows are excerpts from a recent interview with Barratt on how institutions might achieve this:
There is a difference between close looking and looking closely. I grew up going to the Art Institute of Chicago. Then in my work as a curator, close looking was almost like a guided tour or guided meditation, where someone who knew a lot about a painting would stand and tell you all about it. At the end of the tour, people would say, “Thank you! Now I know so much more.”
In our world of social media, information transfer, and the light-speed digital revolution, most people enjoy works of art by sharing them. It isn’t just demographic; it’s not just young people—it’s everyone. “Look where I am! I’m taking a picture and I’m posting it.” You see people with their phones all the time, which even five or six years ago used to bother many people. “Can’t these people just put their phones away and look?” I have come to realize that’s actually the wrong instinct. When people share what they see in a museum, it’s because they are putting themselves in the picture. They are putting themselves in the situation of being in a museum. I’d like to do less telling and more asking, flipping the curatorial profession into one where expertise still matters a great deal, but it shouldn’t be first. My telling you everything I know about a John Singleton Copley is only relevant after I’ve said, “What do you see?”
I’m coming up with a series of questions that interrogates you and asks what you feel: What do you see? Why do you love this? Is there a particular color that you respond to? Does it remind you of anything? If you were going to share this with a friend or family member, who would it be? You saw something beautiful. How will that change your life? You might tell them, “I saw something amazing today,” which might get you to say, “I really wish I knew more. I’m going to try to find the artist and ask some very specific questions about what it’s made of, what’s the impetus, what it meant to him.”
I think bringing our empathetic sense of works of art to the forefront is a much more healing and meaningful place for us to start now than the name and date—what I call dog-tag information. You can find that in a book. I do think that the value of culture and museums is really in that moment where somebody is able to feel. One great tragedy we’ve come to realize over the past year is that the vast majority of people are not comfortable with works of art. They don’t easily relate to them because they are intimidating, or they don’t know about the artist, or they didn’t learn them in school. They didn’t have parents who took them to museums. So the great diverse, inclusive revolution in art museums is putting the visitor first.
There’s a significant difference between works of art at home and works of art that we see in museums. We have higher expectations of museums. Not everybody, but some of us, have art in our homes made by family; other people have posters on their walls. I think that almost everybody has something on their walls that gives them pleasure or joy when they wake up in the morning.
If I were redesigning museum tours, it would be interesting to say, “Would you like the tour where you hear everything about this? Or the tour where you tell me what you see?” Many museums are now doing the latter—not necessarily as art historical or docent-led tours, but actually billed as civic learning or empathetic looking.
At the Minneapolis Institute of Art, there’s a program in Resilience Communication. This program puts the visitor first. The South Bend Museum of Art is considering letting workers in the downtown area, who mostly work at hospitals and banks, come into the museum during their lunch hour—maybe even bring their lunch. What would it be like if they just sat and had lunch with a painting, with nobody? For some people, that would be incredibly intimidating. But for others, it would be like being with a good friend. Years ago, at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, you could pick your favorite piece of Tibetan art and sleep under it. There are so many different ways to engage with art now.
As a profession, we have been more inclined to educate, tell, and explicate than we have been to listen. If we say in our world the most valuable skill in leadership, family life, and relationships is to be a better listener, how does that then translate into the experience of a museum? If I say, “Come to the museum; I want to listen to you,” how does that work?
Most people come to a museum ready to be talked to rather than listened to. But if I could—and maybe I will—start a program about listening, I would say, “Let’s pick a painting. How does that resonate with you? How does it make you feel?” Then at a certain point, you’d say, “I’d really like to know who painted it. I wonder what was going on in the world at that time.” Where did it come from? How did it get here? How much did they pay for it? All of these questions are natural to the art historical process and museum practice. I think we have to come up with a whole new list of questions that interrogate the viewer.
The tour would have to be framed in the right way. It would be fascinating to pilot a listening tour, to say, “At a certain point in this tour, we will get to the details about a painting. We’re here with a renowned art historian. But the purpose of this tour is actually to talk to each other. Come ready to hear from each other and to listen.” Some people will never take that tour because they don’t want to listen to each other, and that’s just fine. But other people are looking for community—it’s not even post-pandemic; it’s just the way things are now in our society. What I’m proposing is also something that feeds community and comfort. It’s about being together and learning to listen to one another. We’re longing to be together, and art can bring us there.
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Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Mansion section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.