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Art & Entertainment

Gallery Gatekeeping: the problem of access in the world of fine arts

Reading time: 3 minutes

As the “lucky” among us fall prey to boredom in global lockdown measures, many now-shuttered museums worldwide have opened their websites to virtual visitors via online tours with 360 degree views of their galleries. Among them are the Musei Vaticani in Rome, the British Museum in London, and New York City’s Guggenheim. These initiatives are laudable in their aim to share the world’s greatest masterpieces with audiences that may not have been able to see them even under normal conditions, but they may still be out of reach for shut-in families without a reliable internet connection. While there is little that museums can do about it at the moment, this disparity highlights the persisting gap between those who can and cannot enjoy all that museums and other arts and culture organizations have to offer.

It should come as no surprise that in most metropolitan cities, cultural institutions, and art museums in particular, are disproportionately concentrated in more affluent areas. In recent years, as a response to growing research and concern surrounding the inequality in arts education, many museums have begun to establish or expand programs to make their collections more accessible to underserved communities, which are usually among the more financially underprivileged in a city. Beyond the immediate enrichment benefits and opportunities that museums provide, studies have also linked the presence of cultural infrastructure in a neighborhood to increased health and safety outcomes. Particularly for young audiences, engagement with art can foster closer connections with their surroundings, improve mental health, and boost educational achievement. Art may be seen as a “last priority” for the development of lower-income areas, but it can be a deciding factor for the wellbeing of a community and the growth of its future generations.

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Admission costs are often the first thing that are pointed out as the primary barrier to access for art galleries and museums. Many museums have implemented cost-reducing schemes such as student and family discounts or free admission days in an attempt to broaden their audience. Despite gaining good press, these efforts have been largely ineffective in attracting new patrons for several reasons, the main being that cost is often one of the last obstacles stopping lower-income families from engaging with art and cultural institutions. Data on both regular and non-visitors show that factors such as time, travel distance, and transportation are usually cited as more prohibitive, either to repeated or first-time visits, than ticket fees. However counterintuitive, this may be especially true to low-income and underserved who consider more carefully what leisure activities are worth spending their money on.

Consider the case of a single mother, possibly working more than one job with relatively inflexible hours. She may think about taking her kids to see an art exhibit on the weekend, but because of the museum’s distance from her home, it is likely that she will have to plan the day around using public transportation. The museum might offer a kid-friendly program with waived admission fees on weekday afternoons, but it is of little use if her work does not allow for time off. Put together, these components can contribute to an overall alienation that over time builds up a reputation for institutions of fine art as monoliths of exclusivity, where some people may not feel welcome. In fact, surveys of individuals’ perceptions of cultural organizations have shown that there exists a significantly more pronounced positive correlation between income and “affinity” for art museums and orchestras than for any other organizations evaluated. That is, as the income of the surveyed individuals decreases, so do the “affinity” ratings of the institution category in question, which are based on answers to the question: “[cultural organization] is welcoming to people like me”. This last factor may be the highest barrier to overcome in accommodating potential patrons, because no matter what actions museums take to lower barriers to access, if an individual feels uncomfortable in an institution, any other external incentive is not likely to convince them to visit.

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It is exactly in this more “personal” kind of appeal that museums have failed. Despite enacting programs to reduce costs and increase accessibility, most museums are doing little to actually reach out to and alert underserved communities to their existence. Ironically, a majority of the people who are aware of a museum’s affordable access scheme are not those who would actually benefit from it or even need encouragement to visit. In fact, initiatives such as “free admission days” have been shown to attract even more higher-income audiences than normal days. This is because in most cases, museums stick to their traditional strategy of marketing through email newsletters or social media platforms. These electronic channels may be convenient and familiar to internal PR departments, but they have the critical flaw of only reaching an organization’s usual customer base.

Engagement with new audiences, especially underprivileged ones, requires a much more committed investment, and often means moving a museum’s focus and initiatives outside of its physical structure and into neighborhoods directly. Partnering with local businesses or organizations that are already at the center of community life such as libraries or civic centers is an ideal way that large cultural institutions can communicate directly with their intended audience, and potentially gain their trust.


Dal cartaceo di maggio 2020

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