1801 E Dock St, Tacoma, 866-4MUSEUM.
I recently visited the Museum of Glass with a writing class made up of sophisticated and self-aware teenagers. As an exercise in writing across genres--in this case, writing about art--I asked the students to find something in the museum that they hated, and to write about why. This assignment didn't arise solely out of my pique with the Studio Glass movement; there's much to be learned from articulating what you don't like, not the least of which is learning what it is you expect from art.
An exhibition of recent glass sculpture and drawing by the Czech artists Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtová fared badly. The austere forms--some columnar, some delicately carved to varying levels of transparency--were considered "drab and pointless," and a "glorification of blandness." The students felt the work lacked message, or that if there was meaning, it was too hidden. John Cage, featured in an exhibition with contemporaneous works by Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, didn't do much better; of a work called Steps, which featured a gray, paint-stroked background the artist had walked across, someone said, "I could do that. A two-year-old could do that."
I include these opinions not in the spirit of Kids Say the Darndest Things, but because they highlight some curatorial choices that affect how a new generation of artgoers will absorb what they see. How an exhibition is chosen, how it's supported with texts, how students are introduced to work, all have a cumulative effect. (True, we weren't led around by an informed, patient docent; rather, we scattered and looked at our own pace.)
That I later explained the historical context of the Czech work (which I didn't much like either), that I talked briefly about making abstract work in an artistic and political climate in which dissent was dangerous, and that I more or less decoded the work's social significance only seemed to make the students feel bad. I talked about Cage (whose work I love) and his empirical randomness, his use of chance and the I Ching, his random-word collages and his music. In contemporary art, I argued, it's not always enough to look; sometimes you have to read. "But I read the stuff on the walls," one student wailed. "And I still didn't get it."
I don't know where the fault lies when a museum fails to engage smart, young viewers--fails to get them to read the wall tags, fails to contextualize the work. Is it in arts education? Curatorial mishandling? My error, for not insisting on a guided tour? Or is it a deeper failure, the failure of modern art to speak across the years?
The museum takes up a lot of space, there on the Foss Waterway, but when you walk into the lobby, it's not clear what's what. You see a restaurant, you see a gift shop, you see the entrance to the hot shop (where the glassblowing takes place, inside a big stainless-steel tower), but the gallery is shunted off to the side, with two large-ish exhibitions sharing a labyrinthine space (13,000 square feet out of a building totaling 75,000 square feet). There are outdoor installations among the tiered steps above the museum, and there's the Chihuly Bridge, but there's no getting around how art feels like an afterthought. That's fine if the museum is about spectacle, and the way art is one element of a spectacle, but the work in both current exhibitions is not about spectacle at all, but about thought and history and context. I don't suppose these things are irreconcilable, but they haven't been cleverly reconciled here.
The most popular piece among the students was a 1998 kinetic sculpture by Gregory Barsamian: a strobe-lit cage with figures floating up its sides, being transformed into wheels and then back again. It was a perfect exercise in not trusting your eyes to tell you what's in front of you, and a lot of time was spent debating how it was done, and what it might mean. This is art's peak experience, the experience of being fully engaged--only partly proving me wrong. There's also a lot to learn from talking about what you like.