Sociologist Alisa Maximova on the "right" and "wrong" visitor and the issue of research strategies

Author: Alisa Maximova


Alisa Maximova is a candidate of Sociological Sciences, Junior Research Fellow at the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, National Research University Higher School of Economics. Interests: museum studies, sociology of culture, science and technology studies.


Reading the memoirs of Anatoly Golubovsky about preparations for the 17th Exhibition for Young Art, I drew attention to the fact that for various reasons he and his colleagues were unable to process and analyze the audience survey data. Rather, he said, the result was of a phenomenological nature: observing the behavior of the participants and learning about how interaction took place at the exhibition. Today questionnaires remain the basic sociological tool; this reduces the viewer's experience to certain categories. Based on the analysis, for example, we single out “portraits”, groups, types of visitors. Interaction, observation, ethnographic description are still marginal and unpopular methods in sociology, in contrast to the way these methods are applied in contemporary art. It is rather difficult for a sociologist to defend her approach in the academy if it does not include rigid indicators and numbers, and if it aims to describe multiplicity. What matters is how representative the results obtained are and if they are suitable for making generalizations.


However, both today and then, in 1986, different methods for studying the viewer might better have been employed: questionnaires as well as observations, auto-ethnography, and maybe even longitudinal studies. The latter can help identify how, for example, the experience of interacting with art goes beyond the exhibition space and is reflected in the life trajectory, social presentations, or decisions of a person. We are accustomed to thinking that encountering high culture in childhood would later reflect in something meaningful, like making an important decision, understanding what is wanted, discovering one’s strengths, or overcoming difficulties. However, the effects of what a person has seen or experienced within the museum or gallery walls can take different forms, sometimes not noticeable or barely perceptible both for an individual and others. To study those requires complex work, which so far organizations rarely support: after all, this is a long-term commitment to research, and the results might turn out vague and be unpredictable. Almost no one is interested in this, although such efforts would enable a richer and better understanding of how arts and culture “work”, and prevent reproducing over and over again the distinction between high and popular culture, contemporary and classical art. Instead, we would be able to see the everyday, mundane, ubiquitous consequences of people’s encounters with different cultural objects.


Why isn't there much research about the art museum visitor today? I am not saying there is no research, but existing projects in Russia seem very similar to one another, and there are far fewer of them than there could be. I feel like the reason for this is a certain common language for speaking about cultural consumption, associated with values and education (to a large extent it is inherited from Soviet politics of culture), which boils down to studying “how cultural” Russians are, how it is reflected in the consumption of different types of arts, which social groups are culturally active, and which are not. This language significantly narrows research questions and does not evolve with more modern approaches.

Meanwhile, contemporary sociology of culture, which could provide productive research questions, tells us not to concern ourselves about the art viewer: even if the curators and artists do not think about the viewer, she will “survive” and due to her agency[1] make an independent interpretation of art, no matter how limited and unfriendly conditions for contact with art. Instead of presenting the development of museums as a transition from the conservative, exclusive model to the accepting, democratic, open model, the researchers emphasize: both “new” and “old” museums allow for multiple, agency-based visitor actions and interpretations. On the one hand, this gives hope. On the other hand, it is clear that this idea is not a great solution: when the viewer is not thought of, she has fewer opportunities for participation, engaging, and understanding.


Let me provide an optimistic example. Recently, I took part in a project dedicated to museum volunteering — a form of public participation, which is often criticized for becoming a form of exploitation. Among those who constantly work with volunteers, there are museums that say: "We invited you, so you can interact with something meaningful and beautiful, and then we will part with you". They see the role of a volunteer in a very specific way: she is a welcome guest but is a guest who should certainly eventually leave. Nevertheless, at some point, the volunteers themselves begin to feel a bit like curators, they suggest: why don’t we do this thing as well? Since volunteers come to the museum with a pass, not a ticket, they consider themselves to have a special right to the museum space. While this does not radically change the museum, it forces the museum staff to change their ideas about who the volunteers are and what relations exist between the institution and these external people, what the museum can and cannot, should and should not delegate, where and what responsibilities they are ready to share. There is some kind of serendipity and unpredictability in this process of interaction between the museum and the volunteers, which can lead to interesting consequences.


Large, progressive art museums today define how we should relate to the viewer, study the public, conceptualize, and describe visitor experience. They organize discussions and conferences; their representatives give talks about their projects and conduct master classes. Surveys and other technologies borrowed from marketing work well for the practical purposes of such museums. It turns out that in projects dedicated to the study of the museum audience, the most noticeable studies have been carried out by large art institutions. In this respect, it makes no sense for regional organizations and local institutions, whose audience and knowledge about their audience are very different, to try to conduct a survey at home, for instance, because the flow of visitors is so small. They, in turn, could make use of methods that are not related to regarding the viewer as a client, avoid questionnaires and quantification.


Large art museums are faced with the need to increase their performance, establish communication, and sometimes even reduce the number of visitors (so that they would not destroy the gallery space in crowded blockbuster exhibitions). But overall, posing questions about visitors is not a concern that would cause these museums to change their relationship with the public. That is, museums are not very interested in the audience's perceptions. They approach people as a clientele, rather than seeing them as those who take part as equals or contribute new meanings.

In my opinion, one can distinguish several approaches for studying the viewer. The first is a marketing approach, when we need the viewer to be satisfied, comfortable, to have a smooth and pleasant experience, to want to return to the museum again. This approach does not work well for contemporary art. It seems to include an assumption that art should be “pleasant” and “problem-free”, and the visitor be able to objectify her impressions. How can an uncomfortable experience be measured? How to analyze reactions that are not simply verbalized? Social science does not have the best instruments for these tasks, and the marketing view is poorly fitted for this, too. 


Another approach is how artists study the viewer: how they work with the viewer's experience, describe the audience, and inscribe them in their works. This is a promising area that outperforms sociology because it does not focus on quantifiability, counting, objectification, formalization, and is capable of experimentation and breaking the rules. There is also a scientific view of the viewer, which has its own limitations of a reductionist nature. We need to decide how we regard the viewer: as a product of social inequality or as a body with certain characteristics in space? 


Finally, the last approach is democratizing and humanitarian: the museum should be more open, the viewer should be a partner, participant, co-author. In this case, it is possible to describe in different ways what happens to the viewer and her roles in the museum. This does not always occur without problems: such an approach can be declared, but ultimately lead to narrow scenarios for fitting the status of “good” viewer — one who can freely and inventively perceive the art object. Previously, the “right visitor” was someone who knew little or nothing about art, but then came to the museum, underwent the lecture or guided tour, looked at art objects, and finally understood the art. Today, this is a viewer whom we have taught to think correctly, to be open to new things, and to ask questions. Yet, it is this latter approach, supported by a variety of flexible research strategies, that can lead to the creation of networks in which objects, space, institutions, artists, and viewers interact.


1.  Agency — capacity of individuals to act independently.