How to combat condescension in the arts

Stepping into an art gallery or museum should not be an act of courage.

It should not be accompanied by the same level of anxiety as walking onto the lot of a used car dealership or into a doctor’s office.

Exploring the inexhaustible wonder available in Western New York’s dozens of galleries and museums ought to be as easy and natural as flipping open your laptop, unlocking your phone or checking what’s on ESPN.

And yet, for a huge swath of Western New Yorkers who have been systematically convinced that the visual arts are not for them, the wealth of visual arts activity that surrounds them has never seemed less accessible, less interesting or less relevant to their lives.

The decadeslong, culturewide decline of art appreciation in the American provinces defies simple explanations, but there are plenty of theories. Many of them got a detailed airing on Friday night, when several perceptive members of the regional art community gathered in Buffalo Arts Studio for a panel discussion on how to make the arts more accessible to the public.

The talk, hosted by the grass-roots arts group Emerging Leaders in the Arts Buffalo and moderated by painter and critic Bruce Adams, featured BAS curator Shirley Verrico, artists Julia Douglas, Gary Wolfe and Shasti O’Leary Soudant and poet Irvin Finks.

The ideas discussed ranged from practical approaches such as inviting more people from a wider demographic cross-section of the region to arts events to tougher structural issues such as the lack of arts education for children and the barriers to unlocking the artistic potential in economically underserved communities.

One exchange about 30 minutes into the discussion seemed to get to the very heart of the issue.

“How do you change the perception of art being an elitist institution?” Soudant asked.

“Being on the inside, you don’t consider yourself an elitist,” Wolfe replied.

“Well, that’s how bubbles work,” Soudant shot back, prompting big laughs from the assembled crowd of about 25 people, mostly artists and curators. And boy was she right.

Chuckle-worthy as Soudant’s line seemed at the time, the myopia that develops inside cultural bubbles is central to the public’s pervasive sense that visual art is exclusively for fancy people.

Indeed, the notion of the visual arts as a safe space for a small, circumscribed group of elite cultural producers and aficionados is in some ways necessary for the creation of certain art institutions in the first place. The great Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, for example, might never have gotten off the ground or acquired its essential experimental flavor as a purely populist enterprise.

But such a cool-kids-club mentality can quickly turn toxic, producing impermeable bubbles that enforce their rigid boundaries through the use of alienating language, or by programming complex conceptual exhibitions largely free of educational context and therefore decipherable only by the anointed few.

There are many broader cultural reasons for the decline in art appreciation among the non-degree-holding public, ranging from strategic cuts in funding from the anti-intellectual politicians to the rise and relative omnipresence of competing media.

But I contend that this exclusionary mentality, encouraged by theory-drenched academic art programs and thence propagated through the American gallery and museum complex, has had a ruinous effect on the public’s sense of inclusion in the visual arts world.

In New York City, Chicago and other art-tourism destinations, the fact that people are flocking to museums in record numbers seems superficially to belie this trend. But those people are generally paying to see big, new, impressive pieces of architecture and one or two of the famous paintings that lie within them – not to go on a grand intellectual adventure.

In far too many art institutions, there has been a pervasive sense that one is paying hefty admission fees to be talked down to via wall texts written in a language that barely qualifies as English, or conceptual artwork whose biggest concept is its very inscrutability. Though this codified condescension is finally waning, the damage is done. And it has been severe.

But it is not irreversible.

In Buffalo, there is more promising work being done in this area than I can list here. With a few notable exceptions, the tradition in this town for at least the past decade has been about combating that damage of institutional elitism and opening the doors to wider participation. These efforts range from the work of ELAB and other ground-level organizations to the rise of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s public art partnership with local government.

Friday’s panel wasted little time in getting to the heart of the issue. By convening the discussion, ELAB and the arts community have brightened the outlook for public access to the arts.