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Crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Record numbers visit museums, but are visitors getting any real guidance on art? (©Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Though my interest in art has intensified over the years, museums lure me less and less. My problem, doubtless, is the ever larger and more enthusiastic crowds. Despite this reluctance, personal obligations recently forced several museum visits on me, in several cities, too: my hometown, New York, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Dallas, and elsewhere. Each visit left me with the same four powerful impressions: The institutions seemed more eager than ever to push their collections, and visitors seemed remarkably eager to consume. At the same time, I got the feeling that the visitors wanted something other than the museums were offering. Strongest of all was the sense that neither party had given much thought to what the exchange ought to involve.

With a background in economics, I naturally had a hankering after something more concrete than feelings. Without statistics to hand, I did my best on this front by engaging visitors and, when I could, museum staff in conversation about their expectations and intentions. Unscientific, I know, but instructive nonetheless. A few visitors, though a very few, expressed a serious interest in the exhibits. A minority of them put my art background into the shade and quickly. Most of the visitors I encountered spoke of doing the “kids” some good, though what good remained vague. Some referenced an obligation to see a special exhibit that had received a lot of publicity, though no one seemed quite sure of the nature of that obligation. Many of the museum people acknowledged that most visitors had little serious interest but hoped the visit might “plant a seed”. Other officials emphasised what might be termed a multicultural angle. They hoped to expose people to different perspectives. Some administrators spoke cynically about tolerating the crowds and the expanded gift shop as a way to finance the collection, though for what purpose they never made clear.

I had hoped for something else. I wanted the museum people to give me a hint of why they chose to emphasise one exhibit over another or, more important, why their curator valued one work over another. Especially when the relativist, multicultural talk got thick, and the professionals, unbidden, emphasised how no one piece was inherently superior to another, I felt a powerful impulse to ask, “Then why this particular stuff?” Usually I resisted that urge. It seemed too aggressive in the circumstance. When frustration forced out the question anyway, some condescend and some tried to clarify. Nothing satisfied. When I asked something like this of visitors, I hoped, in vain, for something along the lines of a response that had deeply impressed me in my youth.

When in college, in what now seems like the Pleistocene period, I had a summer job near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because my work obligations produced a gap in the middle of the afternoon, I frequently went over to the Met. I started with the mildest of interest. I went mostly because the Met was a lot cheaper then, more comfortable than the street, and did hold some small interest. It also held promise as a place to meet girls. That last plan failed, but I did repeatedly run into the same young man. Eventually we acknowledged each other and in time even exchanged a few words. I explained my presence. In return he offered his reasons. I quote from an inaccurate memory: “Some admirable people think highly over this stuff,” this obviously disadvantaged youth said. “I figure, if I hang around it enough, I’ll see what they see.” Without critical support, his quest seemed doomed to failure. It seemed to me an admirable effort nonetheless. I got nothing close to this on my more recent visits.

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