Meet Me at MoMA
A large and busy crowd of people are being greeted warmly and noisily at the film desk at MoMA. Laurel Humble, Assistant Educator at MoMA, is busy taking names and directing people into their groups. Having expected maybe 10/15 people max, I’m surprised to see so many people. There are 5 groups heading out that afternoon, each group having about 15 people in it – including carers, families, educator and volunteers. I’m greeted very warmly as well, given a blue sticker, and directed to my educator, Kerry, by the blue group volunteer, Lois. I introduce myself to Kerry, who takes it in her stride having a visitor from England shadow her session.
I’ve already been around the museum for an hour, drinking in the wealth of paintings on the 5th floor, trying not to dilute the experience of seeing and absorbing by looking at too much. The galleries are heaving with people – and it isn’t even the free Friday night session. I’m intrigued – how will a group of people with wheelchairs, walking sticks, and fragile attention spans be guided through the busyness of MoMA. And which art works are we going to meet?
Later, after the session is over, I take a few minutes with Kerry and ask her how she chose the artworks. “I had wanted to do the Toulouse Lautrec’s but Laurel had been into the gallery that morning and said it was too crowded ; there was no way we were going to get in there, so I had to change my plans on the spot”.
So here we are, slowly making our way up to the photography session – fantastic, I love photography. I had introduced myself to all the participants, and find myself walking with Stuart and Selma, a couple from New Jersey. Stuart tells me he never used to come to museums, not his kind of thing, but Selma enjoys it, and he is beginning to find his way to enjoying art too. Selma tells me with a beautiful smile, “I love art”. They used to go to the Met program, which involved a practical making element, but Selma became increasingly disinterested in making. There are quite a few people who do both programs, some who come regularly to MoMA, and some who are here for the first time.
We gather round a series of large black and white photographs, and Kerry begins. “What do you see?”, “What’s going on here?”. For the rest of the session I watch Kerry give an incredible performance – almost a dance I tell her later – in the way she weaves together inviting responses, catching up responses, shares these across the group to ensure everyone is included. She encourages and picks up on humorous comments, ask people to relate things they see to their life – “What kind of recipes do we know with potatoes?”and slowly and gently feeds in information about the works, and the artists. She asks if people would like the art work in their living room, and gets candid responses. Quite quickly, we’ve become a group – we are listening to each other, enjoying each others company.
Not everyone is fully engaged – N in her wheelchair seems quite withdrawn – I ask her carer how she knows N is having a good time. I’m told N is always like that, its ok, she likes coming, its just that she can’t hear very well.
Our second piece is the Fischli and Weiss film – ‘The Way Things Go’. We gather round and Kerry invites us to take some time to just watch. After some time, there is laughter from some of the group members. “What’s going on, why are you laughing?” Kerry smiles. One gentleman answers, “How can you not?”…and a new conversation begins. Kerry asks us how the piece makes us feel, and what kind of soundscape it might have. She gives us a few details about how the film was made, and steers us into all kinds of responses. One gentleman sums up his view of the film by saying, “I don’t think its boring but I don’t think its great.” Kerry accepts all points of view – and at one point a question she asks causes another gentleman a frowning response – he doesn’t like her question, it seems to have confused and somehow upset him. His wife smooths over the moment, placing her hand on his shoulder, and he smiles at Kerry, who smiles back and assures him his response is perfectly valid and – “This is MoMa – we ask awkward questions some times. ”
When I talk to Kerry later she tells me she finds the sessions exhausting – she tells me she is using every part of her brain, reading people at every level she can – emotional intelligence, non verbal communication, creating a mental stack of questions to ensure she answers everyone…”I love it, its really hard, but I can’t do it every day.” I ask her what she hopes her participants get out of it. “To feel present, to feel visible, to be seen by someone. Its not just about the Art, its about connecting people.”
We view two more pictures. Our final piece is a Cindy Sherman – much conversation here about the whys and whats of the image of the woman model and Sherman’s techniques as an artist – this is the first artist who is known by some of the participants, and they have a lot to say.
We finish slowly going down in the lift together; a few of the couples invite me to come along to the Cloisters tomorrow – we’ll be there, you should come, its the most beautiful place in the world. We say our goodbyes.
Kerry tells me the format the educators use is OBSERVE, DESCRIBE, INTERPRET,and CONNECT. That’s the matrix onto which she weaves each groups individual qualities and attitudes. Laurel tells me there are about 12 educators delivering educational programs; they are free-lance, and mostly artists in their own right. The volunteers role is to support the educators and smooth out any difficulties. The program is of course educational, and about supporting a broad audience to understand and appreciate art, but Laurel emphasises, it is so much about welcoming people in, and ensuring they are socially and culturally engaged.
I had asked both Laurel and Kerry how the program for the session was selected – very practical considerations: large-scale work, visual pieces with something happening, too abstract don’t work, too much detail also doesn’t work, and most practically, available galleries.
The program at MoMA has been running for 7 years, and has been replicated by many of the other major city museums. I think of Selma’s smile and her repeated “I love art.” Stuart, her husband, had explained to me just how tricky it was getting throughout he traffic from New Jersey to middle of Manhattan. Clearly it was worthwhile.