Connecticut art museums work to break down barriers, misconceptions
GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) – Connecticut museums are trying to break free of seeming aloof and engage with their local communities, starting with free admission for those who receive food stamps.
Museums nationwide are trying to knock down barriers to cultural institutions, particularly art museums. Oft-cited barriers include admissions prices and public transportation. Others include exhibits that are not relevant to, or do not represent, the diverse people of color, non-native English speakers and LGBT people in the community.
To include those who cannot afford tickets, three art museums and five children’s museums in Connecticut participate in Museums for All, a cooperative initiative between the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services that lets visitors with EBT cards visit for free or at a reduced cost.
Three are in Fairfield County: The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, the Aldrich Museum Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield and Stepping Stones Children’s Museum in Norwalk. Patrons of the Bruce and the Aldrich who present an EBT card can admit up to four people for free.
“If you don’t have to worry about paying, it makes it more accessible,” says Diana Rafferty, the education coordinator for the Bruce Museum. “The last thing we want to do is make the culture that is available to everyone hidden behind a paywall.”
To improve the experiences of visitors who benefit from Museums for all, Rafferty has encouraged conversations among staff members about the myths and realities of poverty.
Most welfare recipients are white, contrary to enduring stereotypes, and education — while a great equalizer — saddles the very people trying to escape generational poverty with crippling debt, she says.
Rafferty herself received unemployment benefits for a while, and says every bit helped. Among Americans who work, a significant portion live paycheck to paycheck, she added.
“I don’t think people realize how close some people are to that, or how normal they are,” she says.
This is the first year the Aldrich has participated in a program specific to SNAP EBT benefits. While Ridgefield is regarded as an affluent town, not all families reflect that image, so the program helps the Aldrich connect with all its community members, says Namulen Bayarsaihan, the museum’s education director.
“I think that will open up a wide audience that we necessarily have not been considering intently or poignantly in the past,” Bayarsaihan says.
But the word of free admission for EBT cardholders has spread slowly. The Aldrich faces other obstacles, too, stemming from its location in a small Connecticut town without much public transportation, Bayarsaihan says.
The art museum is finding new ways Ridgefield residents, as well as those in the surrounding communities, including free bus transportation for area Title I schools that take field trips there.
More than money
Inclusion advocates say museums in Connecticut are well-intentioned but need to do more than lower prices to be accessible and representative of the state’s demographics.
Museums in the state, particularly Fairfield County, struggle because the state is small, affluent and somewhat conservative, says Angie Durrell, the founder of INTEMPO, a Stamford-based organization that works to make culture and music relevant, inclusive and accessible.
“People think we have no transportation, no money, but some people have those things and want to go to museums, but they’re not being invited,” Durrell says. “No one is going to their community centers or their emails to invite them.”
Luciana McClure, a New Haven-based artist and activist, agrees. The co-founder of Nasty Women Connecticut, and a Latinx (the gender-neutral term for Latino or Latina), she aims to remove elitism from the local art scene and empower everyone to experience and make art.
“Many museums are interested in being relevant and inclusive, but often they do not know what that means,” McClure says. “It’s more than just reduce prices for us to attend.”
Museum culture targets a primarily white audience, McClure says. Each department needs to consider exhibiting diverse people, and if need be, rearranging these collections to challenge how museums have displayed the works of other cultures.
The advocates also recommended diversifying staff and board members and going into the underrepresented communities to figure out why potential museum-goers stay away.
“We can’t change the past, but we can change the future by how we talk about things,” McClure says. “What we’re trying to bring more people into New Haven and Connecticut?”
For some, it may be that these spaces seem intimidating. Diversifying the artwork on display is one way museums try to attract people with different interests.
“For a really long time, museums have been seen as these bastions of culture — and they are — but to go along with that, there are these imposing buildings and intimidating pieces of art that are not known to people who didn’t grow up around art,” Rafferty says.
Rafferty grew up in a rural town and was was intimidated by museums. Today, she wants to remove this barrier for visitors.
“It’s about exploring all kinds of things, like low-brow humor, outside art (works by self-taught artists) or fine art,” she says. “Everyone should get the chance to experience all that.”
When people think about contemporary art, many imagine the non-representational painting hanging on the stark white wall of a museum. To fight against this trope, Bayarsaihan says the Aldrich keeps no permanent collection, and instead constantly rotates emerging and mid-career artists from an array of backgrounds.
While contemporary art is perceived as hard-to-understand, it is actually relevant to most observers because these works respond to ongoing conversations.
“You don’t need to know anything about contemporary art to experience it,” she says.
These conversations range from politics to the weather. An upcoming group exhibit at the Aldrich focuses on art that explores weather, including season changes, weather-gauging tools and the impact of weather on communities.
“Weather is so important and relevant to everyone,” she says. “If we can talk to a stranger about weather, we can come to an art show and have a meaningful experience.”
By JO KROEKER, Greenwich Time
Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This information may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.