As a young, naive art history grad student, I couldn’t believe my luck that my university had granted my request for travel funds to a very important art conference in LA. Along with a few of my classmates, we attended seminars and panels at the Staples Center, (trying to) hobnob with the bigwigs in the art and museum world. It was a bit lonely of an experience: like many fields, ours was exclusive, and we felt out of place.
A few days into the conference, I attended a panel with curators from some of the top museums in the nation. The topic was whether or not museums should digitize their collections so that people could peruse their holdings via the internet. In my optimistic mind, I couldn’t imagine that anyone would disagree with making art more available to everyone. But the majority of the panelists were expressing their dismay at museums that had digitized their art because they believed that by making art more accessible, it would drive down attendance numbers.
This was so disheartening me. I imagined many of the people back in my adopted state of Oklahoma. You know, the ones that lived in small towns, rarely if ever leaving the state. The kids growing up in rural schools without any exposure to major city art. These were the people who would probably never visit the MET or Art Institute in person, but would benefit immensely from studying the art online. (And keep in mind, this was 2008. So much art is now available online to view that this discussion is mostly moot. But at the time it was a huge deal.)
Friends, I walked out of the session. As someone who hates to rock any boat or make a scene, I quietly grabbed my bag and exited out the back. I was so disgusted with the poorly concealed elitism and the way dollars influence everything. Call me idealistic, but I wanted to believe that museums long to serve the public. Many do a wonderful job of reaching out to their local community; this session, however, perpetuated a stereotype that museums are only for a certain class of society.
And so I quit grad school. A friend of mine was vacating her Social Studies teaching position at a local independent school. Armed with my teaching assistant experience (which was very little), I applied and got the job. I found fulfillment in teaching high school and taking an active role in broadening their minds while supporting their learning goals. Eventually I did finish my graduate degree in Art History and Museum Studies. But I never acted on my old desire to work in a museum. After grad school I took a position teaching humanities at a local university, one in which I still hold today.
But truth be told, the issue of accessibility to the arts has not left my heart, and I have not forgotten the way that conference dramatically changed my life course. As I share the arts with my girls and look forward to teaching them more about the humanities, I dream about ways I can do the same for others. Because in the end, art is not about money and status, but about emotions, history, personal expression, and human connection–our shared heritage, regardless of background or upbringing.
Have you ever dramatically changed your path? What was your inspiration to do so?