Scott Stulen, the director of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Oklahoma, is determined to attract younger audiences. That means DJs, burger nights, a Friday-night bar, movies — and an imaginative exhibition of Impressionist prints
Scott Stulen, director of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, recently took his two young sons to an exhibition at a different institution. As the family walked in, they were ‘pre-emptively scolded about watching our kids and not touching the art’. Stulen was outraged.
‘Why does this still happen?’ he asks. ‘The traditions of reverence and silence in the presence of art are relatively recent, and were set up specifically to keep certain types of people out, to turn museums into houses for the few and not for the many. I am battling against that — and it’s not that I don’t want to protect the art, not at all. It’s about tact. You can’t invite an audience in, then do everything to make them not want to be there.’
So how does Stulen think curators should go about making people feel more welcome in art spaces? ‘I will use every tool that I can,’ he says, ‘because if we can’t reach younger audiences then we are going to be in trouble in a decade or two — or even sooner. So at Philbrook we are building in films and DJs and a bar on a Friday evening, to make a more social space.’
'Obviously some audiences will still want to have a quiet, contemplative experience. But some of our older core audience like DJ night, or are at least intrigued by it’
But isn’t that likely to alienate people who already have the museum habit, and enjoy the church-like hush of an old-school gallery? ‘Obviously, some audiences still want to come and have a quiet, contemplative experience — and we have that. But actually, success comes from not making assumptions about what audiences want. Some of our older core audience like DJ night, or are at least intrigued by it.’
Stulen’s emphasis on outreach and inclusion doesn’t mean ‘art-lite’ or a menu of easily digested exhibitions. ‘It’s never an either-or proposition,’ he says, ‘not a choice between something highly academic on the one hand, or a museum of ice cream on the other.’
The latest show at Philbrook is a case in point, because it is an imaginative take on a movement that everyone is familiar with. Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro showcases the painters’ achievements in etchings, monoprints, engravings and various hybrid forms. The exhibition highlights the ways in which the artists collaborated and competed, shared methods and experiments, and worked hard to outdo each other. All of them seized on the fact that prints — unlike their paintings — were cheap and quick to make, almost disposable. If something didn’t work, an altered version could be instantly run on the press, and this allowed them to innovate and take risks.
Some of the results are stunning. Camille Pissarro etched a field with a haystack, then printed the image in different coloured inks (like Andy Warhol with his silkscreened Maos and Marilyns). In tangerine hues on ivory stock, Pissarro’s rural scene is sultry and summery; in Prussian blue on beige, it looks like a snapshot of deep winter. The artists also toyed with the image-making process. For example, they fashioned abrasive crayons from emery paper and used them to scratch marks on the metal of the engraving plate. Finished etchings sometimes incorporated the shadows made by accidentally spilt acid — known as ‘foul biting’ in the jargon of the trade.
Edgar Degas in particular became obsessed with the technical limits of the lithographic process. His friend Marcellin Desboutin wrote a surreal description of him in 1876, saying that Degas was ‘no longer a man, an artist! He’s a zinc or copper plate blackened with printer’s ink... plate and man are flattened together by his printing press, the mechanism of which has swallowed him completely!’
The mechanical technology that seemed to the Impressionists to be so dynamic and full of possibilities has now reached a point where it is quaintly obsolescent. Stulen acknowledges this, and relishes the opportunity it presents. ‘People are curious because they don’t really understand how printing works. They don’t know what drypoint is, or an aquatint. So we’re going to make it tangible, have printmakers come in and demonstrate the process that produced the works in the show. There will be a fully functioning print shop in the entryway to the museum, with the presses and all the tools of the trade.’ It’s an imaginative way to start a tour round a collection of 19th-century art — and much better than being barked at by a security guard.
Innovative Impressions is on show at Philbrook Museum of Art until 9 September. philbrook.org. Property from the museum will be offered during Christie’s Hong Kong Week