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In an age of sensory overload, two-dimensional thinking and electronic instant-gratification, getting museum-goers to linger long enough to really absorb a room full of masterpieces is, in itself, a fine art.
Ask yourself this: when you last visited a museum, how long did you spend looking at a single art object?
A 1970s study in Philadelphia found that visitors, on average, allotted just 20 seconds per piece. And that was before tightly edited music videos and dazzling Holly-wood special effects jaded audiences expectations and diminished their attention spans. Today, museum-goers gaze less than 10 seconds at an art object, according to research by John Falk, a former Smithsonian administrator and noted consultant in museum evaluation. And that estimate includes time devoted to skimming over the corresponding wall label.
“Our eyes are bombarded with visuals all the time,” adds Getty Museum educator Maite Alvarez. “We watch things at commercial length. Most of visitors’ time in art galleries is spent reading text. They might as well stay home and read the catalogue.”
Equally discouraging is the way modern audiences haven’t a clue how to approach three-dimensional art.
When visitors look at a sculpture, Alvarez has observed, they will often just stand or sit in front of it. They don’t think to walk around or squat down.
Why? Because we live in a TV culture where everything is flat, according to Alvarez. The internal dialogue, she says, goes something like this: OK, here’s Michelangelo’s “David.” It’s a man, he’s nude, he’s leaning, it’s marble. I’m done.
“Visitors have trouble getting deeper than that,” she says.
This is where educators come in.
“We try to get people to look at art again,” says Alvarez. “We’re trying to organize their eyes.”

In her effort to organize visitors’ eyes, Alvarez has been known to urge them to get on their hands and knees to look under an antique table, ask them to identify what it’s made of and invite them to speculate on how it was constructed.
“If we slow down their eyes, their responses,” Alvarez says, “chances are people will see things in a different way. We’re just mimicking what the art historian does. He doesn’t spend 20 seconds with the object. He spends a lot of time.”
One way curators are getting people to slow down is by moving away from blockbusters to dossier shows — or focus shows. These less ambitious mini-exhibits zero in on just a handful of objects to illustrate a particular theme. A good example was a 1991 show at LACMA consisting of four versions, three of them almost identical, of Chardin’s “Soap Bubbles.” Because the focus of the show was narrow and the number of artworks to be absorbed so small, visitors could take their time and really see.
“People learned a lot more about Chardin from that show than if the museum had brought in hundreds of paintings,” Alvarez says.
Museum educators are devising other ways to make art more accessible while getting visitors to slow down. The new Getty Museum has three information rooms packed with educational aids. Here visitors are encouraged to inspect samples of wood, gold leaf and other materials used in the art. They can learn about bronze-casting techniques or try to solve a marquetry puzzle to better appreciate the artistry that went into the Louis XIV furniture on display in the gallery next door.

For the Kiddies, there are interactive computer programs, historical time lines, graphic panels identifying artistic styles and periods and a graffiti space for creative expression. In one room, children can play a dress-up game that lets them masquerade in black lace like Goya’s Marquesa de Santiago or primp in red robes like Van Dyck’s Angostino Pallavicini.
In addition to these attractions, the Getty’s education department offers a full calendar of special events. Ethnic dancers, bilingual storytellers, guest lecturers, week-end family festivals and parent workshops fill the days and nights.
To attract a culturally diverse audience, the Getty relies on an aggressive outreach campaign. Over the years, the foundation has developed partnerships with local schools, community groups and other art institutions throughout Los Angeles. Community organizers and educators were invited to tour the complex weeks before it opened to the public. And Getty educators have given presentations all over Los Angeles to recruit young museum-goers.
But is it working?
“We don’t really know what the correlation [between education outreach and attendance] is yet,” Alvarez says. “But we’ve got to do something.
“Museums are scared of society’s moving away from culture. What if nobody goes to museums in the future? We all recognize the need for science, but it’s very hard to recognize the value of humanities because that isn’t measurable. Art is not going to cure cancer, that’s for sure.”

Then again, it might encourage a spirit of creativity that fuels scientific discovery, counters Museum Studies Pro-gram director Selma Holo.
“Art isn’t only for artists or casual audiences,” Holo says. “I am convinced that ordinary people receive permission from frequent exposure to art and art-making to be freer in their thinking. And one of those people might be a scientist.”

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Photo Courtesy of Norton Simon Museum

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