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Sound.Art MIA and engaging new museum audiences

Museums across the Twin Cities are re-thinking traditional museum practices, to attract and increase engagement with untapped audiences.

On Feb. 27, the MIA launches Sound.Art MIA, an experimental music and visual art program with a performance by Body/Head, which is Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth, CKM, Free Kitten) and Bill Nace (X.O.4, Vampire Belt, Ceylon Mange).
Photo by Annabel Mehran
The Line

Museums across the Twin Cities are re-thinking traditional museum practices, to attract and increase engagement with untapped audiences and thrive in the 21st century. Who doesn’t know about the Walker Art Center’s Cat Video Festival juggernaut? There’s also another arts institution that’s working hard to bust open its marbled halls to a fresh demographic: the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA).

A new branding campaign underscores the museum’s location “In the heART of Minneapolis.” The MIA recently redesigned its gift shop, stocking it with items curated to reflect a higher level of design by local and international artists. Augmenting the shop over the holidays was a pop-up by Northern Grade, purveyors of limited-edition menswear and other manly goods.

Stock and Badge — a partnership of such foodie hotspots as Dogwood Coffee, Parka, Victory 44, and Rustica bakery — now runs the MIA’s coffee shop, which has a distinctly modern design, and the new mezzanine restaurant Grain Stack (named in homage to the MIA’s most famous Monet painting). A kid-friendly restaurant, Half Pint, is coming soon.

Meanwhile, the current “Sacred” exhibition evidences what Elizabeth Armstrong, Curator of Contemporary Art, calls “another strand of experimentation.” Every Saturday at 3:00 p.m., through April, is a “Sacred Salon,” a participatory experience in which visitors explore ideas of the sacred with a local musician, yoga practitioner, mandala maker, meditation teacher, or poet.

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“To me,” Armstrong says, “everything related to the exhibition is part of the exhibition. The salons are one example of how we’re continually building community inside and outside of the museum, as the facilitator for each salon helps bring their own communities into the museum on Saturdays.”

Still another initiative is in the works. On Feb. 27, the MIA launches Sound.Art MIA, an experimental music and visual art program. Local musician Paul Metzger kicks off the evening, followed by Body/Head, which is Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth, CKM, Free Kitten) and Bill Nace (X.O.4, Vampire Belt, Ceylon Mange).

“Minneapolis is such a music city,” Armstrong says. So when Armstrong was presented with the possibility of hosting the duo—which is performing its electric-guitar show with a slow-motion film projection only in museums — “I said yes, fantastic,” Armstrong continues.

“So many artists are musicians and so many musicians are artists. I’m always trying to break stereotypes about what art is. So performing arts and music programs like Sound.Art MIA spread the word that we’re celebrating all the arts here. It also represents, to the community, a museum that is no longer dusty and staid, but one that sees the connections between artists today—of all stripes—and the history of art.”

The MIA goes to CAMP

When Armstrong was hired by the traditional fine-arts museum, which has formidable collections spanning 5,000 years of world history, she suggested that, “Having a contemporary curator isn’t just about having a contemporary art collection; it’s also about contemporary practices.”

So she organized an internal innovation lab for the museum called CAMP (Center for Alternative Museum Practice), so employees could suggest ideas across boundaries and disciplines. “It’s great that the museum staff are feeling really empowered to pull in their own ideas and connections,” Armstrong says.

One of the first, and most successful, audience-engagement initiatives was “An Evening with Dessa,” a benefit for the MIA’s new teen scholarship program. Tickets sold out in 90 minutes.

“We were shocked at how well it did,” says Kim Huskinson, the MIA’s marketing manager.

“Of course we wanted to continue, but theme the concerts around something more associated with our broad museum mission of making art accessible to all. We want to be sharing music as art.”

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The Body/Head show, Huskinson adds, in which music and experimental film are integrated, allows visitors to “have all of their senses engaged. And experiencing this show within the context of a fine-art museum also helps people experience the show within the context of performance art.”

New programs like Sound.Art MIA are “moving us from a classic institution to a more vibrant and progressive destination,” she continues. “It’s all about experimenting and being okay with experimenting. We’re willing to experiment because audiences are changing. We can’t just rest on our laurels and think our audience will continue coming here. We have to meet the audience where they are.”

The participatory museum

In her book, The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon writes: “Over the last twenty years, audiences for museums, galleries, and performing arts institutions have decreased, and the audiences that remain are older and whiter than the overall population.”

Simon continues: “How can cultural institutions reconnect with the public and demonstrate their value and relevance in contemporary life? I believe they can do this by inviting people to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers. … When people can actively participate with cultural institutions, those places become central to cultural and community life.”

Armstrong says she’s “always thinking about art and its connection to people in general.” With Sound.Art MIA and other new initiatives, “we’re saying to the community that we want to respond to local interests and we’re experimenting with ways to do that.”

So what’s next for Sound.Art MIA after Body/Head? “I’m looking down the pike at what kind of profile or character we can bring to the program, so people know what to expect,” Armstrong says.

“We’re a cultural beacon in this community, and I know music is a part of what keeps the Twin Cities so current,” she adds. “There’s so much good music in these cities and the world, that when different institutions explore different ways in which to connect their visitors with music, that benefits our community overall.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.