Erin Johnson: What is the Value of the Art Gallery in Contemporary Society?

ICA Articles

9 Jul 2013
Erin Johnson is part of the ICA student placement scheme, where she focuses on Communications and Audience Development.

Erin Johnson is part of the ICA student placement scheme, where she focuses on Communications and Audience Development. Erin's role is to assist and research ways of reaching out to new audiences at the ICA. The role is part of Erin's MA in Museums And Galleries In Education programme at the Institute of Education, London – one of the ICA’s university partners.

What is the value of the art gallery in contemporary society? Can the audience participate in that dialogue? I’ve been exploring this question within my internship at the ICA. John Dewey, in summarizing the plight of the art gallery in 1934, captured some of the concerns of an institution today: ‘our present museums and galleries … have operated to segregate art instead of finding it an attendant of temple, forum, and other forms of associated life’ (Dewey 1934: 8). The role of the gallery, traditionally, involves the education of the public about its collection, but how is the audience meant to make the artwork meaningful beyond the walls of the institution?

Described as the ‘poly-functioning of the exhibition space’ that serves ‘as a profound statement about influences and interrelations’ (How Soon is Now: 25) since its beginning, the Institute of Contemporary Arts is a vessel of not only the arts - music, film, and visual arts - that are contemporaneous, but the ideas, movements and events that influence them. This approach is exemplified through Keep Your Timber Limber as the drawings within confront their contemporaneous political and social affairs and actively question the status quo of their (and in some cases, our) time.

Mark Allen, of Los Angeles’s Machine Projects, summarized precisely the goal of the contemporary museum, when he stated in a recent Friday Salon that there is something ‘very powerful about an audience being present at the moment that something is substantiated’. That is the most rewarding experience—the moment that an audience is present, engaging with and debating about the artwork. Herbert Read, one of the ICA’s founders, may have been right in his mission for the ICA and the role of the gallery: ‘…not another museum, another bleak exhibition gallery, another classical building in which insulated and classified specimens of a culture are displayed for instruction, but an adult play-centre, a workshop where work is a joy, a source of vitality and daring experiment’ (Fifty years of the future : 4).

Erin Johnson

Allen, M. (2013). ‘Machine Project Presents!’. Talk. 21 June. Institute of Contemporary Arts: London.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. Capricorn Books: New York.

Fifty years of the future. (1999).

How Soon is Now. (2007).

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