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Museums can broaden appeal without selling out

Museums just aren't what they used to be.

And thank God for that.

As we step into a new decade, it's become clear that fine arts institutions around the country are slowly morphing from rarefied temples hovering above their communities and into far more populist organizations.

This ongoing shift -- sometimes born of financial necessity, sometimes out of a genuine desire to engage the public -- couldn't have come soon enough. The great dilemma of the so-called "fine arts" in the past 50 years has been its shrinking audience -- an audience that has dwindled precisely because of many institutions' insistence on sealing themselves off from the communities they're meant to serve. Like trickle-down economics, that approach has failed.

Locally, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Burchfield Penney Art Center, our two largest visual art institutions, have increasingly mounted programs designed both to bring more art to more people and to transform their buildings into community nerve centers.

At the Albright-Knox, events like the annual Rockin' at the Knox concert, jazz concerts, film screenings and a free Friday night program (though recently scaled back from its former incarnation) are all positive steps, designed to bridge the gap between mind-bending art and community members whose minds are in need of bending.

In extending free admission to members of the armed services, the Albright made a smart move. It should also follow the Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum in extending $1 admission to those with food stamp benefit cards -- thus opening up the institution to a large segment of the third-poorest city in the United States.

At the Burchfield Penney, efforts like the periodic free festival known as RendezBlue -- though thematically often too narrow -- are a step in the right direction. The gallery's auditorium has hosted dozens of performances, speeches and community activities meant to draw in a curious public.

Perhaps the feature with the most potential in the entire Burchfield Penney is its "Useum," an art space designed for children that has hosted a series of fun, accessible, kid-friendly installations from the likes of Roberley Bell, Julie Lewitzky and Patrick Robideau.

The populist trend in the "fine arts" -- still being resisted in some quarters -- isn't contained to museums. Organizations like Just Buffalo Literary Center, the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts and many if not all of the city's more than 20 active theater companies, have long been dreaming up new ways to usher the public through their doors.

Emerging efforts like the Buffalo Dance Festival, the Literary Center's Big Read and Babel programs and, especially, the growing annual Infringement Festival, are all moving the arts, in big and promising ways, into the hearts and minds of the public.

But in the valiant quest to engage new audiences and break down the barriers that exist between the fine arts and the more popular ones, there are plenty of pitfalls to look out for. Corporate influence is one of them. Pandering is another.

The genuine need to engage with new segments of the population to compensate for the population that's currently dying off can lead some institutions into treacherous and sometimes desperate territory. And that danger will only become more acute in the face of recent cultural budget cuts.

Over at the Albright-Knox, an institution that deserves worlds of credit for its work on the public engagement front, recently made a devil's bargain in its hosting of "Forty," a photography exhibition paid for by the Buffalo Sabres. The show does almost nothing to draw connections between sports and art -- a desperately needed function in a town so obsessed with sports -- but instead makes a simple cash grab for visitors here to take in the World Junior Hockey Championship.

At the Burchfield Penney, one of the 10 cultural institutions in Erie County that is to receive county funding this year, there is a specious show of Buffalo China from the collection of none other than County Executive Chris Collins. In a move that is resolutely improper -- given the fact that Collins is in charge of the museum's county funding allotment -- the museum has featured Collins' collection prominently.

As museums, galleries, theater companies and other cultural organizations try new and innovative ways to connect with the community, it's worth keeping in mind exactly who these organizations are meant to serve.

In the pursuit of populism, there's no need to sacrifice the independence or integrity that gives these institutions their strength.


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