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Elusive University Audiences

The Henry Gallery at the University of Washington enjoys a location that many museums, on campus or otherwise, would be delighted to have. Over 2,000 students, faculty, and staff pass by the front door of the Henry everyday. Located on the western edge of the campus, it is, so far, the only building right on the main thoroughfare running the length of the campus’s west side.

Yet, despite this high profile, and free admission for UW students, many, many students continue to pass the museum by, going in only once or twice during their four years at the university, or worse, never going in at all. And, of the students who visit the museum while studying here, many never return after graduation.

It is encouraging that the Henry’s visitor surveys show that 60% of our audience comes from the community and 40% are students, a great improvement over the last decade. Immediate future plans for expanding our general audience include developing even closer ties with our university students and faculty, placing this relationship as one of the most important the museum must foster.

Currently, the Henry Gallery has several programs in place to involve university students. For the last five years, the museum has drawn exhibition guides from the graduate program at the School of Art. Most are art history students, but some are not, coming from the studio art program or the ranks of recent graduates. These guides tour exhibitions much as docents do, going through similar training and preparation for working with different audiences. Our exhibitions change regularly requiring them to develop a new tour every three or four months. To compensate, we pay our guides a nominal amount that is more of a “thank you” than a real honorarium. The experience is the true reward, giving participants an inside perspective on the museum and an improved ability to verbalize intelligently about art.

The Henry also has an academic year internship for art history graduate students that includes curatorial research, development of education programs, and working on wall texts and gallery guides. The curator of collections also employs a few students each year to assist in various cataloguing projects and the occasional small exhibition. In some cases, a graduate student has taken on a large research project that greatly enhances the museum’s information about a particular segment of its collection. All of these internship opportunities give an excellent introduction to museum careers.

During the school year, many classes from different departments visit the museum. Architecture students study the building (some are currently involved in designing imaginary additions to the building), art history students come to our prints and photographs study room to view originals, and English students come to observe and write about various works in the exhibitions. There is an organization on campus called “Freshmen Interest Groups” which are small groups of freshmen from a single department who regularly go on activities lead by older students to familiarize them with campus. The number of visits from these groups seems related to the types of exhibitions the museum offers.

Another activity that has been successful is the Henry’s “student openings.” These are openings held during the day around the lunch hour where we serve refreshments and give out our posters for door prizes. These openings always attract students inside, especially those elusive ones passing by.

In the last two years, the Henry has offered University of Washington students free admission to the majority of its lectures and special events. It became clear before the institution of this policy that many students would not come to a lecture or event even if the admission fee was only three or four dollars. Since then, we have had a large increase in student attendance to education programs, and many faculty assign our lectures as part of course requirements.

Also in the past, we have allowed the main gallery to be used for music and drama performances by students. These short programs are always supervised by a faculty member and usually do not have a general audience.

In the future, the Henry Gallery would ideally like to have a staff member whose work is devoted to strengthening the relationship between UW students and the museum. Many more curriculum-based discussions need to be held with faculty to help them incorporate the museum in their course syllabi. Much more could be done to make the museum useful to faculty and students, both through the development of specific exhibitions and educational programming. When our museum building expands (scheduled for 1996) much more of our permanent collection will be on view for extended time periods, thus allowing it to be used predictably and regularly. Also, we hope to expand the internship program so that it will have a stipend attached to it and major tasks assigned.

We have talked with faculty at the College of Education about involving their student teachers in the museum and attempting to give their students skills for using museums in connection with their future classroom responsibilities.

An important aspect of expanding the museum profile in any community is the museum’s ability to expose a wide variety of potentially-interested individuals to the possibility of a career in museum work. This helps build long-term change into the museum’s construct and broadens the curatorial base. The Henry is very interested in making the museum as accessible as possible through audience diversification.

Unlike any other type of museum, a university museum, with its ability to reach an open, relatively young audience, can become an ideal forum for discussion of not only the language of art and its magic, but also how art reflects diverse aspects of our complicated society.

Tamara Moats has been Curator of Education at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington for the past five years. Formerly. she worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Moats, Tamara. “Elusive University Audiences,” Docent Educator 3.4 (Summer 1994): 14-15.


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