By GABBY SHACKNAI October, 2018
As phones buzz every 15 minutes with New York Times alerts, late-night tweets spark civil unrest throughout the country, global terrorism and a fractured economy seem imminent, and the definition of “truth” appears entirely open to interpretation, many Americans have turned to art museums for solace.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently announced that over the last year, it has welcomed a record number of 7.35 million visitors through its doors, a trend that several other museums in the city have mimicked. Tourism in New York has seen a similar increase, but rising art museum attendance since 2016, despite higher entry prices in the wake of lost government funding, suggests that many visitors are either searching for an escape from political and social divisiveness or an outlet in which to confront it.
“Museums serve as a place of respite from media, politics, and news,” said Susie Wilkening, a museum consultant and industry expert.
In her annual survey of museumgoers across the country, she found a heavier sense of angst about daily life among those surveyed, and many expressed that “It feels safe to look at art.”
One woman in the survey told WIlkening, “Without museums, I’d be more of a stay-at-home person. They give me an escape from the horrible news.”
Much as Hollywood’s fluffy musicals and comedies gave people a little relief and joy in the 1930s during the Great Depression, art museums have provided visitors the opportunity to escape the fears and stresses of everyday life, even if just for an hour or two.
The Met’s extensive collection of centuries-old foreign sculpture and paintings seems to carry particular resonance with those seeking an escape, and it therefore comes as no surprise that its most popular exhibition in the past year was “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” which closed Feb 12.
“Art can transport people to another world and can really provide an escape,” said Ruth Rentschler, a professor of arts management at the University of South Australia who has worked with museums around the world. “There are always uncertain times, and art provides another way of dealing with grief.”
Political artist Eric Yahnker said that, "Some people seek art in the modern age simply to bolster their own views."
“People need a place to vent their frustration or feel a sense of comfort and sanity amongst all the apparent insanity and unraveling political and social fabric surrounding them,” he said. “Most don’t want a debate or argue at the local diner…Rather, they want a place to nod in agreement and feel safe.”
The last few years have also brought about serious questions of truth and authenticity, and many Americans no longer know where to turn or whom to believe. Information, for the first time in history, is ubiquitous and available at the touch of a screen, but often, its excess—and inaccuracies—lead to more questions than answers. While some Americans turn to art as an escape from the current state of the country, others are looking to it for answers.
“The fact that politics is even discussed as real and fake these days and not just true and false makes it clear that people think in terms of authenticity,” said Jim Gilmore, co-author of the book “The Experience Economy.”
In an age defined by mistrust and “fake news,” Americans are actively seeking authenticity and may have found it in art, he said.
“People are beginning to confront more truths in today’s America than they did even a few years ago,” said Wilkening, who noted a dramatically shifting understanding of racism in the United States following the 2009 declaration that the country was post-racist. “America is in a period of deep soul-searching, and they are looking for answers from a trustworthy source.”
The otherworldly art of Michelangelo welcomed over 700,000 visitors during its three-month run, but museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum have seen more modern and politically driven work attract larger crowds.
The Whitney, which moved to its new Meatpacking location in 2015, saw over 1.095 million visitors in 2017, while the Guggenheim welcomed more than 990,000 people during the same year.
The Whitney’s year-long exhibition “An Incomplete History of Protest,” which closed in late August, featured a selection of highly politicized artwork from 1940 to 2017 that speaks particularly to the struggle for representation and civil rights.
“The Whitney is a very good substitute for Fox News,” said Bob Ekelund, an economist whose focus is on the art industry. “Rather than read ‘fake news,’ people want to experience politics in a different way.”
The Brooklyn Museum has similarly garnered many visitors and increased press coverage with trendy exhibitions like “David Bowie is,” which closed in July. It also opened two politically angled shows, “Half the Picture: A Feminist Look at the Collection” and “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” last month.
The always popular Museum of Modern Art saw a slight decrease in its visitor numbers between 2015 and 2017—mostly due to ongoing renovations—but it has already noted an 8 percent increase in the 2018 fiscal year. Its top exhibition during this period was “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” which attracted over 660,000 visitors during its four-month run.
Many museumgoers, when asked by Wilkening to imagine a world with no museums, feared a dystopian reality.
“The only information we would have would be what the government in power gave us,” one visitor said, inciting powerful images of George Orwell’s “1984” world.
“Artists can express angst, worry, care, and power in their art and with that, inform and inspire the public,” said Linda Turner, a New York-based art therapist. “When artists create, others can look and listen, and in times of political strife, it can be empowering in its peaceful form of protest.”
New York performance artist Brendan Fernandes and painter Sylvia Maier agreed.
“In this political space and time, artists are becoming the resistance,” Fernandes said. “It’s given us a power and responsibility to create our art and a sense of urgency to do it now.”
Maier’s work includes a series of portraits of the mothers of slain black teenagers framed in U.S. currency.
“Art is a common area for dialogue that allows humanity to connect with the past and with the rest of the world,” she said. WM
Gabby Shacknai is a New York-based journalist and part-time Masters student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She writes about everything from international affairs to fashion, art to food, and everything in between, and she particularly enjoys discussing the ever-mounting intersection between culture and politics.view all articles from this author