How “Art Smart” is the Museum?
I was particularly motivated to find my way through the streets of Chicago’s South Side since I was pressed for time because my SAIC CTA pass was soon to expire and I would be left without transportation for six weeks. While I am an avid walker, the twelve-mile, one-way trip was less than appealing. Once I got my bearings in the area, one of my crucial interviews in Hyde Park revealed the second potential obstacle I faced while collecting data for my project. A local art museum curator as well as his assistant (who were both unable to identify by title or artist the six sculptures located less than 100 feet away from the desk at which he sat) noted Chicago’s harsh winters restrict access to what I have identified as the democratic educational space surrounding the public works of art. In addition to informing me “names and dates are not important” in art education, the curator inadvertently helped me identify that at least in part, in addition to passing by public art because of its geographical placement at busy intersections or because they are collecting photos to document their visits to the area, people are attracted to these spaces only in the warmer months unless they were using it as a regular part of their exercise routine, something I had noted on several occasions throughout my research.
Ironically, though the curator claimed dates and names were no longer important, he referred me to Henry Moore’s 1967 Nuclear Energy (Appendix N), specifically identifying the piece both by title and artist as well as subject matter, adding it commemorated the location upon which nuclear fission had first occurred. I encountered the exact same response when I visited another nearby performance art exhibit hall located only a few feet from the same grouping of public art. Yet all three participants in the area seemed highly informed about Nuclear Energy. As may be predicted, because it is one of the more renowned Chicago monuments, when I conducted research on that particular location, I was met with nearly the same response as I had encountered in Chicago’s Loop since many of those who shared that space were tourists or professionals determined to quickly get from one location to the next. I identified name recognition was an important factor in how “educated” the public is regarding Chicago’s public works of art.
As I explored how the community currently responds to public art, I analyzed what attracts the community to public art, how educated the public is regarding the art they view, and identified those pieces which were most memorable to my participants. My research revealed tourists are seemingly most knowledgeable about Chicago’s public art because many had conducted research before their trips. They were more likely, however, to seek out pieces designed by international artists, including Picasso, Moore, Miro, Calder, Chagall, and Dubuffet that are located in Chicago’s Loop. Additionally, they were attracted to the more well-known pieces such as Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain, Crown Fountain and Cloud Gate (“The Bean”). Those who sought the older international artists were more likely to have extensive knowledge of the pieces as well as the artists who designed them.
My research also revealed for the most part, local residents, including even local art museum docents, had little knowledge of Chicago’s public art unless they were interested in the historical figures or events represented in the art. Many of the residents, likewise were aware of people who may be “specialists” in the subject and preferred to direct me to them rather than engage with the art themselves. In part, this inclination to defer to the “specialists” often deterred my participants from engaging with the art from their own perspective, thereby resulting in the “critical” reading necessary, according to Benjamin, to make the older monuments a relevant part of our daily experience.
My research participants were more likely to interact with Chicago’s older monuments on a “critical” basis rather than a superficial level if they interacted with the art as well as with one another in a dialectical exchange, bringing their own experiences and interpretations into the democratic educational space Burnham had originally designed. Finally, my research revealed many of these older monuments have, through neglect, fallen into ruins.
 Again, I direct my reader to the video link in which I have captured a number of people utilizing the space either for warm-up or cool-down locations or added challenges to their exercise regimes. Additionally, my video reveals how Nuclear Energy itself is a tourist destination, serving as a backdrop for the same type of photo-ops I have previously noted.