Art for Audience's Sake: How can audience-centric art interpretation enhance meaning, diversity and accessibility?
thesisposted on 02.03.2022, 02:20 authored by Nicola Caldwell
Art interpretation can make or break an individual’s experience in an art gallery. At its best, it can inspire a sense of connection, expanded understanding and excitement but, at its worst, it can leave visitors feeling baffled, frustrated or out of their depth. International literature indicates public responsibility, engagement and accessibility are essential to the new museology and new museum ethics, with audience-focused interpretation practices being led by heritage and museum professionals. Public art galleries also have a responsibility to create inclusive interpretation, yet, especially in New Zealand, the way they go about this is largely ungoverned, under-theorised and lacking systematic evaluation. Interpretation is one of the primary functions of public art galleries, therefore understanding how and why interpretation is currently done is essential in developing a critically reflective practice. Inspired by models overseas and addressing this lack of research about the topic, especially in the New Zealand context, this dissertation explores how galleries might enhance meaning, diversity and accessibility through audience-centric art interpretation. Taking three small-medium public art galleries in the Wellington region – the Dowse Art Museum, Pātaka Art + Museum and the Adam Art Gallery – as case studies, this dissertation investigates current practices, philosophies and training available to and demonstrated by gallery staff. Employing qualitative data collection methods, semi-structured interviews with the director and senior curator of each gallery were conducted using iterative, grounded theory approaches. As well as examining a wide range of international theoretical and professional literature, the research explores understandings of interpretation, audience needs and motivations, and strategies for interpretive planning and policy. This dissertation addresses a gap in the local literature by providing original research on interpretive practice. The findings reveal that, while well intentioned and conscious of the democratic function of interpretation, local interpretation practice is informal and personal, lacking institutional structure, planning and critical evaluation. Furthermore, the analysis and discussion lead to the development of a set of principles and strategies for an audience-centric approach which have global applicability. Art interpretation is a young field still developing a shared body of knowledge, language and practice. This study argues that embedding social responsibility, collaboration and critical reflection is essential to the development of an audience-centric, innovative professional practice.