by Julie DeVries
images courtesy of Julie DeVries
Rule #1: No touching
I saw the scene in slow motion, one of my adult Art Appreciation students, upon entering the Menil Collection, walked right up to a De Kooning painting and touched it as if she was hypnotized and drawn in by luscious impasto tractor beams. I didn’t stop her in time but I thanked god that the guards didn’t see. The low grade panic that I felt, not for the art, not for the guards, not even for the Menil (they have insurance), but for the student was just par for the course for my class field trips. I never took it out on her, the opposite. I blamed myself.
Of course I hadn’t told her not to touch, it’s something that’s second nature to me but not necessarily to someone who has never stepped foot in an art gallery or museum. I teach community college to non-art majors like aspiring nurses, HVAC techs, and welders in the Greenspoint and Acres Homes areas. For those who don’t already know, they’re suburban neighborhoods with large minority populations and low-incomes. At the beginning of every semester I take a poll in class and normally anywhere from 80-90% of my students have never been to an art museum, the reasons for this are about as varied and entrenched as most other racial and economic inequities in our country.
Barriers include the secret, unwritten codes of conduct you’re supposed to just know, it’s not like going to a public pool where the rules are posted on a large sign when you walk in. They are clear and meant to be understood by all because the pool is meant to be a place for all. Not so the museum who may publicly say they would like to reach wider audiences but actually do very little to make that audience feel welcome; their rules are secrets passed down from privileged generation to privileged generation. And for those “non- traditional” museum visitors they can seem arbitrary or downright made up. You can’t take pictures of art or maybe you can. You enter with a group of adults you have to stay in that group. Great torrents of uniformed Hell will rain down if you even think about pointing at shit. Oh, and apparently, “There’s no whistling at the Menil”. Sometimes it seems the list of “don’ts” grows at a directly proportional rate to the shade of your skin.
My job, as I see it, is to tear down these walls of false reverence and exclusion in the art world that would make anyone like them feel unwelcome or uncomfortable around art. I do this because I honestly believe experiencing art can improve our lives and make us happier.
Rule #2: No Looking
Once we’ve looked at and discussed enough reproductions of art in class, their interest is piqued, and they’re are usually pretty excited about our first trip to the museum. It’s normally just before this trip that I have discovered the need to give them “the talk”. The one about the art police, aka the museum guards. I have had enough unfortunate experiences on countless field trips to know that I and my students WILL MOST LIKELY be profiled, especially when we travel as a group. The guards see us coming and suddenly you can cut the tension with a knife and literally see the beads of brow sweat begin to emerge, they give us endless exasperated looks as they shuffle around following us through every gallery. Looks that say “who let these hood rats loose in the galleries?” which smarts extra hard seeing as how so many guards are black and brown like us.
An anonymous source from within the Museum of Fine Arts Houston tells me that the people who do the most damage to the collections and get away with it are older rich white patrons. While most of the guards are busy tailgating and side-eyeing us, grannies are getting away with touching, poking, and (gasp!) pointing less than one arm’s length of distance away from the works. But it’s the tone that really stings. It’s one thing to be told politely to keep a safe distance and quite another thing to be corrected as if you were the dumbest dumbass on the planet, or worse, someone who needs to be contained lest you explode the gallery any second.
To be fair this is not the case with all of the guards, some are very helpful and nice, and I sympathize with the pressure they must be under. Most of the time I try to see the humor in it, but for my museum virgin students there are consistently enough problematic events and interactions that I’m duty bound to call them out. Really, if your first time is nasty why should you want drive across town to go back just to have to navigate a sea of micro and macro aggressions all over again? They ain’t coming back, they haven’t lost anything in an art museum. They’ll happily go to a movie, or watch Netflix in the comfort of their own home instead.
Rich people ain’t jumping at the chance to open their doors to us and share their collections so our only option for seeing a wide variety of art IRL is a museum. Unfortunately, museums think like banks, and the artworks are piles of their money, they want to show the piles off so you’re very impressed but god forbid you think or act like that pile is your cultural birthright.
Rule #3: No Feeling
The worst example of harassment came one day when I took an especially enthusiastic class to one of my favorite art spots in town, The Cy Twombly gallery at the Menil. I gave them the whole spiel, “this work ain’t for everyone but if you keep an aesthetic attitude and don’t dismiss it, it may surprise you.” Then we went in and were surprised to find Cerberus wearing khakis and settled into a gallery sitter’s job. She made it painfully apparent that she would have preferred we kept our broke looking black and brown asses walking right passed the entrance. As we toured each room of the otherwise empty galleries, I attempted to have insightful conversations about the work with my class but Cerberus kept interjecting and made it almost impossible. She followed the students around so closely they felt hounded, one student moved her arm a little too quickly nowhere near a work of art and the guard dog let out a yelp and practically tackled her. It’s bad enough that we have to deal with racial profiling and discrimination in our everyday lives but I had spent the semester convincing them that art could provide a refuge, an idea she successfully undermined in the span of fifteen minutes.
Far from leaving the gallery inspired, at peace, or even amused, my students were visibly shook and so was I. I couldn’t let it end that way. After we left I went right back in and chewed her ass up. “If you don’t want anyone to come in here you should just lock the door to your goddam white cube mausoleum, then no one can see it! You and the work will be dead and forgotten.” She cried white tears that fell and dried up on the cold concrete floor; one bad day at work for her, another notch in the tally of a lifetime of discrimination for us. I called her boss and formally complained, she seemed unsurprised by the events, which makes me think Cerberus had attacked before and that the institution was willfully allowing their patrons of color to be harassed. I was given an apology and told they would address it. When I went back next semester she was still there. She recognized me and, while obviously straining to do so, she held her distance and her mouth. This time we enjoyed ourselves, and as we left I overheard some of them planning their next visit.
Julie De Vries is a painter who lives, works, and teaches art appreciation in Houston, TX. Her work can be seen at juliedevries.tumblr.com