Our Collective Family Inheritance: An Expert’s Advice for Visiting an Art Museum
Masha Savitz, The Culture Dish#4
Many people feel intimidated by art museums, believing that this is a place somehow reserved for the elite, art patrons, art historians or artists.
Art museums are a place for the public to appreciate the rich history that we all share, a legacy left for humanity, like a family inheritance that belongs to all of us. Art museums house the best of what humanity has created and served as examples of what we are capable of.
Most art museums offer exhibits and cultural activities geared towards all ages and levels of knowledge and interests.
AD interviewed The Philadelphia Museums of Art’s Manager of Visitor Services to offer suggestions on how to get the most out of the museum-going experience. Mr. David Pires, who works at The Philadelphia Museum of Art offered these reflections and anecdotal advice in this interview about his rewarding work.
AD: What is your title at work? What do you do, your roles and responsibilities?
I am a Manager of Visitor Services at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I work with a team of 35-40 people who foster a positive experience for people coming into the museum. What is important to remember, I think, is that Museums can be overwhelming experiences for people, there are some people that may come to an art museum maybe once or twice in their lifetime, and we are their first point of contact. That is very powerful. It is so important that the brief time we spend with a visitor is used in supporting their needs and letting them know that enjoying the collection is ‘doable’ and for everyone. It is amazing when you hear about the transformative power of the experience.
Patti Smith recently performed at the museum, and she spoke about how coming to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a child was the first time that she had encountered art hanging in galleries; it was at that moment that she decided to become an artist. The visitor services assistants that were there that night got very emotional- we are a part of something very special.
A lot of people on my staff are visual artists themselves, and they are interested in the position because they are looking to make art a central focus in their lives. They are balancing their studio practice with a job that helps them pay the rent, but it is not a position for everyone. If you prefer the isolation of your studio, this job is not going to be for you (laughs).
We welcomed over 750,000 people last year – some people can thrive in that environment, and if you are one of them, then this might be a good entry-level position in the art field for you. I have had some artists come to the position because they need to break away from their studio practice at times to have human interactions.
Also, working with a team full of artists is great because they are so supportive of each other. Staff go to each other’s exhibitions; I have one employee who is teaching members of the team how to make lithograph plates in her spare time, and there are always discussions about the latest installations in the museum and around the city. I am surrounded by really sharp people – I feel very fortunate.
The other thing that is very satisfying for me is that there are so many visitor services assistants that have been promoted within the organization. I always say that behind every door you will find a former visitor service assistant. A lot of people have started their museum careers in our department, and some people have been inspired to pursue careers in exhibition design, museum education, development, and other fields.
One of the advantages of working in the museum is being surrounded by a collection and really getting to absorb it in a way that you wouldn’t as a one-time visitor. When I first started at the museum, I never thought that the Southeast Asian collection would speak to me the way it has, but by taking it in through an extended period of time it has opened up a whole new world of appreciation.
Now when there is a new installation in that part of the collection, I am very excited and tell as many visitors as possible to take a look. There are also once in a lifetime exhibitions that I have been lucky enough to see, currently, there is a Yoshitoshi exhibition that is jaw-dropping and I get to walk through it every day.
There was a woman from halfway around the world who had been studying Duchamp her entire life and had yet to see Bride Stripped Bare, Étant donnés, or Nude Descending a Staircase in person, when I escorted her into the gallery, she was so overcome with emotion she broke down in tears. I got to be a part of that moment.
AD: How did you get interested in the arts? Describe your background.
I got interested in the visual arts quite by accident. I had a professor in my sophomore year of college, Dr. Joan Brigham, who taught art history. She had degrees from both Harvard and MIT and was the most demanding professor I had ever had, so I couldn’t get enough of course (laughs). I took as many courses with her as possible, and it culminated in a seminar on Duchamp, so it has come full circle seeing I work in the museum that has the best collection of his work in the world. I worked is the support of performance art organizations for some years, but working in an art museum has been the most rewarding work experience for me. I feel like I am learning something new all the time.
AD: How did you get this position?
I had been living overseas for five years and was looking to re-enter the American workforce. I had known about the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and how good it was, and I felt that it would be a dream to work there. They were preparing to stage a large-scale Dalí exhibition at the museum and were looking where they had just celebrated the year of Dalí and had lived for several years close to Figures in Catalunya, so I thought they might hire me for the front lines. I was so excited to be part of that experience and part of the museum that I wanted to stay on after the exhibition. I have now been with the organization for 15 years and have been responsible for hiring many hundreds of people. There are so many of my employees who have told me how excited they were to get that call for the initial interview, and I completely understand because I was that excited too.
AD: How could people get the most out of their museum experience, artists as well as those with little exposure to art.
The statistic is that most people only look at a work of art for 30 seconds, or even less, and when you are confronted with a large collection people are looking to get through as much territory as possible, but my advice would be to slow down. Come up with a game plan- look at the website before going, see if tours are offered or what lectures are coming up, and don’t be afraid that you are missing out on something if you sit with a painting for an extended period of time.
I think for artists, it is important to invest in memberships to the museums in your area. This will allow you the ability to really explore a collection and let it unfold itself. Explore the programming that the museum closest to you offers and take advantage of it. Being an active part of a community of people who support art is ultimately going to present benefits to you and foster your studio practice and validate what you are dedicating yourself to. At our museum, we have presented some incredible contemporary artists in discussion with curators in very intimate settings. It can be very inspiring.
AD: What inspires you?
Well, my staff is always inspiring me because they are intelligent, kind, and dedicated to supporting the arts; the visual artists on staff that have a great deal of talent and approach their practices with focused discipline, I find that very inspiring. The curators that work endlessly to put artists’ work into context and focus inspires me, and the idea that I am part of an organization that will be around long after my death and continue to spark creative work in generations to come also inspires me.
With so much strife and disturbing news in our modern world, we owe it to ourselves to take the time to be equally reminded of the incredible beauty that we can create when we choose to.
Find out about art museums near you and check out their calendar of events, like upcoming concerts, lectures, and interactive exhibits. Take advantage of tours led by museum staff or dedicated volunteers, you might be amazed by how much you can enjoy, learn and appreciate.