Conversation Pieces: The Value of Dialogue in Art Museums

Joanna Marsh leads a Conversation Pieces discussion of Eric Fischl's The Clemente Family.

The deepest and most affecting experiences visitors have in art museums are those in which they share in the unfolding, unraveling, and translation of the meaning of artworks.

—Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee

Joanna Marsh, Senior Curator of Contemporary Interpretation, fills us in on the theory behind Conversation Pieces, a discussion-based public program that takes place monthly in SAAM's galleries.

What makes a meaningful museum experience? The objects on view? The stories that emerge? The coffee in the cafe? Everyone has a different measure for their ideal museum visit, but the common denominator is often the exchange of ideas —the conversations that occur and connections that are made. At the American Art Museum, we see this reflected in visitor comments month after month. The public praises their interactions with docents, security staff, and museum educators. The social encounters that take place in our galleries lead to a richer museum experience. Decades of research supports our anecdotal evidence: people learn from interactions with others. So, this June, the museum launched a new public program called Conversation Pieces, that fosters discovery through dialogue.

Modeled on the museum's Is This Art? series, which ran from 2012-2014, this new discussion-based program offers visitors the chance to slow down and spend an hour looking at a single work from the museum's contemporary collection. Why contemporary art? Very simply, many museumgoers find it baffling. They think contemporary art isn't "for them" because it's so often discussed in terms that obscure and alienate. That's the opposite of what most contemporary artists are trying to achieve with their work. Their purpose, and ours at SAAM, is to start an engaging conversation. That's the point of the Conversation Pieces series.

Once a month, visitors gather around a pre-selected artwork and exchange introductions. The session starts silently, as each viewer sizes up the artwork, looking closely, contemplating quietly, thinking freely for two minutes. Then the conversation begins. Some come to talk. Others prefer to listen. The dialogue is fueled by participant contributions and facilitated by a museum educator who judiciously shares information about the art work as it becomes relevant. No prior knowledge of art is needed. The conversation is fluid, open-ended and democratic. Everyone's voice is heard and perspective validated. Meaning is made together, not by one but by many.

The conversations taking place in our galleries during this series (and many others) are not unusual. Most art museums offer similar experiences predicated on the goal of bringing people together to exchange thoughts and observations. The increasing prevalence of programs like Conversation Pieces suggests their value, but the proof is in the intent gazes and animated voices of the visitors who participate. While it's impossible to predict how each conversation will unfold or where it will lead, the process of looking and learning together is empowering viewers and revealing the connection between contemporary art and contemporary life.