A Lasting Impression : Laguna Museum’s Education Curator Wants to Help Others ‘Get It’
Margaret Ann Maynard vividly remembers the moment she “got” Impressionism. She was 10, on one of many museum trips with her mother, and staring blankly at the 19th-Century paintings on the wall.
“I was wondering why this face was painted in all different colors, and had little lines and brush strokes and dots of color on it,” said Maynard, Laguna Art Museum’s new education curator. “I was thinking, this doesn’t make any sense to me.”
But Mom moved in and pulled the young Maynard as far away as she could from the Renoir, so that the seemingly unconnected, wisps, dashes and dots magically coalesced into a sensible whole.
“And I went, ‘Oh! I get it.’ And that was the moment I thought that museums were really cool places,” she says.
And for the past decade, Maynard has been helping museum-goers have their own “aha” experiences. She has concentrated most of that work at the Phoenix Art Museum, where she was education coordinator then assistant curator of education from 1986 to 1991.
The task has always been tougher than grabbing somebody by the shoulders and walking backward, and she doesn’t expect to chasse through her new job.
“The greatest challenge of any museum educator is to enable meaningful interaction between an art object and the visitor,” she said. That that sort of interaction, she added, could be dramatically increased at Laguna Art Museum.
Passionate about her work and unafraid to speak her mind, Maynard--who goes by Margie--is quick to point out how this can be done.
Sitting in the museum’s main gallery, she instructed a visitor to look around the room, its walls hung with works from “Watkins to Weston: 101 Years of California Photography 1849-1950.” The traveling show was organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
The introductory wall panel and labels beside each photograph leave a lot to be desired, she said. The labels, for instance, site the artist, the date each photo was made and the collector who loaned it.
That information “could be read in the car on the way home,” Maynard said. Carry-out pamphlets are useful, but all information displayed on gallery walls “does no good whatsoever and shouldn’t even be there unless it directs the viewer right back to the object and gets you to look at it.”
Good labels, she said, should ask viewers to “make decisions about the art they’re looking at,” to judge the work according to their own tastes, to spot relationships among its various elements, or to analyze how it was made, perhaps.
For instance, instead of merely identifying the media used in a work, labels could lead viewers to discover how the raw materials were manipulated by the artist to achieve a certain effect.
“The (labels) are really a lesson in looking. Lots of people passively observe things,” Maynard said, illustrating her point with a story about a married couple traipsing through a blockbuster show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“They had their (instructional) audio tape machines clamped on their heads,” she said, “and the wife was going through much faster than the husband, and saying ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ But he said, ‘No, I’m not done watching the pictures,’ like he was standing there waiting for something to happen, waiting for something to hit him.
“I don’t know if it’s because we’re so used to watching TV or movies, where we’re bombarded with stimuli. But in museums, you can’t stand back and wait for something to happen to you. You have to interact with the work, and that interaction is what makes art exciting, and what provides opportunities for discovery and inquiry and puts the joy into art.”
Maynard doesn’t envision billboard-size labels next to every artwork, “but you might put larger labels next to certain pieces,” she said, and they could contain be applicable not just to a specific artwork but to “the next piece, or in the next museum, or in the next town.”
Educators, she said, “should be able to create this whole school of museum visitors who are active observers who go right into a piece and make something happen to it that brings it alive for them.”
Another idea Maynard has for improved visitor-object interaction involves “art carts” for use inside the museum. These roving, docent-guided carts would bear everyday objects that teach about the culture that produced the particular work on exhibit, Maynard said.
“Again, it’s learning from (contact with) the object, not by reading a book without stepping foot into a museum,” she said.
“I don’t want to imply for a minute that Laguna Art Museum is going to become this touchy-feely museum,” added Maynard, whose predecessor, M. A. Greenstein, won praise for establishing more intellectually challenging programming.
“The direction M. A. took will certainly continue and hopefully expand,” she said. “We won’t stop inviting artists and scholars to come speak here.”
Raised in the Bay Area, Maynard was exposed to art from the get-go. Her mother--an amateur artist who had studied with Hans Hofmann, a progenitor of Abstract Expressionism--encouraged her to paint and draw and regularly took her on museum visits.
An art history graduate of the University of Oregon, School of Architecture and Applied Arts, Maynard focused there on Post-World War II modern art, fascinated most by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Their work, which took commonplace objects out of context to force viewers to see, rather than blithely use and discard them, led Maynard to become an active observer, she said, “to look at everything in a different way, not just art, and to be more aware of everyday surroundings.”
After postgraduate studies in studio art at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts, and an education department internship at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, Maynard hired on at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Responsible there for youth programming only, her creations included the interactive ArtAttack Gallery where children learned to be active observers (techniques developed there were later used with adults), and a program in which high school students exhibited their art in tandem with work by the established artists who inspired them.
Maynard wants to start a similar activity here, expanding the scope of the museum’s small “Children’s Corner” gallery.
“I saw what a tremendous difference (the program) made,” she said. Students who had had no thought of attending college “very much wanted to go, to study art, graphic design or photography” after seeing their work exhibited in a museum.
Such programs, Maynard said, are part of her plan to address another formidable challenge facing all museums today: Programs need to reach out to the multicultural communities they serve, as cash-strapped institutions struggle to engage today’s visitors and ensure future audiences.
Maynard believes the museum could be doing a better job at outreach to non-whites in Orange County public schools.
Lack of funding is often the root of the problem, she said. Drastic cuts in public school budgets have meant a marked drop in field trips to the museum, since schools don’t have money for busing.
Likewise, money for a second education staffer at the museum could improve outreach programs, Maynard said.
An assistant would be particularly helpful as the museum expands its Art From the Museum program in which it sends artworks, encased in plexiglass, and teacher information to county elementary schools. It has three such traveling displays, and this fall will be adding a fourth, featuring 10 artists whose work addresses their varied cultures.
Newport Harbor Art Museum receives private funding to support school bus trips and employs two full-time educators. Laguna Art Museum director Charles Desmarais said funding is being sought both for school bus trips and a part-time education coordinator.
But without such an assistant, Maynard said, the expanded program is going to be watered down.
“I won’t be able to do it as well and thoroughly as I would like, having to administrate all the other programs,” she explained.
Still, Maynard believes her greatest challenge probably won’t involve finances, but communicating to colleagues that change is critical, and seeing the changes she envisions brought to bear.
“There is more that can be done here,” Desmarais concedes, adding that Maynard will be given the freedom to do her job.
Maynard echoes that.
“We are in agreement that we want the art museum to be as accessible as it can be to the broadest audience.”
But in her experience, she added, the museum educator is always the person who instigates the most change.
“And in any business, in any field, dealing with change is a very hard thing to do.”