McDONOUGH MUSEUM 'Developing visual literacy'
The museum's new director believes people can relate to art in their own way.
By LAURIE M. FISHER
In times of distress like these, artists can participate in our community, said Leslie Brothers, the new director of Youngstown State University's McDonough Museum of Art.
She believes the museum can be the place for that participation.
"Artists can provide discussion and inspiration. They are capable of grasping in a visual and physical way what we all are experiencing but incapable of articulating," she explained.
Brothers emphasized that art represents a common creative experience. "It is something that any member of the public experiences at any moment, on any day of their lives. The creative-thinking process that an artist begins with is the same creative process we use to make decisions about what we do in our everyday lives, in our jobs, in our homes."
Whether the art is an abstraction or representational landscape, she said, she wants to help "build those conceptual bridges for the audiences." For example, in a group tour she prefers to act as facilitator or moderator rather than lecturer or authority.
With that philosophy, Brothers intends to attract a broader Valley audience to the McDonough. "I think the traditional mode of setting up a show, having the artist do a lecture, and telling the public about it just isn't enough. It just isn't working."
Instead of telling visitors about an artist's intention, she asks: "'What do you see; what do you think is going on?' That is one way, whether a person is 6 years old or 60, any person's accumulation of life experiences is enough of a resource to make connections with what an artist is doing. I think we absolutely have to begin there."
"We are about promoting, cultivating and developing visual literacy," she said.
Brothers said a university museum should pursue a more diverse audience than larger public institutions. "Because we are part of the university, I think that we are in position to do things differently. The motivation is to actually discover more about ourselves as an educational institution and even more so more about the ways in which we can improve what we do."
Not overnight: The change won't happen overnight, she acknowledged. "At any given time or moment, you can't appeal to everyone. But over a long period of time you can gain interest, commitment and affections of a whole range of audiences."
Specifically, she said, she wants to break free from the notion of the museum as only a small group of committed people.
"It is difficult for larger public municipal museums to break away from that because they are dependent on boards that come from that understanding. It is unique to a university museum that it can break from that past of privilege and exclusivity and become a community center."
"As easily as I can imagine an exhibition here, I can imagine a town meeting taking place. I want to bring people in not because art is good for you, I want people to come because they recognize that the experiences that they have in their everyday [lives] connect directly to what happens here, what is exhibited here."
"So the relationship is almost a kinship. I hope to build programming from, and membership on, McDonough's place in this community. The museum is not founded in what's new and cutting edge in the art world. That comes along the way."
Her experience: Brothers' passion comes from experience. She used her approach in her administrative and curatorial work throughout her 15-year career. "I am very much interested in moving away from the traditional position as the curator, as the singular authority, as the person who decides what is important and what isn't."
Before starting her job at YSU in July, she was curator of contemporary art at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, Champaign, from 1995 through 2000. Brothers received a master's degree in art history from Virginia Commonwealth University and a bachelor's in art history and French from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Brothers continues to work in a university setting because "there is so much potential to work with individuals who have very different ideas from my own."
In addition to her administrative work, she will teach a course in art theory in the spring at YSU.
"This is a perfect place for me to be," she said with a smile. She explained she has a special connection to the Midwest and the Great Lakes, since she grew up in Kenosha, Wis. Her husband, John Johnson, is a furniture artist who will work from a studio in their Boardman home.