Nothing Stuffy Here
By Mary Daily
Published Oct 5, 2011 5:10 PM
A private concert in a coat closet. A chorus of insect noises. Galleries filled with people wearing bells. These are the kind of experiences visitors to the Hammer Museum may find there — activities that bend all the rules of more tradition-bound institutions. Some people come away with a whole new idea of what a museum is.
Visiting the Hammer hasn't been the same since 2010, when former CNN journalist Allison Agsten joined the staff as curator of public engagement and director of visitor services. Agsten says the unusual activities at the museum stem from the cutting-edge curatorial program in the galleries, stimulating public programs and art projects created to connect artists, art and visitors more directly. The results, she says, are "explosive in the best way."
Agsten's role took shape when the Hammer received a $1 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation's Art Innovation Fund to create an artist-driven program designed to engage visitors and connect them with artists and museum staff, while using the museum's public spaces in imaginative ways. The visitor services program is designed to demystify the museum, to make it a place where everyone will feel comfortable. Banishing the notion that museums "aren't for everybody and that they're really exclusive places because the concepts may be too heady to understand" was a priority for Agsten, who previously worked as the director of communications at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and, earlier, as a producer for CNN.
"Museums can sometimes be hard to navigate, and the human presence can go a long way toward mitigating that," Agsten says. Previously, for example, the Hammer's second-floor bookstore sold all tickets to the museum. "You just hoped people would find their way upstairs and somehow figure it out."
Today when visitors enter from Wilshire Boulevard, they see a huge "Welcome" sign and can buy tickets at a reception desk staffed by greeters, many of them UCLA students, who are trained to engage with visitors. Want information about a particular exhibition? "We actually have an app for that," a greeter might say. "Would you like to borrow one of our iPod Touches so you can check it out?" To make the museum more kid-friendly, Agsten, a mother herself, has greeters stamp children's hands and the courtyard restaurant now offers kids' selections.
"As many people as we can possibly reach with these programs, the better," she says. "But what I'm really interested in is quality over quantity. If a few people say it's changed their relationship with this museum, or changed the way they feel about museums, or just changed their day, then that's totally worth it to me."