BY Vincenzo Mercuri & Gabriela Villarroel
Marlon Seror is among the attendees eager to visit Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music, an exhibition that explores the creative realms of art and music of neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“[Drawing] helps me look at his paintings in a different way,” Seror explains as he carefully retraces the hand in Untitled (Estrella) in his notebook, one of the late artist’s numerous works displayed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). “It helps me learn, it helps me focus.”
The Basquiat exhibition has gained interest for the MMFA, which experienced a 74 per cent decrease in attendance in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to MMFA Media Relations Officer Maude Béland. She says that the museum typically surpassed one million visitors annually in previous years, hitting nearly 1.2 million in 2019.
The MMFA isn’t the only museum trying to regain visitors. Statistics Quebec reported a total of 6.8 million visits to institutions across the province in 2021, a decline of 55 per cent against the 2015-2019 average of 15.2 million.
“We don’t have visitation numbers for 2021, but we do have them for 2020, and the drop in visits was substantial right across the country,” says Ken Amaral, policy and research analyst at Canadian Heritage.
According to preliminary results of the Government of Canada’s 2021 Survey of Heritage Institutions, 87 per cent of heritage institutions were forced to close at some point in 2020.
Amaral argues that the lack of attendance is due to several factors, but the main one is that facilities were forced to close due to public health measures. He adds that the guidelines had a negative impact on tourism, which contributed to a drop in visits in major Canadian tourist cities including Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.
“I think the sector is still dealing with a transition from the pandemic lows, and that even in 2022, there were still lower attendance numbers throughout the heritage sector,” Amaral explains. “Though it is slowly increasing back to pre-pandemic numbers.”
Despite the low turnouts, attendance numbers are bouncing back. In 2022, the MMFA garnered a total of 576,580 admissions, up 57 per cent from the previous year, which Béland suggests is “a gradual return to a new normal.”
Béland is optimistic about the public’s recent reception, noticing a renewed enthusiasm for exhibitions like Basquiat. Complemented with an augmented reality app designed by Montreal-based studio Dpt., the exhibition features approximately 20 interactive artworks that aim to submerge visitors in Basquiat’s era of 1980s New York.
“It creates this two-way dialogue between the museums and the visitors,” says Dpt. Creative Director Nicolas S. Roy. “An augmented experience really allows people to dig much deeper and learn things about the artist and about the artworks that they would have never been able to discover.”
The app has three main features such as augmented scenography which presents scenes from Basquiat’s life, augmented understanding which extracts references from the artworks, and an augmented immersion where Basquiat posthumously defaces his own art.
“We’re still scratching the surface,” Roy says of the app’s recent success. “At the heart of it all, it’s [about the] content. It’s not really about the tech, it’s really about how you’re using the tech to elevate the content and make it richer.”
According to Roy, the app has been well received, with one in five people at the exhibition installing it, and engaging in close to half of the augmented experiences during their visit.
“Museums are really looking at ways to reinvent themselves and create more engagement with their visitors,” Roy says. “We’re used to interacting with various devices, we’re used to being stimulated in new ways, so I think museums are trying to capitalize on that.”
In 2022, the MMFA participated in a pilot project conducted by the Research Group on Education and Museums (GREM), a group dedicated to integrating culture and the arts into the classroom, that measured the benefits of student engagement on museum attendance.
The project consists of students at Le Vitrail alternative school in Rosemont visiting different institutions within the city weekly for a period of six to eight weeks.
“What we could see though is curiosity, cognitive engagement, and interest of the children,” says GREM Director Anik Meunier of the ongoing pilot project. “On a group of 70 secondary level students, the teacher told us that 68 out of 70 maintained a vivid interest through the whole time the project was going on at the museum, but that they are not like that otherwise.”
“A sense of belonging has been observed,” says Meunier, who goes on to add how motivating it is for researchers like herself to see children grow an appreciation for art.
In recent years, school presence in museum institutions has declined 81 per cent, going from a pre-pandemic average of 903,135 admissions to 173,364 in 2021, according to Statistics Quebec.
Efforts like those of Meunier are actively working to renew interest back in the art scene by encouraging long-term museum attendance among the youth.
“It will limit the distance between children and culture, and they will later feel that they are welcome in this kind of space,” Meunier says in French. “They won’t have difficulty visiting museums. But instead, it will be more of a reflex for them above all else.”