“Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other.” - Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works
Across the country historic house museums are having trouble. Trouble with the ‘gate’ as attendance numbers are declining; due to a general (dis)interest in history and the decrease in funds and time for school field trips. There is trouble with collections care as the number and range of items, materials, and structures can be staggering and funds to do right by them are in short supply. And, there is trouble with relevancy (why poke around a historic site when you can play real historical looking video games?). This is not new of course. Museum and preservation ‘industry’ conferences have long had session titles like “Historic House Museums Malaise” and there are books like “New Uses for Historic House Museums” that acknowledge the risks in narrow interpretation bandwidths at historic sites. The good news is there are very successful models for turning historic sites inside out to engage visitors in ways that are relevant and compelling. Adjusting the inner (past) and outer (new) worlds to see through each other might now be a trope for connecting old stories to contemporary issues. In the UK, the National Trust and English Heritage have teamed up with Commissions East on a series “Contemporary Art in Historic Places.” Artist Fred Wilson’s wildly popular 1993 installation “Mining the Museum,” at the Maryland Historic Society, was a mash-up of collection items to provoke a rethinking of traditional historical narrative, e.g. casework with ornate silver ware also included a pair of iron slave shackles. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston reeks with history and the bell jar ‘don’t-move-anything’ approach stipulated by founder Mrs. Gardner in her will. While valued such stasis results in a been-there-done-that visitation pattern that discourages people from coming again and again, the lifeblood of healthy museums and historic sites. But wait! Mrs. Gardner was an art patron in her day, supporting writers, visual artists and musicians. In a conscious effort to bring in new audiences, museum staff revitalized that kind of patronage at the museum through residencies, changing exhibition space, and a concert hall that features the best and brightest living artists. At Andalusia, we now have two installations of contemporary art in underutilized rooms re-purposed as flexible program space. The response so far has been terrific. Artist journals offer field notes in memory mapping and a site specific piece celebrates the peafowl just outside the window while commenting on the ephemeral. Flannery was a contemporary writer in her day and she was fortunate to have a supportive environment in which to pursue her art. Stay tuned as we continue to develop a program to showcase and support the best and the brightest contemporary artists, to turn this old farm inside out and make contemporary connections with the enduring themes in Flannery’s writing.
-Elizabeth Wylie, Executive Director