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Ode to the (human) Art Tour Guide

Op-Ed

By Fruzsina Eordogh

The consumption of visual art at a museum is a highly personal matter, and each visitor has their own preference on how the art is ingested. Some museum-goers enjoy being left to their own devices, while others desire some sort of  audio or visual guide to enhance their experience. Neither is inherently better than the other, though generally, guided art tours are viewed with disdain.

Local writer and fellow art fan Rachel White avoids guided art tours like the plague. As an atheist White describes art museums as her “chapel”, and spends extended amounts of time in front of a select few pieces. White finds guided art tours disrupt the personal moment she is having with the art at hand- “if a piece is really really good, it might move me to tears” she adds. Rachel White would rather have an intimate experience with a work than say, “know who the model was”.

Many younger museum – goers are in Mrs. White’s camp, with those surveyed described art tours as “boring “, “worthless”, “pointless”, or “a waste of my time”. Even worse, guided art tour goers are stereotyped as mostly comprised of “old rich white women” – usually tourists.   It doesn’t help that lucrative businesses have sprung up, from New York to Paris, offering guided tours with an art expert, complete with phrases like “Distinguish yourself from the tourist herd” or  “Go with a specialist who will help make your experience more memorable (and more civilized). ”  Really, art tours are “more civilized”?

So guided art tours have a bad rep… but a while back, I happened upon one of the best guided art tours of my life. I by no means consider myself a guided art tour connoisseur, but I have taken them in museums all over the US and Europe out of a sense of obligation. This evening  I was with a friend (a prominent Chicago Art Machine persona who wishes to remain anonymous out of embarrassment), and she was verbally and physically communicating her unwillingness to go on a guided art tour. Her behavior reminded me of unappreciative exs or husbands on cable TV sitcoms: the dragging of the feet, the slouching, and the “guided art tours suck” complaint.

We follow our tour guide into the Sound & Vision exhibit at the AIC, and we were promptly enchanted. Our tour guide never said the word “um”, was engaging, informative, clever, and moved through the exhibit at a deliberate (but not too fast) pace. It also didn’t hurt that our tour guide was younger, attractive, and in a killer outfit.

The Sound & Vision exhibit was a unique exhibit, in that it seemed to require a tour guide (each piece in the exhibit had a label but lacked a description). Named after a David Bowie song of the same title, the exhibit explored the relationship between audio and visual art. Notable pieces included a series of photographs taken of cars honking their horns when approaching a drive-way, and of car radios when “good music was playing”.  Our tour guide mentioned the expression “A picture is worth a thousand words”, but in the case of each exhibit, the sound (or lack thereof) was the impetus for the art, and therefore worth more than the actual photograph. The absence of this information was fascinating. As the small tour came to an end, my Chicago Art Machine colleague was impressed, happy and humbled.

It turns out our tour guide, Michal Raz-Russo, generally doesn’t do guided art tours – only on an as-needed basis. Michal Raz- Russo normally works as a Curatorial Assistant for Exhibitions in the Photography Department and estimates she’s done in total 15 tours  for three different exhibits. In addition to giving people background information, “behind the scenes tidbits and insider information” Raz- Russo likes to treat the tour “as a conversation” and “prefers small groups”.

Audio tours are an obvious compromise between the two extremes – audio tours provide  insider information while also allowing the visitor to have a private experience with limited disturbances from other museum-goers. Over the past couple of years, audio tours have seen technological advancements through the use of art tour apps for the iphone. (An iphone app is set to come out for the Art Institute some time this month) In a New York Times piece by Roberta Smith titled “A Guided Tour In The Palm of Your Hand“, she writes:

“Available free, this device sends the traditional audio guide the way of the one-horse buggy.”

It appears as though not only audio tours, but the likes of Michal Raz-Russo will soon vanish, to be replaced with digital screens backlit with blue light sure to clash with museum lighting. The New York Times has written extensively about these apps (here and here), you can watch a video about an itouch tour here, and museums all over the world, from Italy to the UK to  Heritage walks in Singapore are implementing the use of tour guide apps on the iphone. Even the 9/11 museum is doing it. However, no one seems to be questioning how these apps will impact the museum experience …. (sure, all the iphone users are happy because they are silly fan boys and girls)  and I feel a little odd for not embracing this new technology (I did make fun of “polaroid-ites” after all).

When we live in a world where we stare at various electronic screens all day, whether it is our flat screen TVs, our computers, our smart phones, our laptops, iPads, iPods, or other portable electronic device, it is nice to disconnect from everything and look at a piece of art that won’t strain my eyes from prolonged use.

Maybe I am an idealist, but I would rather have a human being explain to me the mysteries behind a piece of art (also created by a human being) than a faulty machine I can’t afford anyway.  While I realize this position might not be popular, I’m going to side myself with other “old rich white women tourists” – mainly because I can have a conversation or ask a tour guide questions, actions I could never do with our current machines.