Transcript – Episode 68

Narrator:  This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council.  We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Matthias Waschek:  Accessibility is probably one of the important key words around museums.  They give people access to the public arena, to their own creativity, to a world that is bigger than all of us, to everything, basically.

Anita Walker:  Hi.  I’m Anita Walker, at the Mass Cultural Council.  Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud.  Our guest today is Matthias Waschek.  He is the Executive Director of the Worcester Art Museum.  Welcome to our program.

Matthias Waschek:  Thank you for having me.

Anita Walker:  Now, Matthias knows that we consider the Worcester Art Museum truly an exemplar of the work in accessibility in universal design here in Massachusetts.  In fact, Matthias, you were one of the first ones to raise your hand, probably three years ago when we launched our UP Program around universal participation in universal design.  And my favorite story, and there have been many since then, is how you came to design the new entrance to the front of the building.  Tell us about that.

Matthias Waschek:  Yes.  Well, you are part of that story, because it was, as lots of good stories start, on a steamy, summer lunch at the Worcester Art Museum.  You came out and we talked about the need to make public institutions more accessible.  You talked about the dream of having Massachusetts as the leader in accessibility in the country, and then we were musing about a lot of access support looking damn ugly, and we then continued to talk, and this was the starting point of another conversation where you were involved, as well, with an architect with whom we were working in Worcester, Kulapat Yantrasast, the principal of wHY Architecture, which is based in L.A. and in New York City.  And he came up with our access bridge, because that’s what you’re aiming at.  The access bridge is on the main side of the building.  Normally when you have these access facilities, well, firstly you segregate audiences.  You are talking about people with disabilities.  Actually often times people say, people that are handicapped, which is a very nasty way of putting it, and the rest you completely forget, because it’s not just one group, such as people with disabilities, that needs to access museums that particularly, as obviously most art museums, have just stairs everywhere, but you also have an aging population that in our lovely winters doesn’t like to slide on the steps.  And then you have families with strollers, who also can’t get into those damn buildings.  So we needed this access ramp, or access bridge, that is not only facilitating the access to the museum, but is making the access of those who don’t easily use stairs a very noble enterprise, and a very inclusive one.  So basically what Kulapat came up with is a work of art that gives you access to a building that has art, and that makes the entry, which has since the Romans, since the Egyptians, always been nobilitated via steps, nobilitates that via a modern bridge that is not clashing, actually, with the architecture, but that is enhancing the existing architecture.  So thanks to that little intercession, if you will, the front of the museum, which you say 1930s was our building, which is a little bit forbidding, actually, as people built in the 1930s all over the world, not just in America, and it makes it into a very welcoming, very playful façade where the stone presence, very angular, is kind of counteracted by the playful and fluid presence of this metallic bridge, with these fins that create, when you walk past it, a moiré effect with silk.  And people love the bridge, and even those for whom that bridge was not primarily built, like people who always take stairs, they prefer that access bridge now to our 1930s steps.

Anita Walker:  Lots of times when we talk about accessibility, we do think about things like ramps, and we think about the blue nobs on doors so they open, and we think about sort of the physical barriers.  But there’s a lot more to it than that, and you have really been digging deeper into the entire experience of the visitor and making it accessible to all.

Matthias Waschek:  So there are many levels of accessibility, as you point out, Anita.  We’ve been talking about this.  Architecture plays a role just by a place being welcoming, because if it is a forbidding façade, nobody feels welcome unless you know very much what is in there.  But then there’s another aspect, so physical, then the welcoming environment.  There’s another aspect, which is that of a social accessibility.  So a lot of people may think that museums are not for them because they are not in the quote unquote right social class, with the quote unquote right knowledge of etiquette.  That’s one level, and there is another one.  For that reason I am talking about these two distinct.  And then there is the, it’s almost Pavlovian, when people talk to me about the museum, they always talk about that they haven’t done their homework about the artworks in there, because they think they need to know a lot, so it’s the social thing, but it’s also the knowledge thing.  You may well be from the quote unquote again right social class, and there is no right social class, because everybody is welcome in a museum, but there is also this perceived need to know something where it’s actually up to us to make people have the experience that they want to come back, so accessibility is so much more complex than just the physical possibility of accessing a space.  So the words that we were using is that the Worcester Art Museum, the Renaissance Court, in particular, is something like the living room of our city, so it is the place where people go for major events.  So for instance, I’ll give you one example of a major event which we are extremely proud of, which is now we are in the second year of organizing naturalization ceremonies in our Renaissance Court.  So each time fifty new Americans come with their families, it’s extremely diverse.  So far the lottery system still works, and the first thing that they often times say, because I spoke with many of them, is that they so much enjoy that the diversities that they are bringing to this country is also reflected in the environment where they are becoming Americans.  So for them, this moment of being in the museum, and it is only fifty people plus their families, they will always come back to the museum, so we also give them a free membership, and things like that.  So then there are people who decide, so I’m speaking about very extreme cases, then we go to less out-of-the-ordinary cases, put it that way around.  There are people who decide, for instance, to organize their wedding at the museum, so we have the Renaissance Court again, which is a beautiful backdrop for that, and we have a Chapter House from Western Florence, late medieval times, which came to us in the 1920s, and so a lot of people would like to associate that very important moment in their lives with a historic gravitas, an historic grounding.  And for them, again, when they come back to the museum, this is familiar ground.  This is the place where they experienced something that is much more than just learning about the arts.  It is an experience about being in touch with civilizations, and that’s also where we want to go that if people choose to learn the hardcore art history, of course we would give them that information, but it’s much more important that people come to actually experience a world that’s much bigger than all of us.  It’s actually the sum of all of us human beings on this planet, and enjoy that, and via that experience, not only have a kind of self-actualizing moment, or many thereof, but also have a strengthened desire to understand something that is not familiar, understand, again, unfortunately quote unquote, I can’t do it if it’s not on camera, so I have to say it, to understand the other, to understand the non-familiar, because this is one of the important things as our world gets more and more populated, as it gets more and more diverse, in spite of certain people who would like to work against this, it’s a fact, and civilizations only work now that this world is more populated when we all make an active effort to understand the other.  Accessibility is, back to the big subject, is an accessibility to asking oneself fundamental questions.  They are not related to having a PhD, or having money, as a part of human condition.  We have to ask ourselves questions about the other, how we relate to other people, how we relate to history, how we respect other people, and this accessibility is part of that bigger movement.  I hope I didn’t muddy the waters too much with these big ideas, and something very concrete like accessibility.

Anita Walker:  No.  Actually, one of the things that I think about when I visited the Worcester Art Museum, and a couple of things that I’ve noticed that you’re doing, and I’m interested in if what I’m experiencing is intentional by you, or just a total accident.  So first of all, I loved when you said sometimes people are afraid to cross the threshold into an art museum because they haven’t done their homework.  That word, “work,” makes it sounds like it certainly wouldn’t be any fun to go to an art museum.  I have to do my work before I go there.  And so I think sort of erasing that notion that it is a study, a school I’m going to, by associating an experience of the art museum with a celebration, or with a high point in your life, whether it’s citizenship, or a wedding, and so forth, starts to break down the psychological barrier that says I have to know a whole lot about something, and the whole history of this particular artist before I can ever look at that thing in the gilded frame.  And then the other thing I think you’re doing is the variety of exhibitions that you’re doing that are not sort of standard, classic, what a person might expect when they walk into a gallery.

Matthias Waschek:  So we had, I think it’s two years ago now.  It’s so vivid it still seems like yesterday.  We had an exhibition that was called, and it’s funny, at the board level we talked about this, and everybody was quoting this without seeing the funniness, and now you are curious what I am going to say.  The exhibition was called, “Meow,” so just imagine a board, a boardroom with very dignified people, and they all say “Meow,” and said “’Meow’ was really successful.”  So this exhibition was basically connecting people with the presence, and it is not as esoteric as it sounds, with the presence of cats in the arts, so ancient Egypt has a cat cult, some works on this.  But then when you really look, you have lots of paintings that have cats.  Cats have a certain symbolism in Dutch jar painting, for instance, but they also appear in Japanese woodcuts, and so on and so forth.  So we called that tour through the museum kind of to actualize our collection for people who had seen it already, or people who needed an entryway, an access.  That was the cat walk.  And in addition to that we had a small, and there are also naughty things related to cats which I cannot quote here, but if you go to Colby, and depending at the Louvre, and things, and you think something naughty, that’s part of the cat walk.  Okay?  So the other thing that we did was we worked together, and that’s where it gets very interesting for me with the animal rescue organization, animal shelter in Worcester.  We had a vivarium for cats designed by an artist, by an artist, and cats that were prepared for adoption were happily roaming around.  So normally you can see cats anywhere you want, back alleys, front doors.  I mean, they’re everywhere, these darlings, so in our case they were in a museum space, and people came to see cats in this kind of beautiful.

Anita Walker:  You had cats wandering around.

Matthias Waschek:  In a gallery.

Anita Walker:  In the gallery.

Matthias Waschek:  In a gallery, so people went there and the aim was to work together with the animal shelter and help in the adoption process of cats.  Okay?  So what the whole thing did was it took the museum out of the realm of just art with a capital A, and showed applications of that art, or used the art as a vehicle.  Then in addition to that, so we got all the cat lovers, and probably sixty percent of the world population is cat lovers, so we got a gigantic visitation, people who normally wouldn’t come, and at the same time, we had an exhibition of a very, very important tapestry, Flemish tapestry, that we have in our collection, “The Last Judgment,” which had recently been restored in Belgium, and had we had a big poster, “Come and see The Last Judgment,” I mean, who wants “The Last Judgment?”  We don’t want to die anyway, so why bother seeing a last judgment?  But those who saw the cats afterwards, taking the cat walk, roaming through the museum, meow, the cats, were also going to that space where “The Last Judgment” was, and they were completely floored, because it’s extremely beautiful.  And so by connecting, that’s the access theme again, by not thinking about the museum as a kind of staid box, but by connecting subjects with subjects that people meet in their daily life, or look to in their daily life, you also give new actuality to things that are classically art, and that normally people wouldn’t want to go to see, because it means learning.  So we tricked them into a non-learning viewing experience via cats, and some other cats were just very happy, because they found a new home.

Anita Walker:  I think I’ll be taking some cats up to Beacon Hill and let them wander around the State House, and see if we can get any attraction up there.  It sounds like an amazing idea.  I know one of the other things that you’re doing is, speaking of partnerships, is with VSA.

Matthias Waschek:  Yes.  So VSA is Very Special Arts.  It is a sub organization of Seven Hills, which is headquartered in Worcester, and it works with people with brain injury and other disabilities, and they have now a studio.  The Worcester Art Museum has a wing that is twelve studios for studio art classes, and they took one of the studios, and they had exhibitions there, as well.  And they also come into the museum during the courses with their care givers, so it is something, and I will give you first the French word, and then I’ll translate it.  I love the French word.  I worked in France before coming to America, and we had a person who was both an artist and a social worker, and she worked with people who didn’t really have an natural place in society, like homeless, and others, and they went to the Louvre.  That was where I worked, and I said, “Why would they want to come?  And she said, “This is what we call reparation sociale, social healing.”  So people who, due to their disabilities don’t think that they have a place in public spaces, via this connection with Very Special Arts, we actually give them a place in a typical public space in Worcester.  So that’s the high level.  The other level is, of course, that art has a therapeutic value, and via the therapy you get opportunity to also access the self, or parts that you haven’t explored, so you get to other forms of accessibility which go down the road of Freud, Jung and all the other people.  So accessibility is probably one of the important key words around museums.  They give people access to the public arena, to their own creativity, to a world that is bigger than all of us, to tolerance, to everything, basically.

Anita Walker:  And I can’t imagine a more important time for accessibility to be shouting out of the doors of our art museums, and our theaters, and our dance halls.  I think that our museums and our cultural nonprofits have become a sanctuary for people who are feeling marginalized, and even threatened and afraid.

Matthias Waschek:  Yeah.

Anita Walker:  But also for people who are just feeling a sense of discomfort, and stress, and anxiety because the world is feeling stressful and anxious right now, and walking into an art museum for anybody can be therapeutic.

Matthias Waschek:  Absolutely, and you are touching on another word that I like to use with, or what Fiedler liked to use with museums, the word “sanctuary,” and it is there is a spirituality in museums, because not only a lot of the art works that we have in our stewardship come from religious practices, but it is about something more than just the banal here and now.  It weaves into the here and now, and sometimes de-banalizes, should that be needed, but there is a strong spiritual component.  So it in a way, when you think about an Italian city, you have the churches with all the art works, where you go if you want to participate in the mass, or not, so there is something similar with museums.  We have a secular version thereof.  Then you think about the market squares where everybody can go, where you sometimes look at the beauty of the architecture, of the sculptures, and sometimes you don’t, and you are just there and take your coffee.  That’s what museums need to be if they are truly accessible.

Anita Walker:  You know, the word “access,” it used to just mean ugly ramps and big bathrooms.

Matthias Waschek:  Yes.

Anita Walker:  But now, thanks to your work and so many others here in the Commonwealth, I think we’re getting a new definition of access, and it is more powerful than it’s ever been before.  Matthias Waschek, Executive Director of the Worcester Art Museum, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.