The Art Museum and Its
New Publics

International Conference
May 29–30, 2015

Many recent developments in public art museums are driven by the need to engage with the public in new and innovative ways. The term “public” is mostly a historical notion, born in the late 18th century as the foundational concept for the idea that museums and their collections should be open and accessible to all. The contemporary art museum often struggles to negotiate between the remnants of an earlier rhetoric of “public” (based on specific ideals of citizenship and nation building) while exploring new practices and types of spaces designed to attract new audiences, reach new communities and communicate with the particular locality it is situated in. Furthermore, new forms of public engagement with the museum through social media and the Web result in a shift of public sphere platforms. These processes fundamentally challenge ways of understanding the “public” and the claims made about the value of museums.

Against this backdrop, Museum Folkwang takes the occasion of the new presentation of its founding collection established by the Museum’s founder Karl Ernst Osthaus at the beginning of the 20th century to re-examine and specify the concept of “public” within a museum context. We start from the assumption that this term is crucial for enhancing the capacity of the museum to engage with “publics” in more complex, productive ways, responding to key issues facing museums today such as relevance, sustainability, inclusion, diversity, and attracting new publics to the museum. We ask: How do museums use the term “public” in relation to people? How do museums identify their “publics” and why do they equate public with audience, visitors, and occasionally with consumers? How is the public conceptualized: as community, as individuals? What are the limitations of the concept we should take into consideration when expectations about what a museum can do are being expressed?  Moreover, we aim to examine how the contemporary understanding of “public” informs new practices within the museum context, e.g. collection display practices and educational programmes that are devised to support them.

The conference is conceived as a contribution to the ongoing discussion about museums, cultural values, and their meaning and significance in society today. The conference will be followed by a concluding panel discussion addressing the issue of museum publics in the Ruhr area.

The Conference is open to the public.

The Programm

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In cooperation with the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen and the Kunstring Folkwang e.V. The conference has been made possible by the generous support of Prof. Dr. h.c. mult. Reinhold Würth and the Folkwang-Museumsverein e.V.