A Museum Director on the
Power of Theatre
to Connect Guests to Art
By Ilana Gustafson, Insights Editor
Every year, IMTAL celebrates the cherished leaders who support the work we do. This year’s winner of the IMTY award is Heather Nielsen, Director of Learning and Community Engagement at the Denver Art Museum. Last year, her team, led by Lindsay Genshaft, won the Lipsky Award for Excellence in Museum Playwriting for their show Art Emergency: Code Red. Support for innovation often means giving a platform to do meaningful work, such as is demonstrated at DAM. I had the chance to interview Heather about her perspective on the value of museum theatre and their dreams for the future of the program. She offers an inspiring perspective and appreciation for theatre rooted in her background in Anthropology.
Thank you so much for speaking with me and congratulations on your award.
Of course. Thank you.
What did you think when you found out you were nominated and receiving this award?
Totally delighted and honored. And honestly, I credit Lindsay (Genshaft, Manager of Family and Community Programs). We’re lucky to have a woman like that who really understands and sees the potential of what theatre techniques can do in a museum context. It’s easy to support passion, in my opinion.
How has Lindsay been able to show you that theater can enhance the guest experience with your exhibits and collections?
I feel our collections are steeped with stories. Theatre has potential and power to unleash those stories that are embedded in these objects, while at the same time, stirring the imagination of our visitors. I think ultimately, that’s what we want to do, right? We want to create deep connections with our visitors and with the stories that our objects hold. Theatre has been a powerful way to do that kind of work.
What are some ways you’ve noticed your guests’ perception of an art museum shifting with the type of programming that you do?
I think that the experiences you can have in the art museum can be active, they can be creative, they can be participatory. So I think all of a sudden that just opens up the potential for families to think very differently about the museum and very differently about the behaviors that are accepted in a museum.
I think one of the things Lindsay’s worked really hard to do is ask how these experiences can create social connection and bonds between family members. It’s been very interesting for me to watch how the theater pieces work at many levels. The kid is getting something out of it and the parent is getting something out of it and they can have this shared experience.
Right. And you’ve touched on the core of what theater is; it’s storytelling, it’s a social experience, you’re connecting with other people. You seem to have a good appreciation and understanding for theater. I’m wondering what is your background in relationship to theater?
Not much! I’ll be totally honest with you! I definitely feel that we’ve moved in this direction because we had a staff member who was very passionate, had deep experiences, had academic experience in this area. Personally, I’m an arts lover. I’m a lover of stories, but I have no background in theater whatsoever.
But you have an appreciation for it.
Yeah, I have a deep appreciation for it. My background is actually in Anthropology and so I’ve always had a love for the way in which culture uses art in its broadest sense. Whether that’s performance, the visual arts, whether it’s ritual, and how they use those things to explore what it means to be human. So I think my appreciation for theater is really grounded in that, appreciation for the kind of stories it can tell, the multiple perspectives, and the opportunity it gives us to empathize a bit.
I had a chance to see your show Code Red when I visited DAM. I really loved that you take this sort of static gallery experience and, with the story behind the images or within the images, give us a different connection. Lindsay and I talk a lot about this, she’s really pushed us to think about how this story is helping you see the artwork in a different way, helping you see the perspective of the artist, helping you see elements in the artwork.
It’s so exciting for me to see programming like this in museums. Museums are often hesitant to take risks in ways of either exhibiting or highlighting the work. So, I’m just curious what your thoughts are on the perceived risks of doing something like theatre in a museum and some advice for leadership that might be hesitant to try something like this?
I want to unpack that question a little bit because when you say “risk,” what are you thinking of?
I mean to say quote-unquote “Risk.” So the perceived risk.
Yeah, great. “Risk.”
I know sometimes leadership is hesitant to do theater, for one, because of the logistics of using the space in that way and the perceived danger to the collections. Then also the risk of being less formal. Theatre will require you to be a little bit less formal.
Oh, interesting. Okay, being more playful.
Yes, being more playful. So, I’m curious what you would say to leaders who kind of come from that perspective?
What’s interesting is those ideas of using space in unusual ways, being a little less formal, and allowing for a range of interpretations, those are things that I think we’ve had a long history of wanting to disrupt. Theater for us was a natural out-growth of the tactics we were already using to engage with families.
So, I guess I would say that if one is a bit fearful of this, it would be very interesting to see where are they actually doing similar kind of work. Because a school tour in many ways can often use a space in unusual ways.
Find a seed that’s already been planted and extrapolate from there.
Let me just add one other kind of fear: what are the other people in the gallery who may want a more quieter experience going to think? And that actually did happen where during one of these performances in the gallery. Some visitors were like, wait a minute, I didn’t come here for this kind of noise. We had to figure out how we can be a little bit more proactive in letting visitors know what was happening in this gallery space. I often see those kinds of moments of tension as a place to say, okay, how could we actually support all of our visitors for success around this experience?
So what are some ways that you do approach that or prepare your guests for these experiences?
We’re very transparent when these things are happening. These happen during family moments and weekends when people are expecting the museum to be a little bit more playful and unusual.
Do you make an announcement to warn people that are in the gallery or do you just show up?
No. Yeah, we just show up and go for it! I think that’s where this stuff contributes to the overall perception shift for visitors to museums.
I would say, predominantly we’ve used theater in our family program, but we’ve also had theater groups perform in the galleries, perform in the freight elevator, perform throughout the building, create site-specific small vignettes. So I think our visitors, both young and old, are already accustomed to this in our museum.
It’s almost as though you trained your guests to expect things like this to happen.
Kind of, yeah. I think by using more innovative techniques, whether you yourself are doing them or you’re inviting partners, you’re committing to your museum being open to kind of shared authority, shared creation of experiences. Once you establish that you’re all onboard with that, it makes it a lot easier to then do the work.
You’re not imposing this on them, you’re sharing it.
Right, it’s a two-way experience.
That’s great. I’m always so excited to hear someone, especially someone who doesn’t have a theatre background, be so supportive of theatre in a non-typical context. It’s been really great to hear your thoughts. My final question is how do you see this program evolving and do you have anything in the works right now?
Well, we’re actually currently going through a renovation project which is essentially a complete renovation of our original building. When we open, it’ll include a new Learning and Engagement Center.
We’ll have something that we’re calling a Creative Hub. In that Creative Hub is a performance area. I think that that opens up a whole new set of possibilities for more co-created programming with theatre partners. We also have a rich creative in-residence program and it could be really exciting to think about working more with actors in that program. So, for us, it’s about deepening the work that we’re doing in our family programs, but also thinking about how this work helps us connect more deeply with our creative community.
And you’re creating space that’s conducive to these things which is really exciting. Well, I look forward to seeing that develop and will have to come back and visit.
Yeah, right. You all have to come back!
Maybe have another IMTAL conference out there!
Yeah, there you go!
This article can be found in Summer 2018 - "Lighting the Spark, Feeding the Flame" (Volume 28, Issue 3) of IMTAL Insights.
MEET THE IMTY WINNER:
Heather Nielsen is Director of Learning and Community Engagement at the Denver Art Museum. At the DAM Heather overseas all program areas including Family and Community, Adult and College, Teacher and School Outreach, and the Museum’s Artist and Studio Programs. Most recently, Heather has been the project lead on multiple IMLS funded investigations into fostering creativity among visitors and the museum as a platform for community creativity. During her time at the Museum she has grown family and community initiatives to include programs for families with young children. In addition, she has overseen the development and launch of programs aimed to facilitate engagement with Denver’s Latino communities. Prior to joining the Denver Art Museum, Heather worked as a Museum Educator at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Heather has broad Museum experience, ranging from developing and conducting in gallery interpretation for culture based exhibitions, to writing and developing curriculums and study guides around anthropology and art topics. She has conducted teacher trainings, taught graduate courses in Museum Education, and has served as a consultant on national and international museum projects. She holds Bachelors in Anthropology from Vassar College and a Masters in the Anthropology of Art, from University College London.