One artist’s vision is another visitor’s transcendent experience

Charlotte York of TV’s Sex and the City once described “great love” as a love that “shakes you to your core, after which you are never the same.” I think the same can and should be true of great museum visits—especially first time visits to a new museum.

I had a core-shaking, life-altering museum experience on Sunday when I visited the American Visionary Art Museum, a museum devoted to showcasing the stories and artwork of self-taught practitioners working from places of inner reflection and intuition.

The American Visionary Art Museum experience is a welcome onslaught of color and diverse personal energies, reaching the visitor on multiple sensory, intellectual, and spiritual levels. I recently heard Jake Barton of Local Projects describe great museum engagement as something visitors “fall into,” and this seems apt to describe the complete immersion and fascination I felt from the moment I stepped past the visitor desk into the galleries.

I’ve realized I hold a special reverence for museums that are audaciously, unapologetically individualistic, defying traditional institutional norms and forging new ways of being. (For previous discussion on this subject, see my post about Glenstone.)

The traditional museum is often neat, unemotional, and subdued in its tone. The American Visionary Art Museum, however, lives charmingly and compellingly outside this box. It is intense, passionate, and bursting with opinions; it’s also polished but relatively “unedited.” The overall effect is incredibly respectful, compassionate, and in strong service of the Museum’s social justice mission.

Museums with this kind of passion and self-confidence seem perfectly positioned to facilitate transcendence and spirituality within and among their visitors. My experience at the American Visionary Art Museum supported this theory; the space was vibrant and alive, and reminded me why the museum is my church.

The Museum website lists seven education goals the first of which is: “Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.” The importance of this lesson was imparted to me from an early age by my mother who deeply embraced and celebrated people’s eccentricities. The Visionary Art Museum, with its deep veneration of imagination, intuition, and inner voice celebrates human eccentricity with humor and honesty, serving what I believe is an essential human need to be silly, creative, and vulnerable—and to witness these qualities in others. The experience was transcendent and reconnected me to the example set by my mother, a positive early-life experience.

The Museum takes a refreshingly direct approach to trauma and difference, directly addressing personal tragedy, injury and disability, mental illness, loss, racism, and family dysfunction. This frank approach reduces stigma and emphasizes the gifts that a unique identity and life experience can bring—while celebrating ownership of all aspects of one’s life (both good and bad).

Storytelling seemed to play a crucial role in the interpretation of the artworks, and I emerged at the end of my visit feeling like I’d just surfaced from a great book. Artist’s stories are the frame for interpreting the art, an approach that clearly communicates to visitors that people (and their experiences and visions) are the priority and the focus. The stories function in complete deference to the artist’s frame, ensuring the artist’s experience is unquestioned and the artist is held up as expert and owner.

I recently attended an inspiring session at the recent AAM Annual Meeting: Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences (click to download) led by Dawn Eshelman, Charles E. Fulcher Jr., Ben Garcia, Amber Harris, and Lois Silverman. Reflecting on the session handout and my visit to American Visionary Art Museum, I’m reminded of the importance of building ritual into museum experiences and celebrating inner narratives. Also, the ingredient of “surprised expectations” (cited in Charles E. Fulcher Jr.’s Seeing Deeper program) was at play for me during my visit.

Back in college when I was planning a career in social work, I took a child therapy practicum where clients’ inner narratives and belief systems—however peculiar or troubling—were the guiding forces of engagement, growth, and empathy. We know intuitively that this work is crucial for children, but often forget how essential these experiences are for adults. I’m happy to be reminded of this, and to reconnect with a version of myself that is energetic, idealistic, imaginative, and eager to know my own and others’ inner experiences.

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Eshelman, D., Fulcher, C. E., Garcia, B., Harris, A. & Silverman, L. H. (2016, May). Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences. Panel session at American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.