TRENDSETTER: Bonnie Pitman is changing the way directors look at their museums. photography by Matt Nager

Dallas Museum of Art Director Aims For ‘Growth’

Bonnie Pitman doesn’t just put the painting on the wall and walk away.

At first glance, Renoir’s A Girl With a Watering Can is an almost inconspicuous impressionist painting. It depicts a little girl with a red bow tied in her wavy blond hair, wearing a purple dress with lace embroidery, standing against a blurry mix of wildflowers, grass, and dirt. The girl holds a watering can and stares off canvas as if she is waiting for instruction or longing to participate in some unseen action.

   Dallas Museum of Art Eugene McDermott Director Bonnie Pitman wasn’t much older than the girl in the painting when she stood before it for the first time in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. That moment in front of the painting, she says, changed her life.

“It’s that moment of childhood innocence in a garden in that yellowy light that he beautifully captures,” Pitman says. “I have all brothers, so being the only girl in a large family with men—there was a joy of just being in a serene place where beauty surrounded us. This was this great moment in my life when I just realized: oh, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

At the time, what she planned to do was as ambiguous as the action in Renoir’s painting. Pitman went to art school to study art history, worked in the education department at a museum in Winnipeg, and then got her master’s degree in art history. After working at a number of museums, in 2000 she landed at the DMA, where she raised eyebrows eight years later when she was promoted to the top spot at the city’s encyclopedic museum. Pitman had fulfilled her childhood desire more literally than one might have guessed. At the DMA, she holds the watering can, so to speak, trying to figure out how to make the museum grow.

And if there is a single word that sums up the direction in which Bonnie Pitman is taking the DMA, “growth” is it. There is the growth in attendance, the growth in programming, the growth of engagement with multimedia and online initiatives—Facebook, Twitter, Flickr. Soon after arriving in Dallas, Pitman spearheaded a seven-year study with Randi Korn, founding director of Randi Korn & Associates. The study focused on the museum’s audience to help the institution rethink how people react to seeing art. She wanted to offer them as many opportunities as possible to have their own Girl With a Watering Can experience. Pitman writes about the findings from the study in her book Ignite the Power of Art, which is being published this summer by Yale University Press.

“The notion that we all experience art and life the same way is absolutely, profoundly wrong,” Pitman says. “We all see it differently because of our life experiences. I became very aware, especially being in museums, that the challenge for us was how to take these inanimate objects and bring them to life.”

Her goal might seem obvious, but in the museum world, it’s revolutionary. “When I started out many years ago, you put the painting on the wall and walked away,” Pitman says. “Museum curators and directors didn’t have to engage in the visitor experience. It wasn’t part of that vocabulary.” Pitman’s approach represents a shift from the study of art to the experience of art. “How could people experience works of art and bring that personal meaning into their lives?” she asks.

You only need look at last year’s exhibitions to see how this idea translates into the real world. The exhibitions centered on broad, loosely knit themes that brought together a diversity of work and featured multigenre bells and whistles. “All the World Is a Stage” hung art works spanning 2,600 years, and they were accompanied by music and dramatic performances. The exhibition “Coastlines: Images of Land and Sea,” on view through August 22, features student-created sound installations that fill the galleries with ambient sound, and computer terminals in the galleries encourage visitors to upload their own coastal images. Pitman says she is trying to create “a dynamism inside an institution that reinforces a staff to take risks, to experiment, to be innovative.”

This risk-taking has not gone unnoticed. In March, Pitman was featured in the New York Times, and she has been invited to speak at the Modern Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But there are shortcomings to this vision as well. Take, for example, the “Coastlines” exhibition. In some cases, it is difficult to look at the work without the intrusion of the sound installations, which seem bent on eliciting a saccharine emotional response from the viewer. The result is a composite art experience—not a viewing of the art object but the art object in conversation with other elements of the exhibition. The curatorial interpretation, not the individual work, takes center stage. In fact, this juxtaposition so bothered Dallas artist Chapman Kelley that in early June he asked for his painting to be removed from the exhibition, which he compared to a circus.

As a counterbalance, Pitman points to the museum’s other summer exhibition featuring contemporary Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, which presents weightier content with few gallery tricks.  

Pitman tells a story about an experience she had during one of the DMA’s recent late-night programs. She entered a gallery at 11 pm and came upon a creativity competition. One of the participants had sketched a copy of a Morris Louis painting on a large sheet of paper and rolled it up like a cone-shaped hat.

“This canvas I had always seen flat. On this person’s head, it became a multidimensional experience, and it was this wonderful hat,” she says. “Was it right or wrong? It doesn’t matter. It absolutely doesn’t matter. Because they looked so deeply at that work of art it created a response. And 20 years from now, they will remember that painting.”

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