Yoga and the Museum

Yoga: The Art of Transformation opened at the Cleveland Museum of Art last summer. From June to September, over 1400 visitors participated in:

  • Three lectures.
  • One four-week seminar.
  • Four gallery talks.
  • And FORTY-FOUR yoga classes.

Gallery talks and lectures? Easy. We do these all the time. Where we really had to stretch ourselves (pun absolutely intended) was the yoga classes. Sure, lots of museums offer yoga in the galleries, but for us, this was a new challenge.

Yoga on the Lawn

Yoga on the Lawn

It wasn’t difficult to find people to teach. As soon as the exhibition was announced, yoga teachers in the area were calling and emailing, wanting to know how they could get involved. Even before plans for a yoga studio were added to the exhibition’s design, I had a list of excited teachers and studios ready to offer classes. We started out by scheduling two classes each Sunday of the exhibition’s run (with the creative title “Sunday Yoga”). When Sunday Yoga sold out, in some cases months in advance, we first added more spots to those classes and then more classes during the week, evenings, and Saturdays. We also had a weekly drop-in yoga session out on the lawn.

Even though these programs were successful, there were still aspects of the summer that could have gone more smoothly. Here are some of the lessons learned.

Stretch Yourself…

Every time we do a new program at the museum, there’s an element of anxiety. Will people come? Is this actually worth it? Will the art be in danger? Will yoga enthusiasts be running around the galleries shoeless?* All valid questions, and sometimes, the answers make it seem like an idea is impossible. But often, these new programs are welcomed and enjoyed by our audiences. We learned that a new program can be successful, even if it requires implementing new ideas, and it’s worth trying.

Full classes!

Full classes!

…But Not Too Far

When the yoga classes filled up and more and more studios wanted to get involved, I got excited. I wanted to keep this momentum going and really celebrate how enthusiastic the community was, but I didn’t consider how much more work it would be. Yes, it was exciting, but by the end of the summer, I was completely exhausted and behind on a lot of my other responsibilities. It would have been better to look at what resources the museum could expend and consider more carefully how much we could take on.

Be Flexible

Working with nineteen different yoga studios and teachers also meant working with a lot of different personalities, ideas, and methods. While I tried to clearly lay out our expectations and resources, there were inevitably classes that required special arrangements, like bringing in musical instruments and props for yoga and harmony experiences or setting up chairs for meditation and therapeutic yoga. Some of these I knew about in advance, others were a surprise. Expect that no matter how many times you ask for details, you might not get them!

Deep Inhale

Sometimes your volunteers or your yoga teacher won’t show up. Sometimes people will get mad at you when they buy tickets for the exhibition and don’t realize the yoga class wasn’t included (or vice versa). Sometimes you schedule a kids’ yoga class for the first week of school and not realize it until you get to the empty studio. Sometimes your speaker will get laryngitis. Sometimes people will ask you if a black teacher is doing “African” yoga.** The potential for random, disruptive, or unfortunate happenings is there in any program, and even more so with forty! It’s easy to let it get to you. Take a minute to yourself when something like this happens. Don’t just run off to the next thing, no matter how busy you are; wait a second, breathe, and let it go.

The exhibition sign was a popular photo op.

The exhibition sign was a popular photo op.

 

Be In the Moment

Because there is so much advance work that goes into making a program happen, I sometimes feel like the actual event is anticlimactic. Once all the paperwork is in and the arrangements are made, the actual day-of feels easy. But if you’re already thinking about the next thing you have to do, you miss what’s going on right in front of you. I was reminded of this in one particular class, when I overheard a very experienced yoga practitioner chatting with a complete beginner about how much they both enjoyed one of the works in the exhibition. That moment of connection, when someone can relate a centuries-old work of art to their own life and is so excited that he or she wants to share it with others – that’s what it’s all about.

Practice

Last summer’s experiences showed that there is a deep interest in yoga in the Cleveland community. With many of our programs, we try to meet people where they are by incorporating their favorite experiences into the museum. Thinking about the success of these programs, we’re looking at ways to make yoga a regular part of the museum. Like yoga, viewing art can be a relaxing and inspiring experience. What could be better than bringing them together? 

Even if they weren't taking part in the class, lots of visitors enjoyed watching!

Even if they weren’t taking part in the class, lots of visitors enjoyed watching!

* This was brought up in an early meeting. I thought, “No way. Who would forget their shoes?” That first weekend, I had to run after two people who got all the way out of the studio, into the lobby, and onto the escalator completely barefoot. Yeah. 

** And yet not one question about whether the white teachers were doing “European” yoga. 

 

Why Do We Do It?

During the last hour of the art museum Interpretation pre-meeting we talked about near horizon future trends for the field. The wall was full of ideas, everything from taking a page from hospitals in thinking about wayfinding to the internet of things. Of the long list of ideas generated by the group, two have stuck with me. The first is one that we’ve been thinking about a lot in recent months:

DTpremeeting

Design thinking, prototyping, experimentation, and user experience. The team is currently working on developing personas for the first set of projects and experiments. Prototyping to come!

The second note that showed up on the wall that really stuck with me was this:

purposepremeeting

Why do we do it? It’s a great question. I love what I do and I believe that what museums do is important, and those two things are the foundation of why I do it. At AAM there were thousands of people engaged in the work of museums, who love what they do and believe it’s important, and I’m sure that those two things are at the heart of why they do what they do.

I believe that what I do is important, but can I prove it?

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time– to the point where in 2010 I went back to graduate school to get some evaluation and stats skills to support searching for the answer. In our department we’re at a moment where we are starting to think about how to implement some strategies for investigating how effective some of the things we’re doing really are, so it was at the front of my mind when this post it went up on the wall at the pre-meeting. It also happens that today Rob Stein posted an essay on Code Words that keys right into this issue (particularly for art museums). It’s a must read.

There are lots of things in his essay that really, really hit the mark. The economics-as-justification-for-arts-funding model has long been of deep concern, for all of the reasons he cites and more. Not least of the issues here is the inherent problem with trying to win someone else’s game. (For the same reason I am also cautious about academic transfer and museums). Yes, the culture sector can have a tremendous, positive economic impact. But that isn’t why we exist.

One of the reasons we exist is because we make life beautiful. We make human hearts sing. We can prompt people to think, deeply, creatively, and complexly, and that kind of thinking is exciting work. Art and culture are the color and texture of life.

This has value. But it is also hard to articulate the impact. The origins of museums lie in the wunderkammer, a Chamber of Wonders. How do you measure wonder? It does not easily translate into quantitative measures. But this doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to trying to figure out how to do it, quantitatively, qualitatively, creatively, however we can get there.