A growing number of museums are celebrating a newfound connection between art and yoga, in addition to art cooking courses and even dating. But should museums serve up extra-curricula activities to attract more visitors?
It's Friday afternoon in the Max Ernst Museum in Brühl, a small city between Cologne and Bonn in the German Rhineland. Fifteen visitors are devoutly sitting in front of an artwork and meditating on it. When the soft sound of a gong is heard, the women start to tiptoe around on socks through the exhibition halls. Clad in sports outfits, each carry a pillow under their arms. Following their meditation, they now engage in yoga in a hall on the museum's basement floor.
"Place your chin parallel to the floor, and relax your upper cervical spine," instructs Caro Mast, the yoga teacher.
This combination of yoga and work by Dada art pioneer Max Ernst — a Brühl native and namesake for the city's modern art museum — might surprise some. But in Mast's view, surrealist art and Indian spiritual and physical practice fit perfectly together.
"I've seen many works in the museum that immediately made me think of asanas," she noted. "And that's why we try to establish yoga as a pilot project in the museum."
Max Ernst's 1916 painting, Leon. The artists works are the focus for museum yoga participants in Brühl
Listening to the inner self through art
Indeed, a growing number of museum halls are being turned into exercise temples, while others celebrate the newly found connection between art and yoga by creating special events. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, for instance, hosted a yoga-art happening that ultimately inspired the female staff members at the Max Ernst Museum to bring the concept to Brühl.
But while a DJ was on hand in Amsterdam, the Brühl museum opted for more quiet contemplation "enabling people to listen to their inner selves," said Mast.
On this afternoon, participants are asked to only look at one work by Max Ernst during their meditation. They're to choose a drawing, painting or sculpture that enables them to reflect differently on their own body.
Museums are constantly searching for new ways to broaden their interaction with the public. As is often the case when it comes to new trends, this one originally came from the US, more precisely from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It has now reached numerous museums across Germany.
Gallerist Johann König, who is based in Berlin, recently enlarged his program to include yoga courses. Munich's renowned Pinakothek der Moderne invites visitors into the "magical kitchen" of German painter Paul Klee, by offering a cooking course with a celebrity chef whose recipes were inspired by Klee artworks.
Beyond traditional museums
Are museums really in urgent need of new ideas to attract visitors? Art expert Irmgard Schifferdecker of the Max Ernst Museum says yes.
"Traditional rituals like silently walking through the museum while looking at the artworks for a few seconds before moving on just aren't in vogue anymore," she explains.
That's why some museums are trying to reinvent themselves. But not everybody sees these efforts as a positive development.
Art historian Wolfgang Ullrich worries about the way museums are changing. Together with the head of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim, Ulrike Lorenz, he has published a book that poses the question: "What can and what must a museum do?"
The former art professor fears that pressure to maintain a high visitor numbers ultimately harms museums. In his view, prioritizing record visitor numbers with every show hinders museums from carrying out their main task: which is to collect, explore and maintain artworks.
Ullrich criticizes the fact that contemporary museums are primarily tasked with generating ticket sales rather than maintaining and exploring artworks and making them available for people who want to study them.
Museum director of the Kunsthalle Mannheim, Ulrike Lorenz (pictured right next to German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier)
Not only for art's sake
In Ullrich's view, yoga courses, cooking courses and fashion shows don't enhance people's understanding of art.
"I think that all these activities are pointless because they aren't about art as such, but only use artworks as an exciting backdrop for attracting people who aren't interested in art but in yoga or cooking," she said. "These are simply measures to fill empty museum halls."
Why, one may wonder, do museums actually need to offer any new programs to visitors? Why doesn't it suffice anymore to simply present the artworks?
"The smartphone generation is used to a quick change of view and people don't find places to rest anymore. It's important to recognize this fact rather than ignoring it," Ullrich explained. Even in the digital era, the analog world shouldn't be totally forgotten.
Dating in museums
Once a month, the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg invites visitors to its "plastic bar" with long opening hours to participate in a special dating service. For the fourth time, the evening's slogan is "art dating."
Sabine Tümmler, a so-called "art communicator," stands next to her improvised lottery wheel in order to pair people off with each other. On this rainy evening, only few visitors have come together — maybe because the whole thing sounds too much like an internet dating platform.
The rules of the game are simple. Two people who, so far, didn't know each other, are to look at a given artwork together while talking about it.
Like in speed dating, these couples are given only 10 minutes in order to get to know the artwork. The "plastic bar" is nothing more than an improvised counter surrounded by some tables where people can consume beer, wine, water and snacks.
"I have no idea whether or not people go on dating afterwards," admits Sabine Tümmler. "But I think it's a courageous act to talk about art to somebody one doesn't know."
In this way, the museum isn't just a place for intellectual encounters but has evolved into a location for social contacts and relaxation.