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Beth Schneider has spent her career as a museum educator, first for the National Gallery of Art in Washington from 1978 to 1984 and, since then, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where she became education director in 1986. She talks about her experiences and her own changing views about educating the public.

 
Education Director Beth B. Schneider

Q. How much of your job is to reach nontraditional audiences?
A. A big part. Am I here to educate curators? Well, I'm here to educate them about the general public, but not about art certainly.

I think one of the great and unnecessary dichotomies that has grown up is that you either reach the general audience who knows nothing about art and is very uncomfortable in museums, or you educate those who already have a background in art, are comfortable, you can say the word 'baroque' or 'pre-Raphaelite' or 'Tong Dynasty,' and they've got a framework to put it in.

A museum shouldn't be either/or. You should have something for people at a variety of levels. Like any education department, we have some things that can easily reach large numbers of people, and we have others that reach smaller numbers - but in a more intensive experience. We try to present as varied a menu of opportunities as possible, so that people can enter into learning at our museum at whatever point is comfortable for them and go from there. Somebody may always be most comfortable at the introductory level, and that's great.

Q. What are your biggest challenges?
A. We work at breaking down transportation and cultural barriers that make it more difficult for the public to participate in the museum.

Houston is a big, spread-out city. The distances can be quite daunting, especially when you factor in traffic. People don't come downtown in the same way that they might in Chicago or New York. And nobody in Houston except schoolchildren walks anyplace, even if you are in what is considered walking distance in any other major city. People come in private vehicles or on a school bus or a chartered bus. If they work downtown, they may spend the rest of their lives 30, 40 miles away from here. It is a challenge for us to reach more middle-class or affluent communities that you could say represent the more traditional museum visitors. But you're talking about people where the intimidation factor isn't great. The traffic is more intimidating than the idea of coming to a museum.

With low-income communities, you not only have to overcome the transportation barrier, but also all of the psychological barriers: 'There's nothing there that relates to me and my culture,' 'I won't see people like me there,' 'I don't know how to dress.'

We realize that nobody has to come to the museum. We're not M.D. Anderson. We're not the police. We're not the fire department. We're not the supermarket or whatever provides the necessities of life. We have to be very proactive in going to where people are, introducing ourselves, getting to know them and getting them to understand that we care about them, that we do have things that relate to what they believe, to their culture, to what they are interested in - maybe not all of the time, but much of the time.

Q. You're drawing a million visitors a year. Why go to such lengths for more?
A. First of all, there is something of the missionary in people who work at museums. No matter how many people are coming and having a good time, there are always those people who aren't coming, and wouldn't it be nice if they came, too? I want people here, because I think art can make a big difference in their lives.

We also want to build the habit of museum going, and that's something that takes time. There are still so many barriers that are perceived and that may be real to people, we have to constantly be introducing ourselves and reminding people that they are welcome here.

Q. Newspapers are losing readers, TV networks losing viewers, but museums like yours are bucking that trend. Why is that?
A. In large part, it's that we are such an open, welcoming and accepting place. I've been here for 17 years. For a long time, my attitude was, 'We provide these fabulous programs. There are all these opportunities. There's community outreach. The least people can do is get here.' And what I learned is that's often the hardest thing to do.

So we partner with groups of schools in Houston, and once a year we will organize a Family Day for the children in these schools, their parents, their neighbors, whoever. We share the cost of transportation with the school district. People meet at their schools, get on a bus, come to the museum, spend two or three hours here, and then go back. It means: a) you've taken away the problem of transportation, which on a weekend is worse than during the week, because the bus schedule is different; b) you are letting people come to the museum with their own community, with people that they are comfortable with. They are bringing in their support group. They are not walking in by themselves and thinking, 'I don't fit in.' They all fit in. It's a high level of comfort. There are activities, there's stuff to do, so it's not just wandering around, thinking 'What does this mean?' There are a variety of programs. We get anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 people coming to the museum, and, I can tell you, if the buses weren't there, it wouldn't work.

The lesson is you have to know who your audience is. Some of these things won't necessarily work in New York or Chicago, but there may be things that work in New York or Chicago that won't work in Houston. Each city has to figure out for itself: How do I get people to find out about this?

Houston is an amazing city, a frontier city. Basically all that limits you is your own imagination and initiative. Nobody ever says, 'Oh, you can't do that,' or 'We've never done that before' or 'That could never happen.' And the Museum of Fine Arts reflects that.