François Mathey’s innovative intiatives for cultural democratization (1953 – 1985)
by Brigitte Gilardet, specialist in History of contemporary art
Brigitte Gilardet, specialist in contemporary art, focuses her presentation on François Mathey, head curator at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris between 1953 and 1985. Over the course of these three decades, Mathey manifested great interest in advancing a cultural democratization-based agenda for the museum. In a triptych, Gilardet outlines the initiatives launched by Mathey to achieve this goal. Each step corresponds to a period in time that provided fruitful ground for the development of this social mission. Mathey served as a pivotal figure in this field, as he was a prime innovator for cultural democratization specifically targeting children.
Mathey’s personal agenda began in 1953 at a time when arts education was gaining traction in schools and cultural institutions. His interest was spurred by prior cultural mediation work in museums and French historic monuments. From this work, Mathey witnessed the importance of specialists directly transmitting knowledge to students visiting such sites. In 1953, Mathey installed an arts workshop at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, for children thirteen years of age and younger. The curator, with Pierre Belvès, art teacher, sought to develop a more pedagogical approach to art initiation for French youth. The hands-on workshop provided by arts specialists at the Musée was the first endeavor of its kind to be successfully implemented in a Parisian museum.
The truly innovative aspect of this project was to bridge the gap between high art produced by adults, and younger generations that had not yet acquired the tools to understand their work, let alone generate art of their own. This workshop at the Musée differed from similar initiatives in the United States, as it did not consist of establishing a children’s wing in the museum. Rather, Mathey encouraged the development of a vocabulary made accessible to children, and that could be readily used by them to approach adult art. In this sense, cultural democratization was understood not only as bridging socio-economic and geographic divides, but also generational ones.
Mathey’s initiative gained national and international recognition, even gaining appraisal from UNESCO. A museum is the ideal location for such a cultural awakening, as it is in such circumscribed sites that are concentrated works “of the upmost taste” (Gilardet). Mathey hoped to elicit visceral, aesthetic responses as of an early age, so that these reactions and cultural encounters remain engraved in the child’s ethos at a later age. Indeed, Mathey’s ultimate goal was for children to engage in an active and sustained relationship with museums. A kinesthetic encounter with art in a museum setting appeared as a cohesive approach to attaining this mission.
Such initiatives attracted a larger number of visitors to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. However, upon closer attention to this population, it appeared that the audience remained dominated by higher socio-economic families, with a more enriched cultural capital. Tackling this Bourdieusien challenge thus became Mathey’s second endeavor in terms of cultural democratization. Come the beginning of the 1960s, the curator expressed the fervent desire to better know his audience in order to cater to more diverse backgrounds.
Mathey curated exhibits with the intent of attracting a more diverse audience. He surveyed spectators at the end of their museum visit to receive a more holistic understanding of who they are (gender, age, profession, etc.). One exhibit in particular, “Antagonismes II, Objet”, confronted the audience with everyday objects created by artists. Such data is of interest to the Ministry of cultural affairs, who commissions the collecting of these results in 1964. The goal was to measure the actual divides incurred by cultural excursions and activities, in response to Bourdieu’s empirical conclusions.
Though the results continued to show that spectators at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs hail from higher social echelons, Mathey refused to admit defeat to numerical data. The curator emphasized the importance of the quality of the artistic encounter provided in his exhibits, particularly with regard to his outreach to younger generations. It was precisely Mathey’s keen interest in engaging the youth that prompted the curator to rejuvenate and further diversify his exhibits, in hopes of responding to the Bourdieusien obstacle. This endeavor represented the third and final initiative tackled by Mathey.
By the late 1960s, a new movement flourished in France, in parallel to that of cultural democratization. While cultural democratization seeks to grant access to high art to as wide an audience as possible, cultural democracy favors diversity in artistic production, encompassing alternative and more contemporary genres. Cultural democracy does not undermine traditional art forms or the “masterpiece”, but rather introduces a new kind of art that can be approached by a wide array of visitors.
Once again, Mathey stood at the forefront of cultural practices in museum settings. By legitimizing more varied forms of art, the curator hoped in turn to diversify his audience: cultural democracy in favor of cultural democratization. Yet, in 1972, Mathey realized that a fundamental obstacle to his enterprises is the context in which they are put into practice, in essence the museum space itself. The museum was still perceived as a mausoleum by lower socio-economic populations, who remained reticent to enter its doors. Mathey proposed to transcend this barrier by instating more favorable admission prices, as well as proposing cultural activities outside the museum space.
The conjunction of these three initiatives led to the articulation of Mathey’s “musée formidable” in 1982, a place where art attracts a new, diverse audience, as it is a reflection of this audience’s varied interests and tastes. Mathey was a precursor of such cultural democratization and democracy endeavors in the French museum. Today, his name embodies a unique and visionary agenda.