From Olivier Gabet’s viewpoint, the future of museums amounts to one thing: freedom.
“[Museums are] a place of freedom and freedom is something that we definitely need today. And it is the freedom to not come to the museum when you don’t want to,” he said. “What’s also interesting is when you come to the museum, you have the freedom to not have to like everything. You can have tastes, views and subjectivity. This kind of freedom is crucial and what I would like people to pay attention to.”
In advance of a talk Thursday at Villa Albertine — and back in New York for the first time in two years — Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, spoke of how integral young people are to the future of museums. He is stateside as part of his residency with Villa Albertine to explore the concept of youths’ involvement with museums in the U.S.
The multidisciplinary Musée des Arts Décoratifs is linked to the latest changes in creative industries like fashion, design, craft, graphic design and more, while staying rooted in a world-class heritage collection rich in European and non-Western history.
Explaining the importance of youth culture in museums, Gabet said, “Through youth, all of the political and social voices that we have heard can resonate very strongly — diversity, equity, sustainability,” adding that museums can also provide them with opportunities for jobs, education, socializing and “the keys to understanding the world today.” An advocate of providing free accessibility for young people, MAD is free for visitors under the age of 26.
In addition to students, giving young professionals free access to museums is integral, especially in large cities, he added.
As a “curious player in the world of museums,” Gabet said “everything is of interest” and that you can learn from observing what other organizations in your field are doing. While as recently as five years ago, many in the media — particularly non-fashion outlets — considered fashion exhibitions to be artificial, that mind-set is changing, he said. A colleague once told him, “’There are four shared universal topics — sports, music, fashion and elements of movies.’ At the museum, we show that fashion is a narrative that can be shared by young people because it is part of their culture,” he said. “Through this language, you can make them understand or learn [about people] from all over the world. Fashion is always more than fashion itself. Fashion speaks to art, culture, civilization and inspiration. It’s a wonderful crossroads.”
Gabet emphasized that fashion exhibitions require complexity on different levels. “Young people come and they don’t feel judged. They feel an easy and direct access to the work. Sometimes if you go to an Old Masters exhibition, you might not know the cultural background or the methodology by heart…even me,” he said. “Fashion provides a wonderful dialogue for diversity, equity and an incredible originality.”
Noting how “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute was “full of young people,” during a visit Sunday, Gabet said. “There is nothing to be judged when you make it possible for people to visit the museum, and not just have one experience but multiple experiences.”
Although he is a great believer in digital development to provide access to materials and knowledge, Gabet is also high on in-person experiences and is “a real strong defender” to direct access to the works. Without question, both mediums have their advantages, he conceded.
Many museums are doing a lot of work to face the realities of the past and avoiding whitewashing the past, Gabet said. “I’m always quite optimistic and I have every confidence. In two years, we’ve already seen the difference in American how classical museums are paying great attention to African American artists and culture.”
Having visited the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., he said he thought, “‘Well, things change.’”
He added, “…we’re talking about artworks, which are a lot easier to access than reading a whole book of history. Through the experience [of going to] a museum, an exhibition, a gallery, it can really help to face history for sure.”