There’s been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the decline of reading, diminishing book sales, and the “death of print,” but there’s no doubt that books clubs are thriving. It’s hard to know precisely how many book clubs there are because they are often informal groups. However, according to Publishers Weekly there are an estimated seven million such groups in the U.S. and that number is rising.
Some organizations, art museums in particular, recognize the power of book clubs and the potential of readers in general as a huge target for their marketing efforts. From the Delaware Art Museum to the Art Institute of Chicago (I love the name of their group, “Reading Between the Lions”) to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, museums are conducting book-based tours and book clubs that capitalize on the notion that reading can make other aspects of life come alive. Debbi Hegstrom, associate educator for the docent program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) says, “There are unlimited connections between art and literature. This is another way to promote the vision of the MIA, ‘Inspiring wonder through the power of art,’ to a specific but potentially very large audience. With the current popularity of book clubs, it seems like a logical way to tap into the existing interest and bring more people to the museum.”
Formats vary. Some art museum reading groups revolve around special exhibits or a featured work; others focus on art-related reading in general, be it fiction or non-fiction. Some require museum membership; others, such as the MIA, are open to anyone. All provide great reading ideas and opportunities for book club field trips. At the MIA, museum tour guides have been presenting book-related tours for four years, as requested by organized book clubs, but a newer program, which is open to anyone on a drop-in basis, has been running for three months. Men, women, young adults to seniors participate. Says Hegstrom, “The titles usually have something art-related but not necessarily. Guides can use artworks in the museum to explore themes presented in a book. Our goal is to include one fiction and one non-fiction title each quarter, with at least one of the books relating specifically to art or artists.” This summer they’re tackling The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, and Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl, a fantastic Minnesota writer.
What’s the common thread between books and art? Hegstrom says, “Literature and the visual arts are both creative expressions of the human spirit. To experience both media based on related topics and to share the experience with others brings depth to both. Books become the reason to get into the galleries and talk about a shared experience—in this case, the literature. I think it’s a way to reach some people who might not otherwise visit, but also to strengthen existing relationships. On tours, we are very interested in how people make personal connections to works of art. This is another avenue to help people build those connections.”
So, if you’re a local or a book lover on vacation, you’ll feel welcome at the MIA’s book tours which take place on first Tuesdays of every month at 11:30 a.m. and first Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. Also, for a list of what museums are reading and more information on the connection between art and literature, check out the Hol Art Books site.
Says Hegstrom, “We hope to expand titles, age groups, and partnerships in the coming year. Sometimes the subject matter and discussions can be serious, but in the end what we love to hear is, ‘Wow, that was really fun.’ “