‘Getting In On the Act’: Exploring Participatory Arts Practice

A recent study published by the James Irvine Foundation (October 2011) entitled Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation draws insights from nonprofit arts groups and experts to explore a new model for understanding and supporting participatory arts practices, a growing trend here in the United States as well as across the globe.  Here is how the reports’ authors begin to frame this “siesmic shift” towards a participatory arts culture:

“Technology has fundamentally changed the way people interact, learn, and think about culture. Contemporary notions of creativity, shaped by Web 2.0, center on shared construction of cultural identity and an ethos of participatory experience…. The open, free and instantaneous exchange of digital content affords people the resources to control their own creative experiences and make their own meaning. Interactive experiences of all sorts are now an expected norm.” (6)

But, then the report got a lot more interesting to me…

This shift is about more than just technology. People are thinking about the experience of culture differently than in the past, placing value on a more immersive and interactive experience than is possible through mere observation…. Americans are activating their own creativity in new and unusual ways … [as] part of a larger ‘participatory economy’ in which social connection eclipses consumption. Americans want to meet the people who make our products, share in the work of the makers, and make things ourselves.” (6)

The report’s human-centered focus brings much-needed attention to the ability of the arts (and arts institutions) to connect people, to create shared experiences, and to contribute to the cultural fabric of the communities in which we live and work.

Photo by Santiago Ochoa

For art museums (and museum educators, especially), the report provides an extremely meaningful tool for reflecting on how we involve audiences in shaping their own experiences and making their own meaning. The report’s “Audience Involvement Spectrum” provides a nice, workable model for audience engagement, from “receptive” involvement (the type of spectating and educational enrichment occurring in the vast majority of arts museums) to increasingly “participatory” involvement (the types of crowd-sourcing, co-creation, and public artistic experiences that more and more art museums are slowly striving toward).

The report is worth a close read.  It asks some essential questions about arts programming in the 21st century, and I think art museums would have much to gain by thinking more about how they fit into this new landscape of active arts participation.  As museum educators, we have our hands on the wheel when it comes to programs — and the Irvine report clearly and strongly states that “attracting the next generation of audiences and visitors will require a transformation in programming” (11).  At the core of this transformation is both thinking outside the box (‘the box’ in this case being the rigid walls and traditions of art museums) and letting go of institutional and curatorial authority so that visitors can feel comfortable and empowered to shape their own creative experiences.

If you have a chance to peruse the Irvine Foundation’s report, I’d love to hear how your institution’s programs (or your own teaching philosophies) fit on their spectrum of audience involvement.  Has your institution embraced any of these aspects of participatory arts practice?  Do you value these types of creative, artistic experiences when you visit art museums yourself (or do you shy away from them for more passive types of engagement)?


11 thoughts on “‘Getting In On the Act’: Exploring Participatory Arts Practice”

  1. Your blog forum is giving me lots to think about in terms of what your (and others I met at the NAEA 2012 convention) priorities are as US museum educators in contrast to how things are in Australian art museums and my own role in a very busy, small museum. (Which from what I can gather, is very much a UK model of art museum education.)

    The Audience Involvement Spectrum diagram is terrific and I wonder where your programming sits within that model? Maybe I am imagining differences? (My programs are to the left because that’s the traditional model.) Is it practical given the constraints of working with valuable artworks and the role of the curator as interpreter of a collection of artworks (holders of meaning) and marketing departments (who control the broadcasting of meaning) for museum educators to also encourage other readings and points of view? This is a very different way of thinking about collections.

    The links you provide (on all the postings) are fantastic and I’m squirreling them away to read in more detail later. I’m also thinking about how I can open conversations about this with my (non-education) colleagues.

    Thank you!

  2. Christine – I have found the UK model of art museum education to be particularly progressive and forward-thinking, and I appreciate that they prefer the term “museum learning” to “museum education” (something I wish the US would do more of). Pushing audience & learner involvement top new participatory levels is definitely a new way of thinking about museums — as institutions not solely defined by their collections, but also defined by the people and communities who interact with and make meaning from those collection. I feel strongly that those art museums which want to propel themselves into the 21st century need to begin thinking beyond just their collections, and they need to let go of their monolithic control over meaning and interpretation.

    I’m glad that you are interested in getting the conversation started at your museum (especially with non-educators). Carve out some space where you can experiment, try some new approaches, and then bring other voices into the process. And once you try something new, write up a post for this site … and we can share your practice with others across Australia, UK, US, and beyond.

  3. Hi Mike,

    I think the use of the word ‘education’ is related to formal education institutions rather than general teaching and learning experiences available for anyone and it’s a way to manage that distinction. Dominic Willsdom, Curator of Ed & PP at SFMOMA seems to think it is a term that is worth hanging on to and it begs the question of what is the loss, if we give it up? It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as I consider my position title, Education Coordinator and would be interested to know other suggestions. (Curator/Director of Ed are not an option.) I manage the ed programming (and school holidays) and the Public Progs Coordinator manages the general public programs, the roles are very different, we each manage a team of volunteers, you call them docents.

    In Melbourne, museum educators are required (through convention) to have teacher training and possess teacher registration, so a little bit of prestige is wrapped up in that. (I can say that because I have it.) It’s not required for PP staff or through the rest of the country. Originally, Museum teachers were seconded by the Dept of Ed to work in the museum for a stint and the museum love was shared around. This means our point of view for programs and program delivery is through that of art teacher or education specialist, rather than having had an art history BA. The funding for those positions was eliminated some time ago and Dept Partnership models were created for cultural organisations to apply for grants. This has become highly competitive. (Another story there and it was well before my time.)

    The funding model for the institution also plays a role in the type of programming and ethos of the museum. In Australia much of the funding is from the govt and some from philanthropics. It’s heavily weighted the other way in the US, which I think allows for more riskier programming, when daring funders permit. Last September I was lucky enough to attend a symposium called Reprogramming the Art Museum http://www.insite-symposium.unsw.edu.au/modules/welcome/ and people seemed very surprised/gob-smacked by the programming at the US keynote speakers institutions. The museums were sites of community social interaction and participation that wasn’t always about the art, the art just happened to be there. Education and participation seemed to have a strong voice. It was very exciting and VERY different to what happens here. Kittens + Marxism = Creativity

    The differences are really interesting and one of the reasons why I’ve decided further study is for me. There seems to be very little local research. As for me speaking to non-education colleagues, thats easy, I’m the only ed staff member! I’m also not averse to risk as my school holiday program demonstrates. (See Scared-out-of-your Life Drawing, hands on snakes, lizards and a croc for life drawing.)

    Thanks for the forum, happy to contribute and ask questions.


  4. On of the best interactions in a museum I’ve ever had was at the Denver Art Museum when my kids were small (both were under 9) They had a scavenger hunt in the galleries using their permanent collection where the kids found things in the artwork; they were things they’d know easily – a small dog, a cup, etc. my kids never looked so hard at the artwork! They started looking at the details, not just the literal “big picture”. At the time, the hunt used giant plastic sleeves that held printouts of the things you were looking for. They were quite cumbersome and I remember my youngest not being able to carry his the whole time. I think now it would be so easy to do as an app or on the website to access on a smart phone, and it would bring more families in and participating with the art. There could even be a variety of topics with small discussions included.

    The finding of the items could also be put together by young people needing to do community service for school, as a scout troop, etc. I worked with both the Boy and Girl Scouts for many years and was amazed at how often this resource was overlooked. Some museums have programs for the troops to do when they get there, but few use them as a volunteer resource. Many adults assume that kids would be difficult to work with, but actually there are many who are quite wonderful and work very hard. I’d suggest in doing an outreach where kids from junior high on up can come in and help on a variety of small projects, or reaching out to local troops for bigger projects; the Eagle award for Boy Scouts or the Gold award for Girl Scouts requires a fairly large project that the museum could benefit from.

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