This post is part of a series I am writing this week to explore the role of artists and artistic practice in the experimental work occurring in art museums across this country, and beyond. In order to more effectively examine the ways in which art museums have become sites for socially-engaged practice and new forms of artist-driven public engagement, I’m interested in taking some time to showcase three telling cases that have been developed in museums at a parallel moment these past few years:
- Walker Art Center’s Open Field
- Machine Project’s residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum
- Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light
Selected from more than a dozen examples of this type of practice, these three projects each have stretched and pushed their institutions in new and productive ways, opening up unanticipated, thought-provoking, exciting, and even uncomfortable ways for visitors to experience an art museum. The teams and communities involved with each of these projects have certainly walked away with their own unique ‘lessons learned’ as well as several core questions that have already led to pushing this type of practice forward at these and other institutions. Given the co-produced and co-authored nature of this type of experimental practice in museums, the text for each of these posts similarly draws in many of the voices involved at each site — quoting artists and museum staff to honor their core role in this challenging and meaningful work.
Before we begin, I have a question to ask you. To help get a sense of how many arts enthusiasts, museum professionals, and educators are aware of these types of experimental museum projects, please take a few seconds and complete the poll below. I’m going to keep this poll going for a while, so please invite your peers and colleagues to submit their own response.
Thanks for responding to the question above (BTW, the first poll ever on ArtMuseumTeaching.com — don’t worry, it’s not going to become a regular feature of my posts). Now onto the first telling case of great work being done in this area of museum practice.
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Walker Art Center’s Open Field
“What does it mean to be creative as conscious social activity—to create a commons, rather than individualizing creativity?” —artist Josh McPhee in the “Introduction” to Conversations on the Commons
Open Field is the Walker Art Center’s experiment in participation and public space. Taking place outdoors in the summer months since its launch in 2010, the project invites artists and visitors to imagine and inhabit the museum’s campus as a cultural commons—a shared space for idea exchange, creative gatherings, and unexpected interactions. The Walker’s backyard has been home to numerous planned and spontaneous activities during its three years of Open Field, including music performances, artist-in-residence projects, Internet cat video festivals, juggling lessons, Drawing Club, pickling workshops, yarn-bombing, temporary sculpture installations, a concert of people mowing the field in tandem, and so much more. The initiative began with a simple question: “What would you do in an open field?” Through this experiment in ‘letting go’ of cultural authority and control, the Walker Art Center has been pioneering in its rethinking of public gathering spaces and the role of the art museum in creating something with its public rather than simply for its public.
In addition to being an open creative space for public participation, the Walker Art Center also imagined the potential for professional artists to experiment with public practice in the commons. Working with artists and collectives who embraced their vision for public engagement and collaborative investigation, the Walker Art Center commissioned groups such as Futurefarmers, Machine Poject, and Red76 to envision and implement projects during the summer—both pushing the creative and artistic thinking about the space, as well as to model possible creative activities to the larger community (who were interested in participating, but nervous about what this might look like in the context of a contemporary art center). In the 2012 publication Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, which documented the first two years of the project, Open Field co-creator Sarah Schultz describes the vital role that these artists played:
“The socially engaged practices of these artists and the intellectual and creative rigor with which they approached the aesthetic, social, and political implications of commons-based cultural practices were crucial to project’s evolution.
“The resident artists’ openness and warmth toward the public and their willingness to allow their work to unfold alongside whatever else was happening on the hill played an important role in what Open Field would eventually become: a porous environment that blurred the lines and leveled the playing field between professional and nonprofessional artists, weekend hobbyists, and creative enthusiasts.”
As the Walker Art Center’s education and public practice staff continue to reflect upon Open Field and plan for future directions for this project, there is little doubt that they have shifted the conversation about museums, public practice, and community participation as well as the ways in which museums can collaborate with artists and artist collectives.
Did you get the chance to visit Open Field and attend any of their programs so far? What were your experiences? What is the role of a space like this at an art museum? Does it matter if anyone actually enters the museums itself? What does the future hold for projects like this? Please chime in below and add your perspective.