“By looking at the art we can talk about topics that people don’t usually like to talk about.” – Rumaisha Tasnim
“Each viewer sees the art. What you see in it is your truth, it doesn’t have to be my truth.” – Kelsey Trollinger
Recent high school graduates Rumaisha and Kelsey spent much of the past two years at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. As original members of the Nasher Teen Council (NTC), they led public programs, installed exhibitions, met artists, and created their own art. Their quotes are from artist talks they gave this month at an exhibition of work by the teens at a downtown gallery. Paintings and collages from the exhibition Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush inspired much of their work.
As they spoke about the power of art to encourage meaningful conversations and validate individual experiences, Rumaisha and Kelsey–along with the other council members–joined their voices with countless other leaders who recognize the critical role art plays in civic discourse and the growth of a community. During times of uncertainty, political upheaval, and protest, we have to seek out these voices, both past and present, which celebrate what we know to be true about the critical need for influential artists and art institutions.
John F. Kennedy, a powerful champion for the arts, stated, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.” His message, from over fifty years ago, still offers inspiration and leadership on the political role of art in a democratic society.
In a 1963 speech from Amherst College given in honor of Robert Frost, Kennedy begins with praise for the role of universities and an important reminder that “with privilege goes responsibility.” He asks the listener, “What good is a private college or university unless it’s serving a great national purpose?” He insists that the benefits and pleasures of an academic institution are not merely for the graduates to achieve individual economic advantage. Instead, he argues, the cultural agreement is that graduates must use their advantages for the public interest.
After reminding universities of their cultural obligations, Kennedy praises Frost and his poetry. More broadly, he celebrates art as a democratic institution and applauds artists as foundational to America’s greatness. He states, “For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist [. . .] becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Rather than considering artists “who question power” a threat, he welcomes their critiques as “indispensable.”
Nina Chanel Abney critically examines the world through her body of work and requires the same of her viewers. Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, her first solo museum exhibition, addresses politics, celebrity gossip, race, gender, power, and more. In it, Abney spotlights some of the most heated topics in American culture and boldly holds accountable those who misuse their power.
In The Boardroom, 2008, the nearly naked, sometimes bleeding bodies represent the financial leaders who valued profit over stability and led to economic collapse. Either depicted as clowns or wearing yellow gloves that allow them to keep their hands clean from their dirty work, Abney literally strips these men of the power and prestige often afforded to them by their business suits and corner offices.
Six years later, in a more abstracted and digital style, Abney turns her critical eye towards the issues of race, gun violence, and police brutality in the piece UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014. While her geometric “emojification” of this work differs greatly from the painterly style of The Boardroom and other earlier works, Abney still uses her platform to question societal power structures.
In his Amherst speech, JFK states, “the highest duty of [. . .] the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Abney echoes his voice in more contemporary language saying, “I like to just drop the bomb and start the conversation and then leave out the room.”
The gallery conversations that Abney starts with UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP) often include visitor descriptions of the scene as chaotic and confusing. As viewers examine the painting, patterns emerge. Visitors identify elements that remind them of pinball machines, streetlights, and the visual noise of cable news channels, the internet, and New York’s Times Square. Visitors consider her use of language. Viewers may read the simplified language, such as “POW” and “YO”, as references to digital culture and the abbreviated communications of texts and tweets. The discussion frequently shifts to Abney’s use of the “X” symbol in this piece and questions of who is a target, who is silenced, and who has a voice. Reading “FUCK T*E *OP” in the top left corner of this painting, conversations may include what language is, and is not, censored, both in her work and, more broadly, in society.
As a leading voice, Abney opens up the conversation to everybody by sharing her visual vocabulary without fully translating the meaning. Remaining intentionally ambiguous about her work, she encourages others to bring their life experiences to their viewing of the truths she depicts and create their own interpretations.
Abney’s examination of societal power structures and contemporary digital culture continues with the most recent painting in the exhibition, Catfish, 2017. Abney says of this piece, “I feel like I am combining everything here.” A monumental portrait of selfie culture, Catfish depicts provocatively positioned female figures who meet the viewer’s gaze directly and self-assuredly. Surrounding the women are dollar signs, many of Abney’s “X” symbols, and language that again reflects the brevity of the digital world. Whatever assumptions a visitor first makes about these women are questioned by the Catfish title. The term “catfish” suggests the bottom-feeding fish, as well as the practice of misrepresenting oneself online, often for financial gain. With this painting, Abney simultaneously incorporates the aesthetic of digital culture and questions how representations of self are used, or misused, within that culture.
At a time when many political and economic leaders ignore the responsibilities of privilege and dismiss the need for critical voices, artists and institutions can turn to the words of JFK for encouragement and guidance and to the contemporary artists, like Abney, doing the important work of examining societal structures. Emerging artists, like Rumaisha and Kelsey, are also adding their voices to the dialogue. They will continue the work of JFK and Abney, as well as shape the conversation in ways we cannot yet imagine.
To end his speech, JFK shares his hope for the arts saying, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” Fortunately, in many places, that America has arrived. It is imperative that we continue to seek new voices – historic and contemporary, spoken and visual – to lead the continued march forward and together.
What voices – established or emerging – are leading you today?
Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, is at the Nasher Museum through July 16, 2017. After that, it will travel to multiple locations. Go check it out!
Chicago Cultural Center: February 10 – May 6, 2018
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles: September 23, 2018 – January 20, 2019
Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase: April 7 – August 4, 2019
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About the Author
JESSICA RUHLE is Director of Education & Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
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Header Image: Ayubi Kokayi, NTC member, performs spoken word in front of The Boardroom, 2008, photo by J Caldwell.
This week, at the Portland Art Museum’s Members Night, I was asked to work with our Curator of Prints & Drawings and our Conservator to give a series of pecha kucha presentations telling the story about our museum collection coming to life. We all decided to dive into a recent exhibition on the work of Corita Kent entitled Spiritual Pop, which pulled from and enhanced the museum’s holdings of works by this inspiring artist and activist.
Kent, a nun widely known as Sister Corita, was a highly-influential artist, educator, theorist, and activist who gained international fame in the 1960s for her vibrant, revolutionary screenprints. She grew up in Los Angeles and, after high school, joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She began screenprinting in the 1950s and by the 1960s had embraced L.A.’s chaotic cityscape as a source of inspiration, transforming the mundane into inspiring and often subversive messages of hope and social justice. One critic once wrote, “Her mission seems to be to surprise us into awakening to delight.”
Kent used the element of surprise to awaken her audience to issues of social justice, in particular, world hunger. The theme of food and nourishment run throughout much of her work, including her 1965 series “Power Up,” which appropriates the slogan of Richfield Oil gasoline in combination with smaller texts from a sermon on spiritual fulfillment by activist priest Dan Berrigan.
It was Kent’s “Power Up” that really stood out in this exhibition, and reached out to visitors and our community. And for my part of our pecha kucha presentation to Members, I chose to tell the simple yet inspirational story of “Power Up.”
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When we visit an art museum, deep down inside, we’re largely seeking out creativity, beauty, joy, energy, strength, connection, even love. When we stand in front of a work of art, perhaps we’re even looking to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Corita Kent brought all of that to the museum and our community in powerful ways. Having her work on view here at the museum and seeing its deep transformative effect, I am drawn to reflect on how the power of art does spread out to a community and beyond the walls of a museum.
During the Spiritual Pop exhibition, we had dozens of programs and projects that allowed visitors to connect with her printmaking and activism—from conversations in the gallery, guest lecturers, a POWER UP evening for LGBTQ teens, and regular printmaking workshops and demos. At our Miller Family Free Day program, we invited families and children to make a print that reflected something they love about Portland or their hopes for this city. These prints were compiled into an artist-made book, and a small team of us from the museum hand-delivered it to our newest mayor, Ted Wheeler, just weeks after his inauguration. That book immediately brought him joy, and it still sits in his office as a symbol of the creativity and love of this city.
Corita Kent’s print series “Power Up” itself has been a catalyst for community connections and outreach, providing an uplifting message of social justice for so many across Portland. During the confusing, challenging, and unstable times we have found ourselves in these past several months, this single artwork became (and continues to be) a source of energy, joy, and resiliency for many.
Also during the Corita Kent exhibition, we hosted a series here at the museum called Portland Prints, featuring this city’s energetic, thriving, and innovative printmaking scene. In partnership with the amazing Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), the museum hosted a series of mini-residencies in which artists made new prints inspired by Corita Kent and Andy Warhol, and visitors could get directly engaged with printmaking. Illustrator and educator extraordinaire Kate Bingaman-Burt was one of those artists. She was immediately inspired by Corita Kent’s “Power Up,” and invited designers from around the world to submit their own “power up” drawings and illustrations.
And in they came. Power up! POWER UP! Power UP! power up! As our country neared the end of a contentious and emotional campaign season and then into the election itself, there was a tremendous thirst for “power up.”
Kate brought all these messages together into a single poster print, and here at the museum on the Friday and Saturday following the Election, she printed them.
And then printed more. And then some more. Over a day and a half, she had printed and distributed over 800 Power Up posters. These prints that now hang on office walls, cubicles, school classrooms, and people’s homes across the city (including mine). The ripple effect of Corita Kent’s activist message of love and humanity exists now in the daily lives of so many individuals.
Thanks to Kate, the Power Up message spread further through zine workshops, design events, and even awesome t-shirt designs by Michael Buchino. Just this month, our Education team decided to purchase these Power Up t-shirts as an expression of camaraderie and yet another way of keeping this uplifting energy alive.
Back in January, Kate brought her Power Up poster design to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, nearly 3000 miles away from this museum. The uplifting message of Corita Kent that had inspired our community here was now part of an even larger experience. Hundreds more of these prints were made and distributed there. The reverberations of “Power Up” were felt in our nation’s capital and as part of the millions of people who marched that day in solidarity, including over 100,000 here in Portland. Corita Kent, bless her soul, is undoubtedly looking down upon all of this with a strong sense of joy—seeing her civil rights message from 1965 resonating so strongly and proudly in 2017.
An incredible story sparked from one simple print that hung on the wall in the lower level of an art museum in Portland, Oregon.
Thank you Corita Kent.
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Note: Thanks and recognition to Kate Bingaman-Burt for many of the images and photos in this post, which came from her social media postings. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Written by Mike Murawski, Kristin Bayans, and Phillippa Pitts
This essay is part of the new MuseumsEtc book Interpreting the Art Museum, an expansive volume of 19 essays & case studies from experienced museum professionals sharing some of today’s most successful initiatives in art interpretation.
From November 2014 through April 2015, the Portland Art Museum hosted the installation of a complex, unsettling, and physically-immersive multimedia installation piece entitled The Enclave(2013) by Irish contemporary artist and photographer Richard Mosse. Consisting of six monumental double-sided screens installed in a darkened gallery, paired with a powerfully haunting soundscape, The Enclave presented a unique challenge for the Portland Art Museum’s education team as they tackled issues of interpretation, visitor reflection, and public learning.
In The Enclave, Mosse employs discontinued military film stock to document the largely overlooked humanitarian disaster in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – in which 5.4 million people have died since 1998. In a kind of advocacy of seeing, The Enclave attempts to cast this forgotten tragedy in a new spectrum of light, to make this forgotten humanitarian disaster visible. Furthermore, Mosse aims to keep the experience as open as possible, allowing viewers to bring personal experiences, memories, stereotypes, and media images to the process of making meaning with this complex work. According to Mosse:
“The work does not prescribe a set of responses, and remains ambiguous in an unsettling and seemingly irresponsible way.”
Given these expectations for ambiguity and complexity, the museum’s education team decided to construct an extended series of meaningful opportunities for visitors and staff alike to respond to and react with the installation. These opportunities encouraged personal reflection and physical engagement within the space of The Enclave and provided open pathways for further learning. Opportunities offered incorporated a range in levels of engagement from which to choose.
This case study explores the strategies used by the museum to connect a variety of visitors with this unsettling work of contemporary art. These strategies include:
an in-gallery interpretation space designed for visitor reflection and response;
printed postcards inviting visitor written responses;
While these interpretive strategies serve as the focus for this case study, the museum also partnered with the locally-based international development non-profit organization, Mercy Corps and the Mercy Corps Action Center, whose staff facilitated workshops for museum staff and docents as well as teachers and students participating in a joint school program between the museum and Mercy Corps.
In addition, the museum hosted an extensive series of public workshops and conversations which specifically encouraged open dialogue and personal reflections paired with viewing The Enclave. Throughout these interpretive strategies, our goals were to allow for open, personal, even emotional responses to the piece; to encourage visitors to physically engage with the space of the piece; and to provide pathways for further learning, especially related to the situation in the DRC.
In-gallery interpretation space
Early in the education team’s thinking about how to facilitate visitor experience with The Enclave, it became clear that visitors walking out of the installation would need a way to work through their reactions and responses. In the absence of a tour or multimedia guide, it would fall on the content of the interpretive space to empower individuals to tackle The Enclave independently. Simply entitled Reflecting on The Enclave, the in-gallery interpretation space helped visitors transition from a state of being acted upon by the exhibition’s visual and auditory forces to having the freedom and quiet to react to what had just transpired. The space did not provide visitors with the museum’s point of view or any curatorial voice. The museum remained silent and instead provided a comfortable space for visitors to have and share their own perspectives.
This small “living room” space included a love seat, cushioned armchairs, and a small end table with a bin of pencils. Housed across from the seating area were five clear acrylic holders, each of which held one deck of interpretive postcards. The front side of each card displayed a still photograph from the exhibition and the backside displayed the interpretive prompts: I saw… I heard… I felt… Five cards were placed in the rack with the photograph facing forward and one card was placed in the rack with the interpretive prompts facing forward. This arrangement indicated to visitors the card’s multi-interpretive purpose. Sitting on a pedestal directly below the cards was a clear acrylic box with a slit in the lid. Cards filled out by visitors could be seen inside the box. The nature and placement of these items invited visitors to look at, pick up, write on, and add a card to those already in the box.
Attached to the side of the box was a sign inviting visitors to See what others have shared via the project’s associated Tumblr site. This information indicated to visitors that they could read others’ responses and that their responses were aggregated into an ongoing community commentary about The Enclave extending beyond the museum.
Knowing from previous experience that cards are popular takeaways for visitors, these postcards aimed to provide visitors with an opportunity to say I saw this or I witnessed that. Therein lay one of the project’s most significant challenges. With six simultaneous screens and a 47-minute runtime, visitors emerged from The Enclave having witnessed entirely different scenarios. Some saw rolling images of stunningly beautiful landscapes. Others witnessed a funeral scene juxtaposed with a dangerous birth. A body abandoned in the grass. A sprawling internal displacement camp. Our challenge was to find the emotional or thematic touch points that could translate this immersive experience into static interpretive cards.
Our interpretive media team segmented the piece into major themes or experiences: war and conflict, the role of the photographer, nature and the sublime, Africa and the other. Cross-referencing this list with the potential photographs approved by the artist’s gallery, we chose six images that we believed could serve as touchpoints for a range of potential experiences: a sublime landscape, a military roadblock, a group of civilians, an individual soldier, a young woman, and a damaged village.
We deliberately selected images that were highly polysemic. For example, the landscape Platon echoed picturesque tropes of art history. It also could speak to environmentalism, highlight the surreal nature of the pink film stock, represent the work’s otherworldliness, or, as we saw in the response cards, embody an idea of hope. By contrast, we did not select a photograph called Madonna and Child, which featured a uniformed soldier holding a baby in the pose of the Virgin and Child. This image, while incisively poignant in highlighting the complexities of villain and victim, left little space in which the visitor could create meaning. By offering the visitor a broad range of photographs, we invited them to self-select the image that matched their experience.
Initially, we had planned to further draw out these themes through a variety of questions printed on the verso of the cards: Who is the victim and who is the villain? What is the man on the right thinking? What about the man on the left? Due to a compressed project timeline, our initial prompts were developed without the benefit of visitor testing. Therefore we used a docent training session as an ad hoc focus group.
After standing in The Enclave ourselves and observing docent educators processing their experience, we redeveloped the prompts entirely into the three, simple, sensory-based statements: I saw… I heard… I felt… These words, which were repeated over and over in the training session, were familiar to us from educational research, particularly Harvard’s Project Zero Thinking Routines, which employed them. They provided enough guidance to bolster processing and reflection, but to still afford room for a variety of responses and types of meaning making. Moreover, by splitting the prompts into bite-sized statements, we also hinted to visitors that it was OK to have a range of responses from simple to complex, and to navigate the space on the reverse of the card in whatever way they chose.
In total we printed 7,000 cards, of which around 4,000 were taken by visitors and around 500 slipped into the box in the gallery. Although each response was unique, the methods by which visitors used the cards could be categorized in three ways:
Lists: Some visitors took the prompt literally, charting what they saw, heard, and felt. They wrote in vertical columns over the words, sometimes even using lines to divide their cards into three spaces. They outlined and circled the light grey text to emphasize it. They drew lines between the printed words and their handwritten texts.
Notes to the museum: Often marked with explicit salutations to the museum or the artist, visitors used these cards to give us feedback in the form of concerns, thank you notes, and a frequent request to turn down the volume (the artist preferred the audio component of the piece to be quite loud, providing a physical experience of sound as well as of the projections).
Journaling: By making the background text light grey, we had successfully signaled to visitors that almost the entire card could be used to write or draw. Many visitors did exactly that, often writing stream of consciousness, free association, or personal reflections. Many show cross-outs and hesitations, reflecting the questioning and thinking that happened in the space. For example, one visitor wrote, “There was something about this. Something I’m not entirely sure what it was. Something about this just made my something click. All I can say is brilliant: I’m leaving with a lot to think about and a really heavy heart. But that’s what art does, right? Makes you think. Amazing.”
In terms of what the visitors wrote, we saw five overall themes emerge from the visitor responses:
Peace on Earth: Visitors who shared prayers, wishes, and hopes for those involved in the conflict. This was, interestingly, often correlated to the image Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. In this case, visitors took the opportunity to speak directly to the woman depicted: “Sorry adout the war” [sic] or “Plz be safe.”
Cynicism and despair: Although there were uplifting moments in The Enclave, the artist did not shy away from depicting violence, destruction, and conflict. This response was almost a direct inverse of those in the first category.
Intellectual connections: These visitors related The Enclave to their prior knowledge of politics, literature, and film, bringing in comparisons to Kubrick, Heart of Darkness, Invisible Children, and others. As we know, adults learn by relating new ideas to their existing matrices of knowledge and experience. In this way, we saw them working through The Enclave, demonstrating learning and engagement as well as an interest in thematically related topics.
Self-absorbed artists: Many visitors attacked the piece, challenging the validity and morality of a white artist receiving accolades and making money by speaking for black communities and “capturing” images of black bodies.
Descriptive processing: Many visitors did not attempt to reach conclusions. They listed what they saw, heard, and felt, sometimes filling the entire card just with descriptive words.
The Tumblr blog site was where all these varied responses came together. It provided a trans-temporal community in which viewers could find echoes of their own experience in the words of others. With over 100 posts shared on the site, it also provided a broader view of the museum audience (and the city of Portland) as a whole responding and reacting to The Enclave. Like the in-gallery interpretive space, the Tumblr site was designed to be as simple as possible both aesthetically and functionally. Visitors scrolled through back-to-back cards: image, comment, image, comment. As an institution, we provided no annotation or categorization. The cards were posted in a random order, free to complement or contradict their neighbors. Even the introductory text was completely neutral:
While The Enclave is on view at the Portland Art Museum, visitors are invited to reflect upon this immersive experience and share their thoughts with the museum. These are some of their thoughts.
Framed in this way, the site offered visitors validation. The museum posted, without comment or hierarchy, every type of response: those who called out Richard Mosse as a “selfabsorbed artist”; those who wrote only one or two words; and those who made spelling or grammatical errors. Viewed together, the stream emphasizes that there is no single interpretation or meaning for this work and that, in the museum’s eyes, no one viewer’s voice is more important or correct than the others’.
This approach carried inherent risks. As a department, we were committed to posting all responses, and yet aware that, given the racially charged nature of the work, we might encounter hate speech or other offensive content. There were cards that we did post that were difficult to endorse, such as one which read:
The people in this area of the continent are guided by superstition fed by rage and terror. No education or very little. No chance, no changes, no hope – only renewed conflict + murder.
Overall, however, we had only one card that we chose not to share because of its references to suicide.
In five months, our Tumblr site received a little over 1,000 page views: 10% of visitors viewed between ten and twenty response cards in a visit; 5% viewed between 30 and 40; 30% returned to the site at least once and 180 began following the museum on Tumblr. Even months after the exhibition has closed, we still gain new followers and see new reposts. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is the fact that no one card has emerged as the most shared or iconic image from the project. Although a few Tumblr users reblogged a batch of cards at once, most chose one or two, frequently non-sequential cards, to share with their followers. As virtual visitors, they selected from the diversity of responses offered, to find the few that resonated with them as individuals.
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“My intention with this work was to create a dilemma in the viewer’s heart. If some viewers were struck by the beauty of war – and sometimes war is beautiful – then, I hoped, those viewers would then be appalled by their response: by taking aesthetic pleasure from someone’s misery, pain, or death. And in that moment, perhaps they might stand back from themselves in the act of perceiving – take a moment to think.” – Richard Mosse
As contemporary art continues to challenge museum visitors in a variety of ways, it is important for museums to carefully reflect on the ways in which visitors will experience and respond to unsettling, immersive, complex, and socially-relevant works of art. In our experiences with The Enclave, having a set of interpretive strategies that allowed for individualized reflection as well as collective sharing allowed for a more meaningful experience for many visitors. The opportunities for personal reflection and extended learning offered by the museum for The Enclave have helped to anchor the museum as a museum ofits place, not just a museum in its place – and these experiences might provide guidance to other museums as they plan interpretation around similarly complex contemporary art.
KRISTIN BAYANS: Interpretive Media Specialist at the Portland Art Museum, where she works cross-departmentally to create mobile, web, and in-gallery learning experiences for special exhibitions, the museum’s permanent collection, and the Object Stories project. Previously, Kristin served as Senior Educator in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Vernier Technology Lab and as an Assistant Educator for the Smithsonian’s Mobile Learning Institute. She holds an MA in Museum Studies from George Washington University and an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
MIKE MURAWSKI: Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum. Murawski earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as head of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.
PHILLIPPA PITTS: Associate Educator for Gallery Learning at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, where she oversees interpretive media, adult learning, and participatory gallery spaces. Prior to this position in Maine, Phillippa served as the Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, Lecturer and Gallery Instructor at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and built apps and games in museums around the country. Phillippa holds an MA in Art History and Museum Studies from Tufts University.
Reposted from the Getty Museum’s website and The Getty Iris online magazine. Special thanks to Sarah Cooper and Annelisa Stephan at the Getty, as well as artist Julia Sherman, for allowing me to repost this content about such an inspiring, creative, and experimental project.
Presented by artist and writer Julia Sherman, creator of the popular blog Salad for President, the Getty Salad Garden is conceived as a dynamic platform for conversations, drawing together a wide variety of creative voices. Like the format of her blog, Sherman will invite a range of artists and creative guests to join her in harvesting and making salads, emphasizing that the simple act of cooking together can be the catalyst for fascinating conversations and a fruitful creative exchange. Through sharing their artistic and culinary interests and the surprising ways they intersect, the conversations reveal the potential for a simple salad to invigorate our creative lives. Throughout the fall, the Getty Salad Garden will serve as an unexpected, playful space for investigations into the historical material on display in the galleries, infusing it with contemporary perspectives.
For the project, Sherman collaborated with urban gardeners Farmscape Gardens, and art-historian-turned-landscape-architect David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape. Together they have designed a garden which thoughtfully responds to the Getty Center’s architecture and landscape, and utilizes rare seeds, including 19th-century varietals, that help preserve agricultural and culinary heritage. The garden will be drip-irrigated, using dramatically less water than a lawn requires.
The Getty Salad Garden will support a variety of projects documenting the salads and conversations Sherman has with exciting members of Los Angeles’s artistic community. Through student workshops, intermittent public hours, and small gatherings, the Getty Salad Garden explores the unique way gardens inherently foster community, and hopes to inspire new encounters between visitors, artists, gardeners, cooks, museum staff, and works of art.
An Interview with Julia Sherman of Salad for President (from The Getty Iris)
During Julia’s latest salad exploration adventure in Japan, where she sampled dishes with myoga wild ginger flower, ponzu dipped sea grapes, and fried lotus root, Sarah Cooper (Public Programs Specialist, Getty Center) spoke with her about how the Getty Salad Garden came to be and how the simple salad managed to get her vote.
What led you to create Salad for President?
In 2011, I had finished my MFA at Columbia University, and I was forging along, pursuing shows and residencies and paying a fortune for a studio on the fifth floor of a storage facility under the Manhattan Bridge. My space was sandwiched between a CrossFit gym and a 24-hour energy distributor, so you can imagine I was not feeling surrounded by “community.”
My husband started a Tumblr for me called Salad for President, urging me to catalogue my obsessive cooking, gardening, and hosting. These were the creative things I was doing without preoccupation, the equivalent of a sketchbook for most artists. There came a point where I finally admitted that I wasn’t inspired in the studio; I wanted to be in my kitchen or garden, making that which I knew exactly how to share. So I taught myself how to take photos of food, and I started inviting myself over to the homes and studios of all the salad-loving artists I knew. The energy I brought to the project was immediately contagious, and so it became a garden, a book, a cocktail syrup, and a soon a perfume. The open-endedness for me is the best part. Salad is a platform for me.
I read that you think making a salad is similar to making art in that it requires assembling various colors, textures, and sensory elements. Yet salads are not art. Why do you make this connection?
I think you could make an argument that a salad could be art if the maker wanted it to be, but for me, salad as an art object is not really the point. I am more interested in practice and dialogue, an artist’s approach to the entirety of their world, not just their finished works. If I were to call the salad itself a work of art, it would no longer feel like a casual gift, something I can so easily give to others. It’s not meant to be exhibited but consumed, and then reimagined the very next day.
What have been your favorite salad sessions?
Some of the best salad sessions have come from those who don’t identify as cooks. Sina Najafi—editor in chief of Cabinet Magazine—and Nina Katchadourian—one of my favorite artists—used the materials of their salad to make a tribute to Rafael Nadal, their favorite tennis player. They constructed a tiny tennis court out of pine nuts and chives, and we got so deep into the topic that it eventually turned into a potent lesson on role models and the importance of finding inspiration outside your given discipline.
If you had to choose a salad recipe that best reflects your own creative outlook, what would it be?
I always go back to the Greek salad, because I am fascinated by its staying power—I have never met a contemporary twist on a Greek salad that I preferred. In all creative pursuits, it is important to know when not to innovate but to instead appreciate things just the way they are. This is a trait I appreciate most in art—think of Bruce Nauman or the Fluxus artists. Things don’t have to complicated to be good.
What artists have been important for you throughout your career?
I have been very fortunate to have mentors whose work I admire. When I was in college, I identified with the work of Janine Antoni. I had the chance to work with her in grad school and assist her briefly, and she taught me about work-life balance, prioritizing, and taking risks. She has been making sculpture and installation successfully for over 20 years. Later she found her passion in dance and was not afraid to pursue that. That, to me, is what it means to be a great artist.
Same for Jon Kessler and Dike Blair, who have been painfully honest about the peaks and valleys of the art world and their own careers. We are all just trying to figure it out, over and over again, and it is so valuable to hear that from those who are succeeding. The art world is not a cult where you find your place and claim it; rather, we are just a roaming community of restless makers looking for a way to keep pushing ourselves.
Last year you created a salad garden on the roof of MoMA PS1 in New York. Why is it important to you to present Salad for President in the context of a museum?
The art world will always be my home, and I think it is crucial that I root my thinking there. A project like this, as innocuous as it might seem, asks some critical questions of both the visitors and the museum itself, the artists who show their work there, and the people who make the museum happen. How are you supposed to use the space and who does it belong to? How can a museum be an active place of engagement? How can it activate the imagination of the public?
For me, the garden is both familiar and strange—a place that allows for an ease of curiosity, discovery, and dialogue amongst the experienced gardener and the total novice alike. This mirrors the ideal engagement one should have at the museum.
For the Getty Salad Garden, you’ve brought in two collaborators: David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape and Farmscape Gardens. How did you meet these collaborators and bring them into the project?
David Godshall and I are old friends. He approaches everything he does with the utmost intention and respect. I knew that if we were to make a garden at the Getty, it would have to be beautifully designed and sensitive to its surroundings. So David created a really smart Tetris configuration, which was an elegant and cost effective solution to a functional garden. It’s also one that he sees as a midway point between the Getty Center’s architecture and Central Garden.
When I was in Los Angeles about six months ago, Gillian Ferguson, the producer of the radio show Good Food, wrote an article about Salad for President for Los Angeles Magazine in which I alluded to my plans to make my next salad garden in Los Angeles. Lara Hermanson of Farmscape Gardens reached out to me, offering to plant and manage a garden if I were to make it happen.
I consider myself the ultimate amateur gardener, but for a project of this scale, I could never have done it without the expertise of Lara’s staff, Dan Allen and Ariel Chesnutt, who spend all day creating and maintaining public and private vegetable gardens in California.
Why did you want to realize the second iteration of your garden project in Los Angeles?
I moved to Los Angeles with my partner, Adam Katz, in 2007, and he and I started a project space in the front of my studio called Workspace. It really served a need of our community of artists, just finding their way after school, not yet showing their work in commercial galleries. It was there that I found my place as an organizer, a host, a facilitator of artists’ projects. I am grateful to Los Angeles and its artists for their energy at that time.
I later moved back to New York for grad school, but I’ve always maintained a life in L.A. I also learned to garden here, so it seemed only right to make the next salad garden in the place where so many of my fundamental ideas came together.
Bringing people together and sharing their stories seems to be the central impulse of Salad for President. What is it about salads and gardens that make them such great connectors?
I’ve discovered that the intimacy of salad and the garden unlocks a world of people I admire. We are all trying to figure out how we can live our lives better, more honestly, more fully. What better way to spark a conversation about those big ideas than to start with something small?
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This season, Julia Sherman is in residence at the Getty Salad Garden, growing, harvesting, and cooking alongside members of Los Angeles’s artistic community. Through student workshops, intermittent public hours, and small gatherings, the Getty hopes the simple salad will inspire new encounters between visitors, artists, gardeners, cooks, museum staff, and works of art.
Written by PJ Policarpio, Brooklyn-based community engager, educator, and curator
Last summer I was invited by Dixon Place to organize an exhibition of visual art in conjunction with HOT! Festival: NYC’s Celebration of Queer Culture, the world’s pioneering and longest-running LGBTQ Art Festival featuring visual and performance art.
Working with co-curator Beck Feibelman, we organized Visualizing Queerness: 7 Contemporary Artists, bringing together work by seven artists—Ana Benaroya, Zen Browne, Tinker Coalescing, Machine Dazzle, Sara Lautman, André Singleton and King Texas —who sought to represent themselves and their circles with a combination of respect, wit, dignity, defiance, and glamour, defying queer stereotypes and characters. They created beautiful and dynamic images of communities either on or just under the surface, displaying clarity of vision and boldness of expression that are important to the work of making their communities visible and powerful. As they should be.
This year’s exhibition, RALLY: Queer Art and Activism, will focus on art defined by an atmosphere of social unrest and violence across the country and its impact on art and art making for queer artists. We are interested in the varied aesthetic approaches to resist, protest, and address widespread injustices against vulnerable communities. See more information about the Open Call for Artists below.
OPEN CALL to LGBTQ Artists – RALLY: Queer Art and Activism
Exhibition dates: July 2015 – August 2015 in New York City
The oldest annual LGBTQ festival in the world has been a pioneer of queer arts and culture for over 20 years. An inspiration for other queer festivals across the globe, HOT! Festival offers an artistic refuge to so many passionate voices in our community.
DIXON PLACE, a laboratory for artists since 1986, is dedicated to supporting the creative process by presenting original works of theater, dance, music, puppetry, circus arts, literature & visual art at all stages of development. Challenging artists and audiences, this local haven encourages and inspires artists of all stripes and callings, and places special emphasis on the needs of women, people of color, seniors, youth and LGBTQ artists. Dixon Place is located at 161A Chrystie Street, Lower East Side, NYC.
Exhibition curators: Beck Feibelman and PJ Gubatina Policarpio
Restrictions: Original works on paper, photography, paintings, and mixed media works are eligible.
Submission deadline: June 14, 2015
Exhibition dates: July – August 2015
Opening reception: TBD
Submission info: To be considered for this exhibition, email images of original art, portfolio or website to: firstname.lastname@example.org by June 14, 2015.
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Editor’s Note:While ArtMuseumTeaching.com is typically not a space for Event Postings, Calls for Papers, Calls for Artists, or Job Postings, I wanted to share this Open Call for Artists from AMT contributor PJ Policarpio. PJ was involved in the first-ever Museum Teaching Throwdown, an amazingly high energy event back in 2014 which brought together about 80 museum educators around ideas of experimentation and risk-taking. PJ’s artistic and professional practices span across the arts and culture sector, including work with the Brooklyn Museum and Queens Museum. His drive to curate and pull together projects like Visualizing Queerness and the exhibition at this year’s HOT! Festival is inspiring, and worth supporting and sharing through the ArtMuseumTeaching community. Please share this with any LGBTQ artists that you have connections with, or, if you are in New York in July and August, I invite you to attend this exhibition.
Open Engagement is an annual international conference and gathering that focuses on social practice and socially-engaged art. For several years, the conference was hosted here in Portland, Oregon, and I was fortunate enough to attend the 2013 conference which linked up with the Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light event and the partnership our museum has with Portland State University’s Art & Social Practice program.
The conference was founded by artist and educator Jen Delos Reyes, who leads the planning and programming for each year’s Open Engagement. In 2014, the conference moved from Portland to Queens (sniffle, sniffle), and was co-presented by the Queens Museum and A Blade of Grass, and took place at the Queens Museum, New York Hall of Science, the Queens Theater, Immigrant Movement International, and various locations around New York in May.
The 2013 conference brought artists, thinkers, activists, and museum professionals from across the continent, and there were some tremendous conversations about the role of museums in social practice art, and the role of social practice art and artists in museums. We left with more questions than we had answers (which is actually a good thing — it means we’re not fooling ourselves that we have this all figured out).
To ramp up to the 2013 conference, Delos Reyes and conference organizers invited 100 contributors from the field to reflect on 100 questions collectively generated at the closing session of Open Engagement 2013. Each contributor wrote a short blog post, published online in rapid succession prior to the start of the conference. I was invited to write a short response to question #97: “Who stands to benefit from this work?” Below is my response — and I encourage you to read all 100 contributors respond to all 100 questions. And I invite your thoughts below — who do you think benefits from social practice and socially-engaged art, whether related to museums (as in my response) or out in the community?
“Who stands to benefit from this work?”
Originally published online at Open Engagement blog, February 9, 2014
I know that museums are not new players in the game of social practice and socially-engaged art, yet we are constantly coming back to the core questions about the value of this work. Who benefits? Who needs to benefit, especially if we are to sustain support for these types of artist-driven projects and programs? Does this work offer any long-term benefits to a museum’s communities, rather than just involving communities at the benefit of the museum? Are there any benefits at all? Do there need to be? The answers to these questions are so varied, localized, and subjective, but let me take a very quick stab at this from my perspective in museums—only a slice of the myriad responses that exist to this larger question.
While I recognize that museums only play one part in the larger developments of social practice art in recent years, these institutions do serve as major sites of public engagement with artists and their work. Far more than that, museums and social practice artists are working together to transform engagement and tap into the potential that museums have for experiences other than passive spectating. People today increasingly refuse to be passive recipients of what museums offer, and more and more institutions are working with artists in ways that expand far beyond simply placing their works on the walls. Instead, museums are inviting artists to bring their socially-engaged practice to bear on creating experiences that actively engage our public(s) and challenge them to rethink museums.
While these projects frequently meet resistance from within the museum institution for seeming frivolous or without intellectual content, this work largely succeeds in transforming museums into open spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity for our communities. Why?
Because of the involvement of artists.
Because of the process (complex and messy) of co-creation and collaborative thinking that can happen among museum staff, artists, and the public in these contexts.
Because of the potential for socially-engaged artists to pull people out of their everyday experience, break them from the familiar, and give them something to think about.
In describing his early discovery of the value of punk rock, Fugazi frontman and DIY punk guru Ian MacKaye uses this analogy:
“if you’re raised eating steak and potatoes every night and that’s dinner, when you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, you don’t know what’s in front of you. You just can’t recognize it. The thing is that not only is it good, it’s probably better for you.”
I think museums have a great deal to gain if they more frequently think of themselves like this Vietnamese restaurant, making a break with the business-as-usual ‘steak and potatoes’ experience. As Nina Simon once remarked, art museums are the least likely to empower their own staff to experiment in these ways, but the most likely to bring in artists to do this social/participatory work. So museums (as institutions, but more importantly as people) and their communities stand to benefit from working with social practice and socially-engaged artists as we work toward creatively expanding the menu of what’s possible.
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Header Image: Tom Finkelpearl sharing some of the questions generated at the final event of Open Engagement 2013. Photo: John Muse, openengagement.info
“Art is a space, which we have created, where we can cease to subscribe to the demands and the rules of society; it is a space where we can pretend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.”—Pablo Helguera
As museums face the current challenges to drive relevance through becoming more active, participatory, responsive, and community-based, projects such as the ones explored in this past week’s posts indicate a potentially transformative role for artists to play. Whether rethinking a museum’s visitor experience, reinventing the public spaces of and around museums, drawing on creative practice to break museums’ ‘old habits,’ or interrogating the internal culture and working of the museum, artists are effectively exploring museum institutions as sites with a distinct “possibility for evolution,” to reconnect with the powerful words from Joseph Beuys that opened this series of posts (and from which the title of my paper came).
This final excerpt from my paper presented as part of the International Museum Forum in South Korea in October 2013 discusses the artist-driven program I am directly involved in here at the Portland Art Museum. In addition, I’m concluding this post with some of the “core, burning questions” that institutions involved in this work are addressing — especially as many of these projects are in a current phase of reflection and rethinking.
Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light
“Art and everyday life share a common and continuous border. They coexist in the same reality, divided and defined by a border that twists, turns, open and closes. The edges of the museum are part of that border, and like the imaginary line between any contested territories, this boundary does not completely reflect the reality on the ground.” —Paul Ramirez Jonas (“An Imaginary Line,” Shine a Light 2013 program)
At the same time that the team at the Walker Art Center was preparing to launch Open Field and Machine Project had recently experimented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which preceded their work at the Hammer Museum), the Education team at the Portland Art Museum began conversations with the faculty in Art & Social Practice at neighboring Portland State University around similar types of experimentations. The immediate outcome of this collaboration was Shine a Light, a new annual one-night event at the Portland Art Museum dedicated to experimentation, play, and participation. Emerging out of a collaboration between the museum and Portland State University’s MFA program in Art & Social Practice, Shine a Light invited the MFA program’s faculty and students to propose a series of projects that would experiment in and with the Museum space — conceiving the museum as a laboratory for ideas and interventions. As Christina Olsen, then Director of Education and Public Programs at the museum, recounts:
“Over lunch one day, I began to talk with Harrell Fletcher and Jen Delos Reyes—co-directors of PSU’s Art & Social Practice program—about the the ‘habits of mind’ that govern both museum visitors and museum staff, and ways we might collaborate to expand such mindsets” (Shine a Light 2010).
Inspired by the Machine Project’s Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art one-day event in November 2008 as well as the broader approach and process of social practice art, the team at the Portland Art Museum and PSU launched the first Shine a Light event in September 2009. For six hours, the museum was a space in which sixteen artists enacted projects that offered visitors new, unanticipated, playful and provocative ways to experience the museum. The goals established during this first event—which have remained the core goals for this project up through the most recent Shine a Light event in 2013—included:
Situate art (producing, interpreting, enjoying, puzzling over) as a living activity that everyone can participate in.
Encourage an atmosphere of participation between the museum, its visitors, and artists.
Make the museum a “site” of artistic production and practice.
Inspire inquiry into the connection between art and everyday life.
Artist-led projects that have been part of Shine a Light since 2009 have ranged from live Greco-Roman nude wrestling, a museum cookbook, dead artist seances, and haircuts inspired by artworks in the collection to inviting visitors to have a work of art tattooed onto their body, to sing songs about a work of art, or to display their personal cell phone photos within the museum’s photography collection. Here is a video compilation that features projects from Shine a Light 2013:
Since the project’s launch in 2009, the annual Shine a Light event has brought together more than 9,000 participants to actively engage in a total of 88 artist-driven projects spread across the entire museum campus, successfully cultivating a younger “millennial” audience as well as encouraging existing audiences to rethink what is possible in an art museum. In its four iterations, Shine a Light has built a unique framework to work closely with emerging and professional artists and to provide an ongoing platform for the Museum, artists, and audiences to actively learn and experiment with one another.
In her introduction to the 2013 Shine a Light event program, Associate Director of Education & Public Programs Stephanie Parrish encapsulates much of the museum’s current thinking about this experimental project:
“In its ideal form, a program like Shine a Light is a platform that nudges us to wonder; to consider art museum spaces as flexible sites where one’s identity as an artist, an institution, or a member of the public is increasingly fluid…. We find ourselves in a hybrid zone, somewhere on a continuum where museums not only display but also produce art, where artists shape and are shaped by institutions and are not just pitted against them, and where multiple publics see themselves as participants in and reflected through the art. Shine a Light is a space where we co-produce museum experiences and adjust our perspective of where art, artists, and institutions intersect in our everyday lives.” (Shine a Light 2013 program, 1).
Raising Core Questions
During the 2013 Open Engagement conference — an international gathering of artists, educators, curators, and scholars in the field of social practice and socially-engaged art—one of the panel sessions entitled “Art Museums and Social Practice: Where Are We Now?” brought together nearly a dozen museum professionals and artists engaged in this type of practice within their own institutions. Facilitated by the Shine a Light team at the Portland Art Museum, the thinking around this panel session began months in advance by having museum professionals and artists define the ‘burning questions’ that were core to their own involvement with this practice in museums. After gathering ten pages filled with questions, the group was invited to “crowd-source” the most urgent questions by marking the questions most relevant to their own practice.
At the Open Engagement panel discussion, the top questions were revealed and discussed, and I think perhaps it is an appropriate way to end this paper by simply presenting these and other questions that are now sparking some open thinking in the field across institutions.
Are we doing this work to broaden our audiences or to serve existing audiences?
What’s the difference between an artist doing this work versus a public engagement or education department doing it?
What does success look like? How do we measure success?
What happens when institutions collaborate with artists? How can the questions artists ask reshape us as practitioners and reshape the museum itself?
Many of the answers to these and other questions are localized to each project and institution (some have even been addressed above by existing projects), yet certainly some common responses will emerge as institutions push ahead with experimental, participatory practices that open the spaces of museums to the work of social practice and socially-engaged artists, as well as museum staff that have been gaining a tremendous level of creative capacity through this type of work. Overall, many of these core questions bring the conversation back to the ability of these socially-engaged, participatory projects to effect change — whether that is shifting the ‘mindset’ for museum visitors as well as the communities that engage with museums, or a more broad social change felt in the community.
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.
Open Fieldis 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.
I was honored to have been invited to participate as a speaker at the forum, presenting in the area of “Social Responsibilities and Roles of Museums for Participation, Communication, and Change.” I took this opportunity to spend time thinking more about the role that artists play in museums working toward a more participatory, public, and social practice. At the Portland Art Museum in 2013, we were entering our fifth year of collaborating with social practice artists, and our “Shine a Light” program has been developing in parallel with (and informed by) several other such programs across the country. For the international audience at Yeongwol, I chose to take a few steps back and reflect on the importance of artists in the experimental work of museums, bringing to the foreground projects at the Walker Art Center, Hammer Museum, and Portland Art Museum. Below is an excerpt from my paper (you can view my presentation slides here), and I have followed-up with individual posts focusing on each of these three institutions as well as some core questions that emerge as institutions push ahead with experimental, participatory practices that open the spaces of museums to the work of social practice and socially-engaged artists.
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“Art is the only possibility for evolution, the only possibility to change the situation in this world.” —Joseph Beuys
In a rapidly transforming world of social media, massive open online learning, and increasing demands for active participation and collaborative engagement, museums have been faced with the challenge of redefining their public practice. As Graham Black states in his recent book Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012), “people today increasingly refuse to be passive recipients of whatever governments, companies, or cultural institutions such as museums offer” (3). Instead, museums need to engage with users as active participants, contributors, and collaborators, continuing to change and take on new meanings and roles as society continues to transform itself. Nina Simon’s pivotal book The Participatory Museum (2010) firmly established the need to develop a more participatory mindset and to reconnect with audiences through diverse forms of participatory experiences—a text that has remained at the core of conversations about this element of museum practice since it’s publication, in part due to Simon’s widely-read blog Museum 2.0. However, the broader arts and culture sector in the United States has also seen this shift occurring.
The 2011 study published by the James Irvine Foundation entitled Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups Are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation draws insights from a much wider field of nonprofit arts groups and experts to explore a new model for understanding and supporting active, participatory practices. The Irvine Foundation report suggests that “the value of the arts in this participatory culture is its ability to connect people through shared experiences and to contribute to vibrant, livable communities.” The report’s human-centered focus brings much-needed attention to the value of the arts—and especially arts institutions such as museums—to connect people, to create shared social experiences, and to contribute to the cultural fabric of the communities in which we live and work.
Over the past few years, the Irvine Foundation’s Arts Innovation Fund has supported arts organizations across California—including 7 art museums—to experiment with innovative projects geared toward achieving new relevance for audiences, communities, and artists. One example of such a project is the Public Engagement Artist in Residence program at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Outside the boundaries of the museum’s traditional curatorial operations, this recently developed initiative brings artists together with museum staff in a collaborative process to investigate public engagement and, according to artist Mark Allen, to open up a more exciting and fundamental challenge:
“to rethink the way museums operate and to propose changes that would make the museum as an institution better attuned to contemporary art practices” (Machine Project Hammer Report, 12).
The Hammer Museum is now one of several institutions bringing artists and artistic practice into their efforts to become more audience-centered, community-based, and participatory. As artists gain more creative input in museums and activate museum spaces and publics in new, unexpected ways, it is important to take a closer look at these emerging experimentations and consider their place in the evolving practice of museums.
ARTISTS EXPERIMENTING IN ART MUSEUMS
“I don’t think ideas are very valuable in themselves. It’s only in the doing of the idea that you learn anything, or anything interesting happens.”—Mark Allen, Machine Project Hammer Report
Experimental work in museums has been a growing topic of conversation among museum professionals, and an increasing number of institutions have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects that consider the roles of art, artists, and visitors from a fresh perspective. As part of this shift in museums, more and more institutions are working with artists in ways that expand far beyond simply placing their works on the walls, instead inviting artists to bring their artistic practice to bear on creating experiences that actively engage visitors and, in many cases, also interrogate the role of the museum within their community. While they frequently meet resistance from within the museum institution for seeming frivolous or without intellectual content, these projects largely succeed (because of the involvement of artists) in transforming museums into open spaces of curiousity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity. In writing about the November 2012 panel discussion entitled “Do We Need Artists in Art Museums?” held at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Annelisa Stephan aptly remarks:
“Inviting artists into the institution … has ramifications far beyond any individual project. Including artists means taking risks and ceding control; it means changing how museum staff work together; and it even means shifting what a museum is, from a space for art to a space of art.”
During the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting, a group of museum experts including Maria Mortati (independent exhibit developer), Sarah Schultz (Walker Art Center), Susan Diachisin (Dallas Museum of Art), and Stephanie Parrish (Portland Art Museum) came together to address some of the issues and questions surrounding experimental projects in art museums, thinking about public practice as well as working with socially-engaged artists. This important session explored how to support, realize, and engage with a variety of experimental projects, leaving attendees—and the entire museum community—with an “An Elastic Manual for Experimental Museum Projects.” Thinking critically about why art museums would do this type of work, they laid out a series of key statements supporting projects driven by these artistic practices; among them were:
It will expand your role in the community: the work is more social and each project appeals to different audiences. It relies on networks inside and outside the museum to function and therefore has a greater reach.
It pushes all departments: it innovates all areas of the museum, by engaging them in the art-making.
It is the closest thing so far to working in line with how artists create.
You are furthering a conversation with contemporary work: these projects directly engage with new art forms.
In a March 2013 article entitled “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture,” New York Times arts writer Randy Kennedy examines the recent rise of social practice art and its connection with museums. “Its practitioners,” states Kennedy, “freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system.” As he notes, social practice artists more frequently find themselves in dialogue with museums through the education and programs departments rather than through the traditional curatorial route — this would be true of the institutions and projects described here. In an interview with Helen Reed, Artist and educator Pablo Helguera discussed how institutions, and education departments more specifically, can provide some safety to these types of socially-engaged projects. He suggests that:
“the reason why education departments appear to be very welcoming and very appropriate for this kind of stuff is because they are designed for people. Education is about people and about visitors and they are adjusted to the porosity of social relationships.”
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A series of subsequent posts (see links below) shed some light on 3 projects that are working to redefine how art museums work with artists and their publics via a new form of participatory practice. And be thinking about some of these core questions as you read this series of posts, which will end by grappling with some of the challenges:
What happens when institutions collaborate with artists?
How can the questions artists ask reshape us as practitioners and reshape the museum itself?
What’s the difference between an artist doing this work versus an education department doing it?
What does success look like? How do we measure success?
Header Image: Photo of “The Serenades” from https://publicwondering.wordpress.com, taken at Portland Art Museum during a Shine a Light event. The Serenades were a series of performances by Portland based musicians for the Shine A Light event at the Portland Art Museum. Artist Ariana Jacob invited each musician to compose an original piece of music specifically for an artwork of their choice from the museum’s permanent collection. The performances explored and modeled creating direct and personal relationships with visual artworks using different forms of music, including pop, electronic, spoken-word/hip hop and classical. Original songs written and performed by: Mirah; Joe Preston of Thrones; Honey Owens of Valet; Khaela Maricich of The Blow; Christopher Doulgaris of Hooliganship & Jonathan Sielaff and Drew Slum, Terms None & Blacque Butterfly.