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.
* * *
Header Image: Tom Finkelpearl sharing some of the questions generated at the final event of Open Engagement 2013. Photo: John Muse, openengagement.info
The above phrase is written in bold on the back of a postcard handed out after every tour; Museum Hack believes it, and thinks you should too. The company is not associated with the museum, rather they are a band of renegade lovers of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that call themselves Museum Hack.
Museum Hack, at its core, seeks to get people excited about museums. While a simple thought, and common mission for all educators, it’s a complicated formula. I’ve been working as a Hacker for the past few months, leading tours with Creative Director and Chief Hacker Mark Rosen. Small in size but big in energy, Museum Hack tours are two-hour jaunts, breaking the massive museum down into individual experiences with works of art. Working with the mindset that museums should be treated like fine dining – experiences not to overindulge in – Museum Hack encourages visitors to savor the works that resonate and ignore the urge to see it all. Tours incorporate inquiry, storytelling, movement, tour guide swaps, photo challenges, power moves, and a little sass to shake up the traditional museum visit.
Essentially, the company tries to humanize museums and art. The museum is treated like an old friend you can’t wait to see again, as tours highlight the personality of the collection in an attempt to turn even the most skeptical visitor into a Met fan. As one of the largest museums in the world, the Met is daunting to even the most seasoned visitor. With that in mind, Museum Hack decided to hack in an effort to provide the kind of tasting menu that keeps visitors coming back.
Here’s a perfect example: after teaching a group about accession numbers at the beginning of the tour, and how to use them to access the Met’s online collection, I had a group using them to figure out provenance about a work – without my prompting. Before the tour, many if not all of them had no idea what the decimal number on the label was. How empowering is that to a visitor?
How is this different from other tours? Museum Hack supplements the expected lecture-based or dialogue-focused museum tour with the kind of teaching you’d expect on the best high school tour ever given, but on speed. This fearless approach to museum education is a huge part of the success of this barely five-month-old company. Tours are also $39 per person (in keeping with private tour costs in New York City) and group size is kept to a maximum of 9 participants. Thinking less tour and more adventure, Museum Hack aims to provide visitors with an experience worth every penny.
Museum Hack is not affiliated with the Met. The Met is aware of the company, as evidenced in a Wall Street Journal piece and multiple news segments filmed on-site. As a Hacker, there have been a few times I’ve been shushed, but I’ve also been shushed in museums that employ me. A large part of the ‘why’ Museum Hack exists is the passion about the Met – everyone truly believes it is an incredible museum, and wants to share that enthusiasm.
* * * * *
The Why & How of Museum Hack
Written by Mark Rosen
Why We Hack
Museum Hack was founded largely with museum skeptics in mind, those folks who know museums are important but don’t find them all too intellectually sexy. I often drop the line “people have been people since they’ve been people” while on tour to draw attention to how relateable the objects can be once you snap out of the usual museum-going mentality. While with us, we encourage visitors to be their real selves, and empower them to feel like they don’t have to change to fit the space.
We believe museums are SO much more than their highlights. That said, it seems most visitors come to institutions like the Met and end up resorting to a highlights checklist or squeezing it all into one frenzied visit. We believe museums really start to mean something when you’re motivated to hunt for what speaks to you. We’re hoping to inspire people to start to reexamine what it means to be cultured; visiting in a “got the postcard” kind of way is something, but wanting to be active and inquisitive in a visit is our idea of next level.
How We Hack
Hacking, in all of its buzzword glory, can be interpreted in a number of ways. To us, hacking involves studying the elements of a system so well that you can manipulate them to make them into something new. Make that system a “museum experience,” add in some renegade flair, and you have the core of Museum Hack. We’re building the company into a think-tank of sorts, creating space to muck with new ways of getting people to connect with museums.
Our hacking is best split into two categories: content hack and experience hack. We see the content hack as hacking the collection and celebrating its underdogs, those works in corners and thruways that you would never expect to have amazing stories. This is why we call our tours Un-Highlights tours; they’re about the hundreds of thousands of things most people breeze by on their way to the biggies. The experience hack comes in with style and the variety of activities we use to get visitors to engage in unexpected ways. You might be forced to spend seven minutes in art heaven or find yourself striking a pose and talking like a sculpture, you never know.
The common thread of all of our tours is passion. We feel people are most attracted to an infectiously passionate voice, so we encourage our guides to be unapologetically head over heals in love with what makes art and history juicy. Our scrappy team is made up of research-loving interdisciplinary thinkers who are given a toolbox but told to follow their intuition and ultimately give the tour they would give to their friends.
Museum Hack is starting to think of thematic tours (Creepy Baby Jesus, The Metropolitan Museum of Butts, maybe a Ladies Night at the Met tour) and expansion to other museums. As the company continues to evolve, we’re interested in opening the conversation up to challenge our thinking and explore what more folks think of hacking the museum.
On December 17th, Jen Oleniczak and Mike Murawski connected via a Google Hangout on Air to chat more about Museum Hack and answer questions. Thanks to everyone who watched us live and tweeted in your questions. While Jen was lost from the connection for a bit, Mike kept the torch burning and we are able to have a great conversation about what Museum Hack means and what is next. There was also a great Twitter chat happening via the hashtag #museumhack (so check that out if you have a chance). Here were some of the questions we addressed — and you can watch the video below:
How can we hack for positive change in museums?
What does it mean to hack a museum?
Why has the term hack become so trendy in the field?
How is the trend of hacking going to impact the future of the field?
Are museum educators and institutions already doing this? How is Museum Hack different from good museum teaching?
“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.
* * * * * *
“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.”
* * * * * *
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.
“For arts marketers, it’s no secret that the engagement models of yesterday are being cast off in favor of fresh, bold ideas to boost audience development and revenue. If we’re keeping track, however, some of the new approaches that have been successful for organizations across the country would have seemed downright weird in decades past. Inviting naked cyclists into a museum to find new audiences? Bringing art to the local laundromat to promote community dialogues? Bringing random strangers together to interpret permanent collection pieces? These concepts may seem bold, but for [these 3 organizations], weird strategies like these have fostered an organizational culture that draws in the community and gives patrons an experience they won’t soon forget.”
Hack the Museum 2.0
Should anyone be surprised to find Nina Simon and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History at the top of the list of experimental, participatory organizations? I mean, she wrote the book on this type of work … literally. But instead of getting into a rut or taking any easy routes, Nina continues to lead her institution as a pioneer of participatory practice. And, more importantly, she is working to support and scaffold this type of work well beyond the walls of her museum — this summer’s “Hack the Museum Camp” brought together 75 creative and museum professionals for 48 hours to create a museum exhibition that challenges the way people think about displaying the art, history, and the heart of Santa Cruz.
Through this experience, the Museum of Art & History becomes a petri dish for participatory practice that is inevitably expanding to artistic and institutional practice far outside of the ‘innovative sunshine’ of California. The camp’s website nicely sums up the “Why”:
“To invite unusual collaborations, to give people a space to test out their craziest dreams, to push professionals to do something quickly, to encourage experimental thinking and prototyping.”
Wash Clothes, Make Art, Build Community: The Laundromat Project
I was truly inspired by the report’s feature on the Laundromat Project, a unique project that brings engaging, community-responsive art and artists into local coin-op laundromats across Greater New York City. As Rise Wilson, founder and creator, describes, the project focuses on bringing art to where the people are, and thinking about laundromats as unique community gathering spaces.
Not only are people across New York engaging in arts experiences as they wait for their wash cycle to end, but these neighborhood locations become creative spaces with the transformative potential to bring out new conversations, relationships, and a meaningful form of public art practice that spills out across the community.
“The power to harness our own imaginations is connected to a sense of freedom and agency to make the change we want in the world,” states LP Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi. “Creativity is the engine, and we are together, with our neighbors, trying to make the world a more just and artful place one creative, unconventional, and artful intervention at a time.”
On Naked Ambition: Portland Art Museum
I vividly remember that night back in June when nearly 10,000 stripped-down cyclists converged in the park directly adjacent to the Portland Art Museum, preparing to launch the world’s largest World Naked Bike Ride to date. Instead of keeping its doors closed (which was tempting for various reasons), the Museum made the bold decision to not only open to the public that night, but to embrace the community energy and “weirdness” that is the World Naked Bike Ride.
Scantily-clad cyclists entered the Museum for $1 per item of clothing, and many (for obvious reasons) entered for free. As chance would have it, this was also the opening day for the Museum’s summer exhibitions Cyclepedia: Iconic Bike Design and Gaston Lachaise (in case you don’t know Lachaise’s work, we’re talking some monumental nude figures). 1,000 naked or mostly-naked cyclists entered the Museum from 8-10pm that night, and aside from averting my eyes as much as possible, I was reminded why I love the Portland Art Museum.
The Cyclepedia exhibition itself was a focused effort to engage in community collaborations outside of the “weirdness” of the Naked Bike Ride, with the Museum partnering with 26 organizations, bringing 40 programs to the Museum and the region, and connecting with bike builders, designers, collectors, and cycling enthusiasts across the Northwest and the globe. We brought local bicycle designers’ voices into the galleries through the Object Stories project (which can be found by searching for “Bicycle” here), and hosted a series of Summer Joy Rides that had groups exploring art and bicycle culture via community bike rides.
As the NAMP e-book declares, if any town in the US truly captures the spirit of the “weird,” it’s the artistic, DIY-loving city of Portland. And I can say, after being here for almost a year, nothing could be more true. The Museum is dedicated to relinquishing control and gaining broader community involvement, as well as experimenting with participatory engagement and social practice with programming like Shine a Light (no doubt I’ll write more on this in the coming months).
* * * * *
Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Inovation at EmcArts, pinpoints the change she sees happening across the arts non-profit sector:
“We see art organizations shifting from seeing themselves as producers of content to seeing themselves as platforms for engagement. This is a huge shift; one that requires a letting go of old ways of doing things and has profoundly exciting implications for organizations and the field.”
I know that this is happening in countless organizations across the US and the globe. Tell us about how your organization is getting “weird” or paving the path for more unconventional, risk-taking work? What changes have you seen in your organization recently that are providing space for meaningful participatory practice and playful thinking?
As a museum educator, I enjoy the elements of random surprise and creative disruption that can creep into museum practice. Experiencing the unexpected, especially in the space of a museum, can be such a rewarding thing. Back in late July, I had such an experience here at my own museum as I walked up one morning for work and heard a piano playing … and it was coming from the Museum’s outdoor sculpture courtyard. As I rounded the corner, I was surprised to see a piano sitting right there outside the Museum. The person playing the piano was truly fantastic, and a small group of people had gathered to listen — I assume that most were walking across downtown when they were drawn in by the sound of the piano.
I sat with the group for about 10 minutes, and then headed to my office with a few questions burning in my head: “Why is there a piano here at the Museum?” “How could I learn more?” “Would there be any way to keep the piano here?” I was so intrigued by how much this simple piano could activate and transform this small, public urban space.
I quickly learned that a local project called “Piano Push Play” had contacted the Portland Art Museum about placing one of their public pianos here. The project has been working this summer to place a series of pianos in public locations across downtown Portland — with the pianos generously provided by the Snowman Foundation, a music education non-profit organization based here in Portland that helps kids in need get the instruments, instruction, and inspiration they need to develop their musical and creative talents. “Piano Push Play” was founded to give the public more opportunities to see, hear, and enjoy the piano being played in outdoor spaces. And, as local project founder Megan McGeorge notes (and I heartily agree), these pop-up piano locations are “a bright spot of surprise in people’s day.”
McGeorge started the “Piano Push Play” project after experiencing “Play Me, I’m Yours” in New York City, a project developed by British artist Luke Jerram. According to his project’s website, Jerram’s street piano project has reached over three million people worldwide, with more than 800 pianos having been installed in 35 cities across the globe, from New York to London. Located in public parks, bus shelters and train stations, outside galleries and markets, and even on bridges and ferries, Jerram’s project makes pianos available for any member of the public to play and enjoy. Who plays them and how long they remain on the streets is up to each community. Many pianos are personalized and decorated by artists or the local community. According to Jerram, by creating a place of exchange, “Play Me, I’m Yours” invites the public to engage with, activate, and take ownership of their urban environment.
“Play Me, I’m Yours” at the Art Museum
As I started to search for more information about Jerram’s larger street piano project, I quickly found that many other art museums were hosting public pianos. For the weekend of Earth Day back in April 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had a “Play Me I’m Yours” public piano decorated by artist Frank Cubillos. As the LA Times noted in an article about Jerram’s street music project:
“The point is simple: Bring communities together through random acts of public music.”
The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art also hosted “Play Me, I’m Yours” during 2 weeks in June 2012, with 10 pianos decorated by a series of Utah contemporary artists that were placed in public spaces across Salt Lake City including UMOCA. This summer, the Cleveland Museum of Art has jumped onto Jerram’s project — in conjunction with their celebration of the 2013 Cleveland International Piano Competition (CIPC) being held at the museum. CIPC and Case Western Reserve University are presenting Play Me, I’m Yours Cleveland, which includes a piano decorated like the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Monet Water Lilies panel that was available to play through August 18, 2013. Later this fall, as part of celebrating the 75th season of Boston’s Celebrity Series, the organization has decided to partner with Jerram to bring this public street piano installation to Boston, including a piano sited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts this fall from September 27 to October 14, 2013. These are just a few of the art museums that have decided to get involved with “Play Me, I’m Yours,” and I’m sure there are many other art museums connected to this project or hosting public pianos outside of Jerram’s network.
Here at the Portland Art Museum, Megan McGeorge’s own “Piano Push Play” project has been drawing in lots of people in play, listen, interact with each other, and even learn about some of the organizations involved in expanding music education and access to instruments here in the Pacific Northwest. “We believe that simply by exposing people to the visual and auditory experience of a fellow human playing the piano, we are reminded of how magical and vital music is to our community,” says McGeorge, in a recent interview with OPB. “Thanks to a partnership with our organization, and our generous sponsors Portland Piano Company and West Coast Piano Moving and Storage, we are able to bring together the components of community, kids and music to the streets of Portland,” added Michael Allen Harrison, founder of The Snowman Foundation.
On several Fridays since the piano was installed at the Portland Art Museum back in late July, there have been concerts with additional instruments and noteworthy performers (the best way to find updated information is on the “Piano Push Play” Facebook page — especially since a lot of the programming is of the ‘pop-up’ variety). But the best way to experience this project is just to walk by and experience the music, the people, and the energy of this space. It is a great way for museums to continue to let go, to have community members creating and sharing artistic expressions, and to put community members at the center of a certain form of public engagement and programming.
The pianos in these projects stay in location as long as the community can support it (in terms of the cost of tuning and any maintenance needed to keep it sounding good). Through the generosity of several individuals, the piano has remained at the Portland Art Museum for several weeks past its original 12-day time slot. If you are interested in further supporting this piano, you can go to their WePay.com site by clicking on this link and find more information there.
Public Pianos as a Site of Exchange
Beyond simply having a public piano for people to play, this project intrigued me in terms of how it reactivated and energized the outdoor space between the buildings of the Portland Art Museum. And each time I stop by the piano, I am struck by the people gathered around, talking to each other and listening together. “Piano Push Play” certainly turns this public space into a site of exchange, where people meet who might never cross paths any other way in Portland.
I spoke with Megan McGeorge recently about this project, and she mentioned the powerful social and community-building element of street pianos. McGeorge, who plays at the piano herself fairly regularly, remarked, “I’ve met so many people I would have not met otherwise; playing is a great way to start a conversation.” One of the photos she shared with me (below) shows two strangers named “Safety Jack” and JB. They had never met before, but came to this piano and were teaching one another songs that they each knew.
Do others’ have experience with public or street music projects like this in conjunction with a museum? Is this type of project relevant to the work of museums? How might museums play a stronger role in community-based projects like this that bring people together around arts and creativity? What would a similar project look like in the visual arts? As always, I welcome your feedback, thoughts, and comments. And perhaps you will have the opportunity to participate in “Play Me I’m Yours” or “Piano Push Play” here in Portland or in your own city. PLEASE play!
Prefatory Note: Before ArtMuseumTeaching.com went public, there were several months when it was simply my own personal (private) online space to reflect on my practice as well as larger issues around teaching and learning in museums. It was (and is) so valuable to write about what we do as educators and museum practitioners, even without publicly sharing that writing. Since the site went public back in February 2012, these reflections (along with those of nearly 2 dozen other practitioners) have been openly shared via this unique online ‘bazaar’ that spotlights practice — from million-dollar cutting-edge initiatives and multi-year projects to simple, personal reflections and moments to add one more teaching tool to our belts. And while conferences such as the NAEA, AAM, and Museums & the Web — among others — can surface some truly incredible, thoughtful work happening in museums today (some of which has been highlighted on this site), it is also important to provide a space for reflections and conversation around a more daily teaching practice. This post is an attempt to maintain those types of reflections on this site, and to encourage others to share their teaching & learning experiences as we continue to build this online community of practice.
A couple weeks ago here at the Portland Art Museum, I had a unique opportunity to work with a group of students visiting from neighboring Portland State University as part of their Freshman Inquiry course entitled “The Work of Art,” led by artist/educator Sarah Wolf Newlands. This multidisciplinary course examines the ‘work’ that goes into artistic production, but goes way beyond that to explore the role art plays in our lives. As the course site describes:
“It looks at the work art does in the world — how it shapes, reflects, disguises, complicates, challenges, or brings reality to our assumptions about the world…. What are the artistic levers with which we can move our world forward? What can looking through the lens of ‘art’ at the products from a broad range of disciplines reveal about ourselves, our culture[s] and our society? How does the art we do and the art we experience shape our identity? How does it disguise or reveal our essence, heal our hearts, and enable our joy? How does art influence cultural change? How can we use the arts to build community?”
One of my own goals when working with groups of college students and adults in the galleries (and in the classroom) is always to break down the often rigid expectations of “what we do” in front of a work of art — moving past the assumptions that we need to behave a certain way or know something specific before we can have an experience with art. I also aim to teach for independence — an approach to our ‘work’ with art that empowers a participatory, learner-centered process of making meaning and attempts to break down the constructed hierarchies between teacher and learner, professor and student, expert and novice, institution and audience.
“The visitor’s response and experience come first, before the museum’s, before the history of art.” —Rika Burnham
For me, at its heart, teaching for independence asks that educators (whether in the museum, K-12 classroom, or university lecture hall) strive to facilitate deep, collective experiences with art that leave participants and learners better equipped to look, explore, question, and engage deeply on their own without always relying on the museum or an ‘expert’ to lead that process.
Opening Up the Learning Experience: An Hour with Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth
Here is a quick outline of our experience with Bradford’s piece (and I always want to be clear that these tips and strategies are not ones that I necessarily invent, but are inspired by some of the ‘Jedi knights’ of museum education like Rika Burnham, to whom I am greatly indebted. I also do use some of these strategies repeatedly when I am in the galleries, since some are just exceptional ways to open-up an experience of freedom, comfort, creative looking, and excitement):
Looking:We began with 1 minute of quiet looking, then having students share their initial observations with a person sitting next to them. We followed that with another minute of quiet looking, this time using a paper tube as a telescope to see the artwork differently — followed by more sharing with their neighbors about anything new they noticed.
Question: Students were asked to write down one question or wondering they had for this work of art.
60-Second Sketch: Everyone spread out across the gallery and then had 60 seconds to make a quick sketch of the entire artwork, filling their paper from edge to edge. Students were asked to lay all of the sketches in the center of the gallery, walk around and see what others drew, and then select a sketch that interested them (and was not their own).
Sketching with Language: Students had several minutes to “finish” the sketch they had selected, but by using only language — adding words, phrases, thoughts, and reflective writing directly on top of the drawing. I call this “sketching with language,” something pulled from Jack Kerouac and his creative process.
Reading:In small groups, students shared their writing by reading it aloud– really honoring their writing by reading it directly instead of simply summarizing or paraphrasing it (which is what we too often do).
Conversation Extender: By this point, students have had some serious time to look at Bradford’s work, share and exchange ideas about what they see and what they think about it, and do some sketching and writing to deepen or even shift their interpretations. To extend their conversations and spark further thought, each group received a small packet of historic photographs from the 1921 Tulsa race riots — an event that historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” and an event that has been strongly connected to this work by Bradford. Each group of students was simply asked to continue their conversation about the Bradford piece, yet to see how this added layer of historic images (powerful in their own right) might build or shift that conversation in any way. In talking about his own work, Bradford once says: “It’s about … tracing the ghost of cities past. It’s the pulling off of a layer and finding another underneath.”
Group Discussion: During this entire experience thus far, students have been building personal meaning or sharing their ideas in pairs or small groups. So to wrap up, each group brings their thoughts and insights to the full class as we spend the last 10-15 minutes in an open discussion about the artwork and our experience with it.
Learning to See Learning in the Art Museum
For me, much of the experience with this group of college students was about empowering them to learn to see learning in an art museum (and with a work of art) differently — to begin to see looking and learning with art in a more active, participatory way that also allows for shared authority around knowledge and interpretation. To help me gain a better understanding of how (or whether) this happens, I invited students participating in the experience described above to send me an email with their reflections after their museum visit. Here are a few great insights from their reflections:
“Usually when I go to an art museum, the experience isn’t as fun and exciting. It’s hard for me to look at a work of art and really dissect it…. I probably will never get to just sit down in front of a work of art and analyze it with that many people again, and it was an awesome experience. Thank you for taking the time to teach our class fun tools that we can use in an art museum to really get the most out of our time there.”
“It was really cool to spend a solid hour just looking into what the piece could be about, what it could mean. I’m glad that you opened up the learning experience by allowing us to interpret the painting in our own way, then discuss with one other person, and then discuss in small groups. I think this allowed each student to really get the most out of what other students were understanding and interpreting from the work.”
“This experience was very enlightening because we learned so much from so little. It was profound to get so much out of little more than looking, thinking, and discussing.”
“It’s crazy how observing a piece for just a little longer than a glance can change your perspective of a piece and your understanding of it…. If more people were to do what we did today and take time to observe art, they would see it in totally new ways.”
This type of learner-centered, participatory meaning-making is something I continue to explore in the museum context, but I think it also has significant implications for how we conceive of art history teaching outside of the museum. What if we allowed for more active, open-ended looking and exploration with art, and hold back some on the passive transfer of information? What if we used drawing, movement, or creative writing as another way of looking deeply at art? What if we really focused our teaching more on creating and supporting independent learners who see and think for themselves?
This post has also been published online at Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR), a streamlined, peer-populated teaching resources site sharing Art History Survey teaching materials between teachers and stimulating conversations around pedagogy in the arts. The site was initiated in 2011 by Michelle Jubin and Karen Shelby, products of the CUNY Graduate Teaching Fellows program.
“The value of museums begins and ends with the relationship with our visitors. It’s a contract that is renewed each and every time they engage with us, and if we don’t live up to it, we will be usurped.” — John Falk, speech to AAM (2010)
Working in museums can be a messy, messy game, but I always love the conversations that crop up when you get a handful of museum educators together to talk ‘shop.’ A couple weeks ago at the National Art Education Association 2013 annual conference in Fort Worth, there was certainly a lot of that happening. I was fortunate enough to be invited to present — or rather have a public in-process conversation — about participatory culture in art museums with an incredible group of colleagues: Preston Bautista (Deputy Director for Public Programs & Audience Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art), Judy Koke (Director of Education & Interpretive Programs, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and Susan Diachisin (Director of the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art). By far, the best part of preparing our presentation was the series of winding, organic conversations that led to Fort Worth.
Not only were we all wildly passionate about visitor engagement and participatory practice, but our own working environments were all changing rapidly — from my own move from St. Louis to the Portland Art Museum this past fall, to leadership changes and various grants & innovation projects. All in all, we were fairly hyper-motivated to talk about these issues with each other and, ultimately, to explore concepts of participation and exchange in our institutional cultures.
How does an institution’s hierarchy, leadership, and organizational structure actually enable (or disable) participatory practice? How could museum educators at various levels become more involved in fostering an institutional culture focused on visitor experience and engagement? Could these values find ways of ‘trickling up’ from participatory programs and smaller-scale education projects or exhibitions?
“If … museums must move away from assumed public value and begin to measure their impact, and if … museums must achieve impact for the community instead of impact for the museum, then the impetus is on museum education to rise to the challenge that lies before us and reposition the museum in the eyes of the public.” — Tina Nolan, JME (2010)
As we entered our NAEA session entitled “Toward an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums,” we had decided on a set of assumptions that were key to making this a valuable and productive conversation:
There is a shift happening. Art museums across the continent are taking big steps to change the ‘business as usual’ model, creating structures to put the public’s expectations, needs, and experiences at the center of interpretive planning and exhibition development. We can see this in institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (see great article by their Exec Dir of Learning & Interpretation), Art Gallery of Ontario, Denver Art Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many others. In the specific realm of ‘participation’ and public engagement, it is always important to note the Irvine Foundation’s support for institutions such as the Oakland Museum, as well as museum “Innovation Stories” featured via EmcArts & ArtsFwd. If you still need convincing that change is afoot, watch this video compiled by the Innovatrium at their January 2013 ‘think tank’ of museum leaders.
We’re all in this together. Instead of anyone pretending to be an ‘expert’ about these changes in organizational culture, we wanted to be conscious of the fact that we are all co-learning with each other. It doesn’t matter the size of one’s museum or how involved your senior leadership is in this shifting landscape — we’re all working toward the greater public value and relevance of museums in our communities and beyond. And this needs to be an open, inclusive conversation if it is to be meaningful one.
You can’t talk about participatory practice without becoming participatory. I always feel like every lecture on “visitor engagement” and “participatory practice” is, in part, quite disingenuous if it does not attempt to actually ENGAGE. Even if an attempt to activate a lecture hall full of 200 spectators fails, I always feel that we should try — walk the walk, right?! So I was able to convince our group to do a crowdsourcing activity to engage those attending our session, and pull out their ideas in a participatory way.
“For a museum to truly engage its users, it must cease acting as a controlling gatekeeper to its collections and expertise. Rather, the museum must work with its users and communities to unlock the stories its collections hold, responding to the choices its users make. As such, it must give up its traditional authoritarian voice so that users are free to question, debate, collaborate, and speculate — seeking out those issues that most concern them — and are given the support and inspiration required to do so.” — Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012)
After our initial discussion and framing of these issues, we jumped right into the crowdsourcing exercise to activate everyone’s thinking and to have the group generate ideas. To prevent this conversation from quickly deteriorating into a litany of complaints, barriers, and reasons why we might not be able to enact change at our institutions, we granted everyone in the room freedom from all of these restraints … with a magic wand. Therefore, without concern about budget cuts, personality conflicts, and perceived curatorial barriers, we invited each participant to take two or three minutes, envision some ways to engender a more participatory culture at their institutions, and then write down a “what if” statement on a small slip of paper. We collected more than 50 “what if” statements, crowdsourced them with the group, and then spent the final chunk of time opening up a conversation around these ideas. Here are the 4 statements that, at this moment and with this group, bubbled to the surface:
What if everyone in the museum understood everyone else’s job?
What if there was a real plan for interpretive team development of exhibitions and permanent collections? What if curators and educators didn’t feel like they were ceding territory when they worked together?
What if educators/interpreters and curators worked collaboratively on creating in-gallery participatory experiences?
What if I could include funds for “things I may think of after the budget process” [an “innovation” fund] when I’m writing my department budget?
Rather than recount the conversation or provide my own opinions, thoughts, and perspectives here, I wanted to take this opportunity to open the conversation … to OpenThink the “what if” statements we collected during our NAEA session. So below is a link to all of the “what if” statements that we were able to collect, in no particular order. Feel free to peruse, and add Comments to the GoogleDoc if you choose.
I invite you to share these with colleagues, send this to others at your museums (yes, curators, too!), and let’s create a conversation in the GoogleDoc or below in the Comment area. Do you have a “What If” statement that you would like to add? Are these concerns about exhibition planning, community involvement, and staff development similar at your institution, or different? How can we engender more participatory practice/culture in our work? in our institutions?
The we/customize project at Oakland Museum of California explores the Bay Area perspective on the popular cultural activities of hacking, remixing, tailoring, modding, mash-ups, kit bashing, and customizing. The connecting spark in each of these spheres of activity is the shared impulse of the maker to radically alter the familiar to personal standards.
we/customize was born of a conversation about custom motorcycles, and grew into something akin to adulthood as the consequence of friendship and collaboration.
As non-participants in this part of our culture, Carin Adams (Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture) and I (as the Research and Experience Coordinator) were trying to find the kernels of interest connecting us to choppers. This lead us to observe how people form communities focused on the radical alteration of objects, how these groups self select themselves, and develop identity by means of their chosen activities. To round out the team and help us think about connecting disparate groups, Carin and I asked Evelyn Orantes (Senior Experience Developer) to join us to create our curatorial trio.
To create an exhibition around the activity of customization and the associated communities, we set out to develop the project differently than through the traditional museum approach. Our goal wasn’t to create a new working model for museum exhibitions, nor would we necessarily recommend the particular path we took. We wanted to have fun putting the project together while finding a means to exhibit the content we felt was the most exciting. This subject matter lent itself to be sifted out of conversations and by building relationships with these communities. Our process of content development, did however, reinforce the changing role of the museum as a forum for living cultural activity.
To build the exhibition in conversation with audiences – we made our initial public foray on two fronts. First by going out into the public at Oakland Art Murmur and asking people on video – “What do you customize?” The second, we hosted a panel discussion at OMCA, with Johnny Chung Lee, Jesse Hernandez, and Daniela Rosner about their work and views on customization. These conversations became the basis for how we framed our research, and the public interviews remain part of the content.
To further the dialog, we began with our interviews and panel discussion, we decided to continue going out into the public to build the content for the exhibition. This decision either allowed or forced us to divide the public side of the project into three main phases.
PHASE I: September 26–December 22, 2012
Using the Oakland Rover—a Might-E Truck by Canadian Electric Vehicle, customized by designers Martin Sprouse and Dan Rosenfeld for Oakland Museum of California, we traveled throughout the Bay Area engaging communities in creative projects that explored how people modify objects to serve their own needs. From toy hacking to airbrushing, sound remixing and bike modification— Oakland Rover programs led to rich interactions with the public, who contributed their projects and ideas. These “missions” featured customizers who brought the public a variety of workshops, demonstrations, and participation in the conversation about customization.
The first phase of our project also saw the launch of our social media campaign to continue our conversations with the public online with our blog (wecustomize.org) and on Twitter (@OaklandRover). These exchanges gave us valuable feedback shaping the second and third phases of the project.
PHASE II: December 22, 2012–January 28, 2013
The Oakland Rover’s missions ended when it rolled into OMCA’s Great Hall on December 22. The exploration of customization continued with the transformation of the gallery itself. With paint still on the walls from the previous exhibit, we filled in the space with findings from the Oakland Rover missions as well as visitor input. Starting January 4, guest customizers began on-site demonstrations of their work and invited visitors to join their projects. From scraping out bikes to toy hacking to clothing customization, visitors helped us prototype the Customizer-In-Residence Series and develop interactives.
PHASE III: February 9, 2013–June 2, 2013
The final phase of the we/customize project is the exhibition, exploring the many forms of customization. The weekly Customizers-in-Residence Series will activate the space through live interactions with people from a variety of customization groups. Through the four months of the exhibition, the space will continue to build, with new projects by both our audience and our Customizers-in-Residence living in the space.
While planning the project we realized a tradition opening celebration was out of context with our intent. As the exhibition transforms over time – as a consequence of customizers on site and the objects we’re accumulating – we realized the exhibition wouldn’t be complete until the show closed. With this in mind, we’ve planned on brining all the Customizers-in-Residence as well as museum staff together for a final closing party. Not only as a celebration of the conclusion of the project but our final attempt at igniting that initial spark, within each of these spheres of activity, in a culminating experience.
“What do you customize?” – Join the Conversation
The we/customize project began when we asked ourselves how we connect across communities. We launched the project by asking the public “What do you customize?” While we’ve refined our questions as the project developed, we still want to know – What do you customize? What do you start with? What tools do you use? and Why? Where is the boundary between a customization and an invention?
Sean Olsonis the Research and Experience Coordinator at the Oakland Museum of California, and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. An artist and an educator, he has an MFA from Mills College. He has taught at Diablo Valley College as well as Mills College. Sean lives and rides his bike in Oakland. Look for the guy with the custom dress shoes with SPD cleats.
Carin Adams is the Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture at the Oakland Museum of California and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. She joined OMCA in 2006 as curator for the off-site exhibition program at Oakland International Airport. A resident of Oakland and the mother of two, Carin has an endless supply of toys to hack. She has BFA from California College of the Arts and a MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Evelyn Orantes is the Senior Experience Developer at the Oakland Museum of California, and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. With over a decade of museum work at OMCA under her sparkly belt, she delivers meaningful moments of honor, discovery, memory and inclusion for visitors, from the annual Días de los Muertos special exhibition to programs stimulating the minds of all ages. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she is the queen of California culture mash-ups, dishing the authentic complexities of California, one exhibition or program at a time.
Can you describe the space you are in right now? Have you thought about the temperature, the colors, the lighting, how the furniture is arranged, the sounds you can hear, the textures you feel, the smells that you associate with this space? When any of those elements change, how does that alter the space? How does that change how you interact with this space?
These questions are the beginning of many conversations and inquiries we explore at the Mattress Factory on a daily basis. The Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum with room-size exhibitions. We are committed to supporting artists and their practice. Exhibiting artists are invited to stay in a nearby residence while preparing new work, and the galleries serve both as studio and exhibition space during their stay. The installation art at the Mattress Factory is truly art you can get into. We support artists through the whole process of creation and experimentation, we don’t ask for proposals, and know that the work will transform and often take new shapes throughout their time here.
The experience of visiting the Mattress Factory is very different than a traditional museum environment. There are no guards, much of the art you can touch and explore in a close and more intimate way than is possible in many other museums (you can lay on the floor, reach into, sit on and step inside many of the pieces). This leads to an experience that can be very personal and powerful but also puzzling. The installation is built to be experienced. Sometimes the artwork is not translated easily into a photograph. It can be difficult to describe and to really understand how all the elements fit together – you need to physically be in the room.
With that in mind, we find ourselves asking some questions familiar to us all:
How can we create an experience for students that mirrors what happens here?
How can we make the museum visit more than just a fun field trip and turn it into a unique and deep learning experience?
How do we communicate and share the experience of Installation Art – and all of the rich dialogue that experience sparks – with students that are not able to visit the museum?
How do we translate the museum experience to a classroom, a library, a community center?
At the Mattress Factory we decided to do what we do best – and pose these questions as a challenge to a group of artists. We asked them not to make a piece of artwork, but instead to create a tool – one that could be used to inspire the same sort of conversations we have at the museum about space, memory, sound and a plethora of other big ideas. We titled the project The Space I’m In: Tools for Understanding Your Environment.
The Mattress Factory partnered with the Intermediate Unit 1 (a public education service agency dedicated to the counties we were working with) including nine different schools in counties outside of Pittsburgh and students who had little if any exposure to the concepts of contemporary installation art. Art teachers from each of the schools chose a fellow teacher from another discipline to participate in the program. The teams then reviewed the test scores of their schools and chose a subject area where scores were weak. The challenge was to create lesson plans using materials from the museum to improve learning in the targeted area. We provided professional development opportunities and support for teachers as they paired up to create interdisciplinary lessons inspired by the experiences these tools created. We diligently recorded students and teachers experience before and after their experience with The Space I’m In. Student learning in these weak testing areas improved dramatically.
Currently we have a small variety of tools that we offer to schools and teachers as a starting point in their exploration of our environment. One tool is titled Tamatebako designed by artist Yumi Kori. This tool is a large tented cube that you enter through the lower open portion and find various smaller dark tubes, open red environments and even a small opening to the sky. Each of these spaces can provide a different experience, a small dark space that can feel safe or scary, an open space that shifts colors and views. Another tool is a set of Sound Blocks by artist Jeremy Boyle. The Sounds Blocks change pitch when reacting to motion around them, creating an alternative way to explore space through an auditory experience.
We learned that as teachers became familiar with some of these concepts and working with students on these big ideas, they began to not even need these tools. The tools served as an entry point for the students and teachers to create new lessons and work through concepts in a new way. Teachers were often placed outside of their educational comfort zone and challenged to approach a lesson in a new direction. The conversations about space were able to happen in simple and subtle ways and students were challenged to slow down and think more about the environment surrounding them. The project creates connections between our memories, sensory understanding, physical spaces, and engages many different disciplines such as science, technology, math, language and the arts.
The long-term investment of creating relationships and training the teachers became the real key to the success of this project. From the museum end, we had to teach museum educators the language, the ideas, the artists, and the flexibility to translate the museum experience to the world beyond. They became the liaison to working with a teacher in their environment to ensure their comfort with these concepts. We learned that there are so many ways to change, alter, and think about our environment. We learned that we could use these same lessons without the tools.
Working in a museum environment we often take for granted the lingo we use and the knowledge we have acquired. Collaborating with teachers forced us to step back and start at the very beginning. We learned not to assume anything and to work through every step of the process in explaining and teaching the big ideas that go with installation art.
Participatory museum experiences and museum visitor identity seem to be the focus of much attention of late in the museum educator community. It is something I have given a lot of thought to, and I have enjoyed some thought-provoking conversations on Twitter about it. I like to think that students are at the centre of the experiences I create for them at the museum, in the same way that student-centred learning is championed in school-based learning and teaching. But I wonder if student-centred teaching at the museum is something that can actually be claimed as part of our practice.
Placing the students at the centre of a learning experience means knowing who the students are and I wonder how many assumptions can be made about this before they become irrelevant or wrong. In the museum we can’t get to know or form relationships with the students easily. They come to us in batches of around 25 students, ranging from pre-school to high-school levels, staying for a short time, making it practically impossible to know them as individuals, as their school teachers do.
So how do we get to know our students?
I have noticed that I form assumptions about who students are before they arrive on site — that I create a fictitious or generic version of who I think they might be. The information that I base this on is mainly tacit. I know what year level they are and so have an indication of age range, although this may not be a good indicator of maturity. I consider how well prepared the teacher is for the visit and what they hope students get out of the experience. This assists me to understand the students previous learning and the anticipated outcomes of the visit. I know what the curriculum expectations of the visit are, and that these are often the justification for the visit. Experiences with my own and other children I know also informs how I relate to children. For each class or group that visits I test my assumptions to decide on the best level to pitch my discussion with them.
My goal is to create an experience that will be meaningful for the students. I want to facilitate the students’ capacity to drive curiosity and find personal meaning, as well as awe and inspiration in the artworks that I choose to show them. I perform in (what I think is) an engaging or entertaining manner to maintain their attention and focus. I make sure I am present in the moment and pay careful attention to what they are interested in. I ask questions and ask for questions. I give and request feedback. I paraphrase to build on what students are noticing and thinking, encouraging others to contribute and find viewpoints of difference or similarity. I tell stories and share what I love about art and artists’ capacity to surprise and delight. I try to let them drive the experience and am willing to be adaptable and flexible to go along with it.
The ‘truth’ is that I don’t know my students. I can’t know them in a once off, one hour visit. But each new experience I have teaching informs the next, and I shape my practice so that I am creating experiences that are driven by the needs of the students generally.
What are some ways you get to know students before they arrive at your museum? As they tour the galleries? After they leave the museum? Before the next school visit?