Tag Archives: participatory arts practice

Tools for Understanding Your World: Museums + Beyond

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?

Yayoi Kusama
“Infinity Dots Mirrored Room,” 1996. Mattress Factory. Photo by Jeanne Kliemesch

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.

Interacting with Tametabako and thinking about space.

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.

Interacting with Tametabako.

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.

Student and teacher exploring the environment created by The Walls, a tool as part of The Space I’m In project.

How Do We Get to Know Our Students?

Photo by Christine Healey

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.

Photo by Christine Healey

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?

Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content

“Often I set up a platform and ask a question, in one way or another, and then invite people to come in. It’s a conversation, a call and response.”

Keetra Dean Dixon, interview by authors (2010)

Museums are often all about control — controlling what visitors see, controlling the information presented about objects, controlling the ways in which visitors can create meaning, and even controlling the types of technology or devices we can use to access their collection or extended resources. A “well-curated” exhibition or gallery passively delivers a specific message to a targeted, restricted audience.  But, as the authors of Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content offer, “participatory design turns this idea on its head.”

While focusing on the profession and field of design (which is actually a broad field that obviously has so much overlap and integration with museums), the ideas forwarded in this book resonated with me in terms of how museums are struggling to engage in more participatory acts.  The mantra I take away from the authors text as well as their interviews with a wide range of innovative designers is this: “participatory design replaces monologues with conversations” (25).  This not only resonated with me, with seemed to ring true with all the the future-of-museums talk going on these days to find ways to harness the massive engagement with Flickr, Facebook, Pinterest, Vimeo, YouTube, and Twitter that has conditioned the public to contribute, connect, and create.

How does participatory design work?

In her introduction to Participate, designer and writer Helen Armstrong defines the best participatory design as soliciting content from users and then translating that into something greater than the initial contribution.

“The initial contributions are simple, easily carried out by the user: a photograph, a sketch, a doodle, a word, a movement, a vocalization, a touch. But when put into the context of a larger participatory project, user content flourishes in unexpected ways.” (12)

I love to be reminded that the seed of a good participatory project is really something very simple (and doable), encouraging broader involvement.  Sometimes it is so easy to get wrapped up in some multi-layered, complex idea that sounds cool to us, but that no one in their right mind would actually take the time to participate in/with.  I will always remember one of my design professors in college who harped on about KISS … Keep It Simple Stupid!  This “less is more” dictum never fails, though, when looking to museum visitors for contributions.

For museums, like designers, relinquishing control means celebrating process-oriented work that is not ‘complete’ until visitors or audiences participate, and celebrating the unpredictability this process brings.  I would even say that we need to be open to entirely new types of participation that might simply end with social interactions or conversations — something we often think will get us somewhere, but we need to recognize that sometimes we are already there.

“Content is not king — contact is.”

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed (2010)

The book does make the necessary connections with museums.  In the chapter on modularity and providing structures for these largely open-ended undertakings, they quote Nina Simon saying, “The best participatory experiences are not wide open. They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engaging in the activity” (Simon, Participatory Museum, 13). Even though we find ourselves ‘breaking the rules’ and removing restrictions to get participatory work done in museums, any participatory process needs rules, constraints, and parameters to prevent it from descending into muddled confusion. Even just making the structure of your project and process transparent to your participants and contributors can help keep to the plan.

Participate also rightfully spotlights some of the recent identity, branding, and promotional campaign designs at the Walker Art Center, including a great interview with Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator at the Walker.

Overall, I think there is great value for museum educators in engaging with the field of design and design thinking, especially as we work toward similar goals of empowering 21st-century audiences to contribute, interact, and become makers and doers.  I’ll be following up in the next several weeks with some of my own nascent attempts at making this site a bit more participatory in various ways.  Stay tuned…

‘De/reskilling’ Artistic Practice and Museum Education: College Students as Museum Interpreters

Students interact with Dan Flavin’s “Untitled (to Donna) 2” (1971) at the Portland Art Museum. Photo by Sarah Wolf Newlands.

Karena, a senior at Portland State University, leads us to reflect on a pool of natural light in a gallery at the Portland Art Museum near a Robert Irwin light and space sculpture. The effect is a state of near-meditation.

Another student, Lisa, asks us to consider the different ways in which we value a work by Dan Flavin. We then move to a darkened classroom to collectively make our own version of a Dan Flavin sculpture out of glow sticks. She informs us that she will be auctioning off our completed work, and that the proceeds will be going directly to the electric bill in order to keep the Flavin work running.

The preceding examples are projects developed by students for a class at Portland State University, called “Object Talks: Creating Meaningful Experiences at the Portland Art Museum,” co-taught in the summer of 2011 by artist and professor Sarah Wolf Newlands, Stephanie Parrish, a senior staff member in the Portland Art Museum’s Department of Education and Public Programs, and myself. The class was an experiment in opening up the interpretation of the Museum’s collections to college students through experiential, conversation-based interpretation informed not only by best practices in the field of museum education, but also by the work of artists engaged in social practice. We collaborated with artist/educators Jen Delos Reyes and Lexa Walsh from Portland State University’s Social Practice MFA program to introduce students to this form of art-making, which we feel shares many concerns with the work of museum educators. These mutual concerns include the need for outreach to communities not necessarily involved in the art world, movement towards the so-called “educational turn” in museums, a desire for collective involvement and collaboration—and above all, an interest in the shared social space that constitutes an experience with a work of art. This linkage between artist and museum educator is nothing new, and its history is chronicled in this excellent article by Michelle Jubin.

However, the involvement of students in this process, who are not necessarily formally trained as educators or artists, and yet, are performing these roles in public outside of the “laboratory” of the classroom, raises questions for me about where the role of interpretation in a museum lies and who has ownership of this process. The training period for docents at the Portland Art Museum is over a year and an MFA in social practice is typically a two-year endeavor. University Museums often employ college students as docents; however, they typically receive much more training than we were able to offer on this class. Our students had eight weeks to craft and deliver their interpretive experiences. A cynic might suggest that we are devaluing a complex skill that requires more expertise than a summer class can provide. Furthermore, this course is part of the college’s University Studies program, a general education requirement for all students which is very interdisciplinary in nature. Critics of these programs often point to interdisciplinarity as responsible for what they believe as the death of specialization. However, I would like to consider this topic through the lens of the deskilling—and indeed, reskilling—movement that has been a concern for artists since at least Duchamp.

In Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (a review and summary can be found here) John Roberts addresses this very topic and its implications for the art that has followed Duchamp. His discussion of the readymade and its role in deskilling the work of the artist’s hand in favor of reskilling an artist’s work in the realm of immaterial labor is particularly appropriate for socially-engaged artists. However, I would like to consider this same process of deskilling and reskilling in light of our class. When confronted with the open-ended conversational gallery teaching techniques advocated by Rika Burnham, Elliot Kai-Kee, and many of the other museum educators that they read during the term, several students expressed concern in what they felt was a disengagement from the art historical structures that had colored their past experiences with art. Nor did they like the process of moving away from the more lecture-based modes of presentation they were accustomed to from their art history classes to relinquishing some level of control to their audience for the more conversational methods of inquiry that we advocated. Admittedly, these responses surprised us—even though we are used to these tensions between the fields of art history and museum education, we did not expect them from our students.

Though, in the strictest sense, the term “deskilling” refers to the process of eliminating skilled labor in the workforce in favor of time-saving technologies, it has taken on new meaning within arts discourse. It is linked not only to a movement away from artisanal production in the visual arts of the twentieth century, but also significantly, in aesthetic valuation (Roberts 86). In this sense, deskilling acts not only on physical labor, but on intellectual work as well. It also takes on new meaning in social practice as a way of democratizing the artist’s work (Ibid 159).

In asking our students to think of their projects as social practice, were they not engaging with these discourses of deskilling?

Through streamlining the training process and asking students to forgo some of their learning from previous classes, were we not deskilling some of the intellectual labor of museum interpretation?

Conversely, I would also like to argue that these students engaged in a process of reskilling by learning to be more adaptive and improvisatory in their approach to the works in the Museum’s collection. They often sidestepped certain art historical lines of inquiry in favor of interpretations found in other disciplines, as well as understandings from personal life experience. In learning these skills and in rejecting others for the purposes of this class, I should stress it was not our intent to supplant the skills and knowledge these students were learning in other classes, but rather to provide them with alternative tools for interpretation. Nor was it our goal to replace our experienced docent core with students. Instead, we hope that our work with college students opens up the role of interpretation in the Museum to new voices. After all, we can learn a lot ourselves from the openness, curiosity, and enthusiasm found among students at this crucial stage of life.

Add to the Conversation…

I welcome comments from those of you who have also worked with college students as educators in your museum. What worked in your program and what did not? Furthermore, I would love to hear thoughts on the intersection of social practice and museum education, as well as the place of re- and de-skilling in the museum.

Crowdsourcing in the Art Museum

“Crowdsourcing poses a tantalizing question: What if the solutions to our greatest problems weren’t waiting to be conceived, but already existed somewhere, just waiting to be found, in the warp and weave of this vibrant human network?”

-Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business

How many times have you been facilitating a learning experience with a group of teachers, docents, or public visitors in the galleries, and the best ideas or questions come from someone in the group?  This is a pretty regular occurrence for me, as visitors and students bring new noticings, insights, and wonderings to the process of experiencing a work of art.  But I wonder how many times we neglect to solicit the ideas, thoughts, and questions of visitors and learners in museums.  Are the “solutions to our greatest problems” simply waiting to be found in the crowds of people that enter our doors every day?  What are some ways we might tap into the “power of the crowd” to drive forward our work as educators?

So what is crowdsourcing anyway?

There are several definitions of “crowdsourcing” out there, but the popularity of the term seems to have originated in an article written by Jeff Howe in Wired Magazine back in 2006 called “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.”  The use of the term — and the concept — has exploded since then, with cultural and corporate phenomenons such as American Idol, Wikipedia, Flickr, Amazon, and even the New York Times using crowdsourcing strategies to create, organize, share, filter, judge, or sell their content and products.  Check out 4 great examples of the most recent social crowdsourcing projects.  At the core of most crowdsourcing is an open call to a diverse, heterogeneous group for their involvement in a task, inviting them to bring their experiences, what they already know (the ‘wisdom of the crowd’), and their likes & dislikes to the process. Customers, consumers, and audiences now become potential partners or creators — part of building something new.  With the internet and social media making it easy to gather a ‘crowd’ of millions online at no cost, the strategy of crowdsourcing has become largely based on technology.

Here is a succinct video from Jeff Howe that helps define crowdsourcing (from his perspective):

Several art museums have utilized various crowdsourcing strategies to allow the public to curate and plan exhibitions.  The most trail-blazing example is probably the Brooklyn Museum’s Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition, which involved an open call for people to submit photographs, an online audience evaluation of those images, and then finally an exhibition in 2008 of the crowd-curated photographs. Nina Simon praised this project on her Museum 2.0 blog as “what museum innovation looks like.”  During the run of the exhibition, she wrote:

“A wise poet once said to me: the only way to get any better is to change. We have to do these experiments, explore the different and new, if we ever hope to get better at what we do. Click! may not be the future of museum exhibitions. But it’s the best thing we have so far to help us get there.” (Museum 2.0)

Other art museums have also recently engaged in the crowdsourcing craze, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s somewhat controversial “The Art of Video Games,” the Plains Art Museum’s “You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection” and the Walters Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition “Public Property” (a title selected by the public through their crowd-curating process).  So it appears that several museums have taken up the torch to further explore these participatory strategies, and I know there are many I’m not listing here.  Museum visitors are, to use Jeff Howe’s words, beginning to “participate meaningfully in the process” by which their experience is created, and they are in a way becoming the “people formerly known as the audience.”

How can we bring crowdsourcing into museum teaching?

crowdsourcing during a high school tour

As an educator, I have been more interested in the ways that we might bring crowdsourcing beyond curating and into museum teaching and learning experiences in the galleries.  I first got to play with crowdsourcing in the galleries when my work with the CoLab began a few years ago. Working with groups of teachers to envision and prototype transformative learning experiences for the museum and their classrooms, we have used some crowdsourcing strategies to allow the ‘wisdom’ and experiences of the group to bring certain questions and ideas to the surface.  I’ve used this strategy with docents as well as teachers, and it has been a fun and effective teaching tool.  Here is one easy crowdsourcing exercise you can try out (since the groups are small, it’s probably not officially “crowd”-sourcing, but let’s not split hairs):

Generate some data: Engage your participants (students, teachers, visitors) in a brainstorming process focused on a single task. For example, you might ask a group of visitors on a tour to come up with as many questions as they can about a work of art we have been exploring. After each individual generates a list of interesting and creative questions, they get into groups of three to share their questions and decide on the three best questions from their group. Each group writes these questions down on individual slips of paper.

Crowdsource it: Now you have some data to be crowdsourced … let the craziness begin!  Each participant should have a slip of paper in their hand with a question written on it.  The group stands in the middle of the gallery, and they are asked to rapidly exchange their slips of paper (emphasis on rapidly).  After the facilitator says “stop,” people pair-up, read the questions they have, evaluate them, and then each pair works together to assign points to their questions.  We usually ask each pair to assign exactly 7 points to their two questions (meaning that if one question gets a 5, the other gets a 2; or one can get a 7, the other a 0).  We do this rapid exchange and scoring for several rounds, adding some fun twists to the exchange process (participants might be asked to dance as they exchange slips of paper … something to keep it silly is always good).

See what surfaces: After several rounds of scoring, participants add up the total score, and now you can see how the group filters, organizes, and evaluates the data they were provided.  People can stand in a line according to the total score of the question they have, and we begin to see what are the most important ones to bubble to the surface that day.  Present the top three or top five items to the group.

Act on the results: It is important not to stop there.  Do something with the results of this process.  If you uncovered 3 really juicy questions about a work of art, bring those questions to the work and spend some time thinking deeply about how you might respond to them.  During a recent teacher institute at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, we asked a group of educators to crowdsource some prototypes for new ways the museum could engage its community, and we then focused on the top three ideas and envisioned how they might be enacted through a more extensive process.  I always feel like the success of any participatory strategy hinges on whether it goes anywhere or leads to something new.  For public crowd-curating, I think much of the success depends on people having the benefit of seeing their input manifested in the product or exhibition itself.

Have you experimented with any crowdsourcing in the galleries?  What are some things we might learn from crowdsourcing tactics, both in-person and online?  Are there ways we can push these strategies into more public, social learning experiences in the museum (other than exhibition curation & design)?  Stay tuned for updates as I experiment further with crowdsourcing in the art museum.

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

UPDATE: I wanted to add a link to this post through the Center for the Future of Museums in which guest bloggers Wesley Hsu and Vivian Haga tell us about the My Gallery Interactive project:

Integrating Collaboration and Technology to Create a Crowdsourced Experience

Doing, Not Just Viewing: Working Towards a More Participatory Practice

Olafur Eliasson, Weather Project. Photo by Jean-Francois Hauwaert

I fully acknowledge and embrace the exciting shift that has been occurring in art museums, arts organizations, and American culture in general toward a more do-it-yourself, interactive, user-generated, participatory experience. Yet outside of experimental cases and one-time projects, I often struggle to weave this approach into my daily professional practice and hence into the daily experience for museum visitors (which in my case is mostly school children, visiting with their teachers who have set expectations about what they will see and learn).  And I blame forward-thinking educators like Nina Simon (among others) as well as a whole range of contemporary artists for motivating me to want this level of visitor engagement and participation in the first place (thank you Nina et al.).

So how do we “walk the walk” when it comes to truly engaging visitors and students in creative, participatory, learner-centered experiences in the art museum?

For me, it’s always about taking risks and experimenting bit-by-bit, program-by-program, teacher-by-teacher, and even docent-by-docent as we sharpen our focus on creating a “better” experience with art that connects to people and their lives.  And for this post, I want to hone in on one recent docent training class at the Saint Louis Art Museum — a micro-study of an attempt to weave a hint of participatory practice into the fabric of the art museum, and make it more about “doing” and not just about “viewing.” Is this truly participatory engagement?  To what extent is this something museums have always done?  Not sure. I’d actually rather invite your thoughts and comments, since I think it’s best to open up a dialogue and push these ideas forward.  Please offer your challenges and responses below, and give me something to think about as I create new experiences.

As a field, I think we’re definitely in the process of defining what we mean by terms like “active participation” and “participatory engagement.”  In what contexts can these types of experiences occur, at what level of engagement, for what audiences, and when?  I know my example below does not compare to something on the scale of a contemporary art installation that has children placing thousands of stickers on the gallery walls or the careful planning of in-gallery interpretation like this project on view now at the Skirball Cultural Center, but it connects more to my own daily professional practice with school audiences and docents.

Exploring Van Gogh & Color … in a Participatory Way?

Working within a docent curriculum at a large public art museum, there is still a strong focus on art historical information, as you would imagine.  Within docent training programs at art museums across the country, about 40-50% of the content is purely art historical and about 30-40% of docents’ time is spent listening to lectures about that content (that is based on some data that Stephanie Parrish [Portland Art Museum] and I collected last year from about 100 art museums).  So when beginning to prepare my docent class on the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism collection area, there is always an initial tendency to pull together that PowerPoint slideshow or pick up the phone to call the curator.

But not this time.  I wanted to explore at least one strategy that would get us beyond a purely receptive experience with these artworks, and work toward something that the recent Irvine Foundation report might call “inventive engagement” on the spectrum of creative participatory experiences.  I feel strongly about museum experiences tapping into the “creative” side of learning, and one of the CORE elements of museum learning for my department at the Saint Louis Art Museum is “engaging in creative ways.”  For docents, this creative element of learning is generally not studio-based but rather gallery-based.

So here is how we connected with the idea of color in the painting “Factories at Clichy” (1887) by Vincent Van Gogh:

Looking and Learning:  We started out like many of my experiences with docents begins, with a process of looking and conversation (a la Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee’s process of “guided interpretation”). For about 20 minutes, we examined Van Gogh’s painting as a group, interconnecting comments, observations, and thoughts with information about Van Gogh and the social, industrial, urban, and suburban context of Paris brought into the conversation when it would support or respond to someone’s ideas.

Playing with Color: Next, I asked docents to pair-up, and each pair was provided with a hi-resolution detail photograph of the Van Gogh painting in addition to eight small squares of drawing paper and a set of woodless colored pencils or Art Stix.  Their task was to explore their detail, identify four colors, and then try their hand at creating a color study for each.  My overarching goal here was to allow everyone to play with color — what is it like to layer colors, place them next to each other, use pure color, use thick lines, rub the side of the pencil, etc.  There were very few rules placed upon this exercise, which was intended to support free exploration of color and a fresh examination of Van Gogh’s use of color (which is nearly jewel-like in this particularly-stunning painting … yes, I happen to love this work).

Creating a Color Map: After each docent completed their color studies, they were invited into the next gallery to place them on a large blank “canvas” of white posterboard.  At first, my thoughts were that they would place them on the area that corresponded to the location of their detail — but everyone quickly realized that there was more to it than just tossing down your colored squares.  We began to think, “where do my colors belong? next to which other colors?” and a whole new expressive piece began to take shape.  As more and more color studies were added, the decision-making process became more difficult for participants.  Towards the end, a few individuals hovered over the large grid of color, carefully surveying for the exact place where their own new creations belonged.  After the last colored square was added to the whole, we all stood back and noticed that we had created something entirely new:

Reflection/Discussion: We ended with a brief reflection about the process, the final result, and some of the things we may have learned from the experience.  Many noticed the collaborative and collective result that began with an individual exploration of color from Van Gogh’s painting. A few mentioned their own insights about the subjectivity of color — we all had our own unique responses to the colors in the painting, and that became very evident when they were assembled at the end.  A few participants also reflected on their own process of making the color studies, and especially the challenge of placing them among everyone else’s colors at the end.  While we did reference Van Gogh, I felt that our reflection focused much more on our new creation and the related process.  I ended with a thought from artist Olafur Eliasson, someone well-versed in participatory experiences and art.  Here is the exact quote:

“… color doesn’t exist in itself but only when looked at. The unique fact that color only materializes when light bounces off a surface onto our retinas shows us that the analysis of colors is, in fact, about the ability to analyze ourselves.” (Olafur Eliasson, “Some Ideas About Color”)

Is this truly participatory practice?

The central question I am exploring here is whether this “color map” exercise actually gets us past a receptive, interpretative engagement with art and more towards a creative participatory engagement.  The authors of the Irvine Foundation report define the starting point for participatory practice as beginning when audience members become an “expressive participant in the making of the artistic experience.”  So not just activating the creative mind, but also involving creative expression on the part of the participants.  Check.

I also think that a key element of participatory practice to to cede control to the group in a productive way.  While there are activities that can allow participants to create something, I feel that they need the freedom to organize and remake as they go along (this can be a bit scary for us educators).  When the docents were laying down their color studies on the larger white surface, they began to take creative control over the project (some more than others), which was something I distinctly noticed.  As we all know, being creative is not simply following directions or coloring within the lines, but pushing in new directions and unpredictable pathways.  If we had more time in the galleries, I have no doubt we could have remixed and rethought our color map.  After leaving the museum, in fact, several docents did send me their ideas for adapting and expanding the activity in exciting ways for school tours and programs in the future.

To me, engaging in more and more of these participatory experiences is essential to the work that we do.  Some museums are really blazing the trail for us, which is exciting.  In addition to public programming and exhibition design, it’s also important to consider these practices with our work in docent education and professional training as well as our interactions with K-12 school groups (which make up such a large segment of the museum audience, and the most democratic, diverse, and  inclusive picture of museum use that we have, as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill states).  Bit-by-bit, docent-by-docent, and teacher-by-teacher, we can continue to work toward museum experiences that engage the collaborative, co-creative, open source mindset that is present in our communities as well as the next generation of visitors.

What participatory experiences have you developed at your museum?  What are some challenges you face in creating these experiences for K-12 audiences as well as general museum visitors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Santiago Ochoa

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

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

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