Open Engagement is an annual international conference and gathering that focuses on social practice and socially-engaged art. For several years, the conference was hosted here in Portland, Oregon, and I was fortunate enough to attend the 2013 conference which linked up with the Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light event and the partnership our museum has with Portland State University’s Art & Social Practice program.
The conference was founded by artist and educator Jen Delos Reyes, who leads the planning and programming for each year’s Open Engagement. In 2014, the conference moved from Portland to Queens (sniffle, sniffle), and was co-presented by the Queens Museum and A Blade of Grass, and took place at the Queens Museum, New York Hall of Science, the Queens Theater, Immigrant Movement International, and various locations around New York in May.
The 2013 conference brought artists, thinkers, activists, and museum professionals from across the continent, and there were some tremendous conversations about the role of museums in social practice art, and the role of social practice art and artists in museums. We left with more questions than we had answers (which is actually a good thing — it means we’re not fooling ourselves that we have this all figured out).
To ramp up to the 2013 conference, Delos Reyes and conference organizers invited 100 contributors from the field to reflect on 100 questions collectively generated at the closing session of Open Engagement 2013. Each contributor wrote a short blog post, published online in rapid succession prior to the start of the conference. I was invited to write a short response to question #97: “Who stands to benefit from this work?” Below is my response — and I encourage you to read all 100 contributors respond to all 100 questions. And I invite your thoughts below — who do you think benefits from social practice and socially-engaged art, whether related to museums (as in my response) or out in the community?
“Who stands to benefit from this work?”
Originally published online at Open Engagement blog, February 9, 2014
I know that museums are not new players in the game of social practice and socially-engaged art, yet we are constantly coming back to the core questions about the value of this work. Who benefits? Who needs to benefit, especially if we are to sustain support for these types of artist-driven projects and programs? Does this work offer any long-term benefits to a museum’s communities, rather than just involving communities at the benefit of the museum? Are there any benefits at all? Do there need to be? The answers to these questions are so varied, localized, and subjective, but let me take a very quick stab at this from my perspective in museums—only a slice of the myriad responses that exist to this larger question.
While I recognize that museums only play one part in the larger developments of social practice art in recent years, these institutions do serve as major sites of public engagement with artists and their work. Far more than that, museums and social practice artists are working together to transform engagement and tap into the potential that museums have for experiences other than passive spectating. People today increasingly refuse to be passive recipients of what museums offer, and more and more institutions are working with artists in ways that expand far beyond simply placing their works on the walls. Instead, museums are inviting artists to bring their socially-engaged practice to bear on creating experiences that actively engage our public(s) and challenge them to rethink museums.
While these projects frequently meet resistance from within the museum institution for seeming frivolous or without intellectual content, this work largely succeeds in transforming museums into open spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity for our communities. Why?
Because of the involvement of artists.
Because of the process (complex and messy) of co-creation and collaborative thinking that can happen among museum staff, artists, and the public in these contexts.
Because of the potential for socially-engaged artists to pull people out of their everyday experience, break them from the familiar, and give them something to think about.
In describing his early discovery of the value of punk rock, Fugazi frontman and DIY punk guru Ian MacKaye uses this analogy:
“if you’re raised eating steak and potatoes every night and that’s dinner, when you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, you don’t know what’s in front of you. You just can’t recognize it. The thing is that not only is it good, it’s probably better for you.”
I think museums have a great deal to gain if they more frequently think of themselves like this Vietnamese restaurant, making a break with the business-as-usual ‘steak and potatoes’ experience. As Nina Simon once remarked, art museums are the least likely to empower their own staff to experiment in these ways, but the most likely to bring in artists to do this social/participatory work. So museums (as institutions, but more importantly as people) and their communities stand to benefit from working with social practice and socially-engaged artists as we work toward creatively expanding the menu of what’s possible.
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Header Image: Tom Finkelpearl sharing some of the questions generated at the final event of Open Engagement 2013. Photo: John Muse, openengagement.info
This past November, the art market grabbed headlines around the globe with the record-breaking auction purchase of Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” With nearly 500 news stories (and counting), this trio of canvases has garnered nearly Miley-Cyrus-level media attention — a frenzy obsessed with auction prices and billionaire collectors. When it was announced that this series of canvases was going to be on view at the Portland Art Museum as part of our Masterworks series this winter, I immediately began thinking about how one can get past the media craze and dollar signs in order to dig deeper into the core significance of this ‘masterpiece.’ How might we address the complexities of how visitors would experience a work like this? What are some ways in which we could bring audiences into a closer connection with this work? How could I, myself, have an experience with this work in a meaningful and personal way?
Standing in front of this triptych myself for the first time in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum, I was initially overwhelmed and distracted by the news stories that have provided so much baggage for this intriguing portrait. What was I going to have to do to dig deeper — to start discovering this ‘masterpiece’ for myself? As I stood there, I thought of the words of British philosopher and art historian John Armstrong, who in his 2000 book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Artwrites:
“If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.”
Perhaps the best way to start tackling this painting was to actually deal with the fraught idea of a ‘masterpiece’ and how that determination effects the experience we can have with art. For me, this type of exploration is best done with others. So early in the New Year, I invited our docents to spend some time with me in front of the Francis Bacon triptych to do some close looking, to connect with some of the scholarship on the work, and to start the process of digging deeper into the work’s significance. With only a few days notice, we had about 60 docents show-up for these open explorations of teaching with and experiencing a modern masterpiece.
This question is a weighty one and comes with a lot of historical, cultural, and political baggage — yet I began my sessions with our docents by directly addressing this very topic. Faced with defining the characteristics of a masterpiece while seated in front of the Bacon, our group of docents and I discussed how a masterpiece traditionally has “stood the test of time,” or is a particularly iconic work within a major artist’s career. In our conversations, we also touched a bit upon the individual experience we have with a masterpiece — something that draws us in and keeps us thinking, questioning, wondering. In my own experiences visiting museums as well as teaching with art, I do find that certain works of art continuously draw us back in for repeat encounters, offering new challenges and insights each time we sit in front of them. We questioned the idea of who gets to define a ‘masterpiece,’ proposing that perhaps we as individuals get to make that determination for ourselves.
“For me, masterpiece connotes a work of art that manages to work on multiple levels: impact, art historical importance, and an elusive quality that lets it be meaningful to a wide audience, rather than only specialists.” -Stephanie Barron, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
“I believe in the transformative power of art; I do believe that. And the paintings that move you so much words fail you — those are the masterpieces.” -Michael Kareken, artist
For our engagement with the Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum, it was important for our discovery to push past monetary value (which, of course, remains the elephant in the room) in order to see how this painting might appeal to us in a more complex, meaningful,and perhaps elusive way. We began to unknowingly take the advice of a quite terrible but catchy pop song as we proceeded: “forget about the price tag.”
Engaging with a Masterpiece: Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969)
Moving past the auction price and the weight of this work being a ‘masterpiece,’ we were now faced with looking at this immense triptych of 6-foot-tall canvases and making some meaning of our own. But how to do this? How to begin to dig deeper? I immediately went back to John Armstrong, and a recent book he co-authored with writer Alain de Botton entitled Art as Therapy. Probing at the larger purpose and relevance of art (and quite critical of the art market, itself), Armstong and DeBotton offer philosophical strategies for approaching art in a new way, beyond the normal historical or stylistic concerns toward a more personal, human approach:
“Getting something out of art doesn’t just mean learning about it — it also means investigating ourselves. We should be ready to look into ourselves in response to what we see.” (p. 72)
While I generally gravitate toward this type of approach, it seemed particularly appropriate as a framework through which to view this visceral and intensely human set of paintings by Bacon. After briefly talking about Armstong and De Botton’s ideas, the docents and I spent much of our sessions with quiet, guided looking followed by small group conversations to talk about what we were noticing, thinking, and wondering with the Bacon portraits. I acknowledged that this would only be the beginning of our experience with these paintings, and read a few quotes from Bacon himself to help us peel back more layers of meaning in these portraits.
“In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person.”– Francis Bacon
“When I look at you across the table, I don’t see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.” – Francis Bacon
Before we left the Bacon triptych as a group, I invited each docent to return to this painting at another time, sit with the work alone on a quiet afternoon, and spend about 20 or 30 minutes doing some sketches and open reflective writing. For me, the most powerful prompt for this type of written response has simply been “What is this to me?” — a question directly inspired by John Armstong and one that I have used repeatedly in my own gallery learning as well as teaching with larger groups. And I feel that if we can begin to answer this question for ourselves, we can also begin to open up a new type of experience for our visitors with great works of art.
The sessions I led with the docents in front of the Bacon triptych were by no means the type of neatly packaged, “transformative” experience we sometimes strive for. I had to remind myself that there was value in simply opening up a process of discovery and not ending in some grand culminating moment of clarity. After all, this was a complex artwork filled with a shifting sense of energy, fragility, violence, and deep emotion that would reward a more sustained and circuitous path of learning. In her chapter entitled “Intense Looks” in Teaching in the Art Museum, Rika Burnham discusses the deep journey of contemplation, research, and gallery teaching that can often lead us, as educators, to our own transformative experiences with art. As she aptly writes:
“As museum educators, we must never forget that in every gallery dialogue we lead we must strive simultaneously to discover both the artworks we look at so intensely and the process itself of discovering artwork…. As teachers, our own difficulties in making sense of art, the experiences of frustration, the long detours and false starts, all chart a terrain whose exploration expands our capacity for empathetic listening and responding, for encouraging intense looking, and for moving dialogue forward.”
It may be these cumulative, layered experiences we have with masterpieces that allow us to change the way we see art as well as ourselves. But these types of experiences take time and repeat encounters with a work of art — they don’t happen in the seconds or minutes that we typically spend glancing at a painting such as the Bacon triptych, and they also often don’t necessarily happen when we’re leading a guided experience with an artwork. As I concluded my session with our docents in front of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” I encouraged them all to see our collective experience as simply the beginning of a deeper process of looking at this work; a process they would need to culminate on their own, in their own personal way, and in collaboration with future visitors to the museum.
“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.
I was honored to have been invited to participate as a speaker at the forum, presenting in the area of “Social Responsibilities and Roles of Museums for Participation, Communication, and Change.” I took this opportunity to spend time thinking more about the role that artists play in museums working toward a more participatory, public, and social practice. At the Portland Art Museum in 2013, we were entering our fifth year of collaborating with social practice artists, and our “Shine a Light” program has been developing in parallel with (and informed by) several other such programs across the country. For the international audience at Yeongwol, I chose to take a few steps back and reflect on the importance of artists in the experimental work of museums, bringing to the foreground projects at the Walker Art Center, Hammer Museum, and Portland Art Museum. Below is an excerpt from my paper (you can view my presentation slides here), and I have followed-up with individual posts focusing on each of these three institutions as well as some core questions that emerge as institutions push ahead with experimental, participatory practices that open the spaces of museums to the work of social practice and socially-engaged artists.
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“Art is the only possibility for evolution, the only possibility to change the situation in this world.” —Joseph Beuys
In a rapidly transforming world of social media, massive open online learning, and increasing demands for active participation and collaborative engagement, museums have been faced with the challenge of redefining their public practice. As Graham Black states in his recent book Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012), “people today increasingly refuse to be passive recipients of whatever governments, companies, or cultural institutions such as museums offer” (3). Instead, museums need to engage with users as active participants, contributors, and collaborators, continuing to change and take on new meanings and roles as society continues to transform itself. Nina Simon’s pivotal book The Participatory Museum (2010) firmly established the need to develop a more participatory mindset and to reconnect with audiences through diverse forms of participatory experiences—a text that has remained at the core of conversations about this element of museum practice since it’s publication, in part due to Simon’s widely-read blog Museum 2.0. However, the broader arts and culture sector in the United States has also seen this shift occurring.
The 2011 study published by the James Irvine Foundation entitled Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups Are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation draws insights from a much wider field of nonprofit arts groups and experts to explore a new model for understanding and supporting active, participatory practices. The Irvine Foundation report suggests that “the value of the arts in this participatory culture is its ability to connect people through shared experiences and to contribute to vibrant, livable communities.” The report’s human-centered focus brings much-needed attention to the value of the arts—and especially arts institutions such as museums—to connect people, to create shared social experiences, and to contribute to the cultural fabric of the communities in which we live and work.
Over the past few years, the Irvine Foundation’s Arts Innovation Fund has supported arts organizations across California—including 7 art museums—to experiment with innovative projects geared toward achieving new relevance for audiences, communities, and artists. One example of such a project is the Public Engagement Artist in Residence program at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Outside the boundaries of the museum’s traditional curatorial operations, this recently developed initiative brings artists together with museum staff in a collaborative process to investigate public engagement and, according to artist Mark Allen, to open up a more exciting and fundamental challenge:
“to rethink the way museums operate and to propose changes that would make the museum as an institution better attuned to contemporary art practices” (Machine Project Hammer Report, 12).
The Hammer Museum is now one of several institutions bringing artists and artistic practice into their efforts to become more audience-centered, community-based, and participatory. As artists gain more creative input in museums and activate museum spaces and publics in new, unexpected ways, it is important to take a closer look at these emerging experimentations and consider their place in the evolving practice of museums.
ARTISTS EXPERIMENTING IN ART MUSEUMS
“I don’t think ideas are very valuable in themselves. It’s only in the doing of the idea that you learn anything, or anything interesting happens.”—Mark Allen, Machine Project Hammer Report
Experimental work in museums has been a growing topic of conversation among museum professionals, and an increasing number of institutions have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects that consider the roles of art, artists, and visitors from a fresh perspective. As part of this shift in museums, more and more institutions are working with artists in ways that expand far beyond simply placing their works on the walls, instead inviting artists to bring their artistic practice to bear on creating experiences that actively engage visitors and, in many cases, also interrogate the role of the museum within their community. While they frequently meet resistance from within the museum institution for seeming frivolous or without intellectual content, these projects largely succeed (because of the involvement of artists) in transforming museums into open spaces of curiousity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity. In writing about the November 2012 panel discussion entitled “Do We Need Artists in Art Museums?” held at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Annelisa Stephan aptly remarks:
“Inviting artists into the institution … has ramifications far beyond any individual project. Including artists means taking risks and ceding control; it means changing how museum staff work together; and it even means shifting what a museum is, from a space for art to a space of art.”
During the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting, a group of museum experts including Maria Mortati (independent exhibit developer), Sarah Schultz (Walker Art Center), Susan Diachisin (Dallas Museum of Art), and Stephanie Parrish (Portland Art Museum) came together to address some of the issues and questions surrounding experimental projects in art museums, thinking about public practice as well as working with socially-engaged artists. This important session explored how to support, realize, and engage with a variety of experimental projects, leaving attendees—and the entire museum community—with an “An Elastic Manual for Experimental Museum Projects.” Thinking critically about why art museums would do this type of work, they laid out a series of key statements supporting projects driven by these artistic practices; among them were:
It will expand your role in the community: the work is more social and each project appeals to different audiences. It relies on networks inside and outside the museum to function and therefore has a greater reach.
It pushes all departments: it innovates all areas of the museum, by engaging them in the art-making.
It is the closest thing so far to working in line with how artists create.
You are furthering a conversation with contemporary work: these projects directly engage with new art forms.
In a March 2013 article entitled “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture,” New York Times arts writer Randy Kennedy examines the recent rise of social practice art and its connection with museums. “Its practitioners,” states Kennedy, “freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system.” As he notes, social practice artists more frequently find themselves in dialogue with museums through the education and programs departments rather than through the traditional curatorial route — this would be true of the institutions and projects described here. In an interview with Helen Reed, Artist and educator Pablo Helguera discussed how institutions, and education departments more specifically, can provide some safety to these types of socially-engaged projects. He suggests that:
“the reason why education departments appear to be very welcoming and very appropriate for this kind of stuff is because they are designed for people. Education is about people and about visitors and they are adjusted to the porosity of social relationships.”
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A series of subsequent posts (see links below) shed some light on 3 projects that are working to redefine how art museums work with artists and their publics via a new form of participatory practice. And be thinking about some of these core questions as you read this series of posts, which will end by grappling with some of the challenges:
What happens when institutions collaborate with artists?
How can the questions artists ask reshape us as practitioners and reshape the museum itself?
What’s the difference between an artist doing this work versus an education department doing it?
What does success look like? How do we measure success?
Header Image: Photo of “The Serenades” from https://publicwondering.wordpress.com, taken at Portland Art Museum during a Shine a Light event. The Serenades were a series of performances by Portland based musicians for the Shine A Light event at the Portland Art Museum. Artist Ariana Jacob invited each musician to compose an original piece of music specifically for an artwork of their choice from the museum’s permanent collection. The performances explored and modeled creating direct and personal relationships with visual artworks using different forms of music, including pop, electronic, spoken-word/hip hop and classical. Original songs written and performed by: Mirah; Joe Preston of Thrones; Honey Owens of Valet; Khaela Maricich of The Blow; Christopher Doulgaris of Hooliganship & Jonathan Sielaff and Drew Slum, Terms None & Blacque Butterfly.
“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).
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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.
By Brinker Ferguson, Digital Media Fellow, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
In the past several months, many museums have begun using live video chat as a way to enhance and foster new online discussions and interactions between museum educators and the public. One of the most popular tools has been Google Hangouts which is part of the Google+ social network. It allows for up to 10 users to video chat together and gives them the ability to broadcast the video stream live to a large audience and even record the session for future viewing. The recorded video, which is archived on the museum’s G+ page and YouTube channel, can be shared on various social networks. In addition, the videos collect (limited) analytics information so museums can track the attention it receives. Users who express interest in a museum video session ahead of time can be alerted when it is about to begin via Google+ email messaging.
This use of video chatting has spawned a new online forum that helps to bring together museum curators, directors, historians and educators with different virtual communities for in-depth conversations of art and ideas. Rather then a YouTube video, which disseminates information in a “I talk, you listen” format, video chatting can enable a more flexible and collaborative seminar style discussion. This idea of accessible online videos is very much in keeping with many museums’ mission of providing an open space for dialogue, learning, and exploration for the public, and working toward developing meaningful online communities of practice.
Though relatively new, there have been a large number of museums using Google Hangouts from all over the globe. This past month alone, MoMA debuted its “Art Hang” series, which brings together art educators with other art enthusiasts to discuss topics surrounding art and identity. The Google Art Project began its #ArtTalk hangouts with the National Gallery on March 20th and more recently with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The series, which discusses the stories behind famous works of art, will continue to take place each month at different cultural institutions such as the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.
Likewise artists have conducted live studio visits, in which they talk with interested online groups about what inspires them, what their next artwork might look like, and get much needed critical feedback from online art communities.
Understanding Its Impact
Of course, use of a new medium brings new challenges. In trying to gauge the success of video chats, museums are learning how to interpret the relatively sparse analytics information provided by Google+ and YouTube. Statistics like “this video was viewed 5000 times” does not paint a full picture of just how beneficial the video was for the museum and its viewers. It is very clear, however, that hangouts have the ability to reach far greater percentage of the global online community and can do so in a more engaging way. And while it can be difficult to measure the success of these videos, museum educators know it is worth their time to continue exploring the limits of new this technology in order to captivate a broader audience and share more of the museum’s passion for art and cultural heritage.
Possible Uses in the Future
Tools associated with video chatting such as live commenting, image sharing, hash tags, and social media sharing have become additional ways of connecting online viewers with the live discussion. Recently, Mike Murawski of the Portland Art Museum brought up another possible use for video chatting. He suggested using Hangouts as a way of connecting living contemporary artists with museum visitors both in the gallery and online. What would it be like then to talk with an artist about his/her work right in front of the artwork in the gallery? Or watch an artist explaining his/her artwork online while you ask questions?
How can we use these new tools to better facilitate learning and interaction onsite and online in the future? Are there other ways that Google Hangouts or other chatting services will connect people, or perhaps help the museum’s visitors feel closer to its collection?
Taking this question further in a mini-thought experiment, imagine what would happen if the video feed were not fixed to the wall. What would a more intimate conversation with an artist look like? While you ebb and flow around the gallery, could an artist virtually tag along with you?
One company exploring the idea of digital presence is Anybots, a team that has created a roving avatar robot with video screen projecting the face of a remote participant. The robot is controlled remotely and reacts to speech frequencies to directly address and react to questions or comments from multiple people. Right now, the Anybots are in the hypothetical realm (due to the hefty $15,000 price tag).
While video chatting environments will continue to develop (though at the moment we are not yet sure in what form they will appear) the strides taken by #ArtHang, Google Art Projects, and many other institutions and artist communities will continue to push online connection and conversation.
“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?
I’m not exactly sure when or where it started, but I give credit to Ed Rodley at the Museum of Science in Boston for introducing me to the concept of the “Drinking about Museums” professional meet-up. What could be better than meeting up with museum folk, playing around in our galleries & exhibit spaces, sharing ideas, and topping it all off with drinks. Boston is doing it! Sydney is doing it! Denver is doing it! So it was time to get “Drinking about Museums” started up here in the Northwest — Portlandia style. And since I’m still the new kid in town, this was a great way to get outside the walls of the Portland Art Museum and meet other creative museum people. So here is my report from the inaugural “Drinking about Museums” in Portland, Oregon:
Who: Sparked by my new love for OMSI and their staff, we gathered together interested people from their education and exhibit design departments along with people from our education and digital collections departments at the Portland Art Museum.
The evening began at the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry (OMSI) in their technology lab and maker space — an area of their museum in which they are playing with new forms of creative engagement and participatory design. David Perry, OMSI’s Director of Museum Education, and Kristin Bayans, Senior Educator, both hosted the group along with many other OMSI educators and staff. We all got to know each other through some fun (aka ’embarrassing’) activities, but mostly we played around in the learning lab space and got to chat with each other about what we do.
When you get so many creative, high-energy museum people together in one place, the ideas start flowing … and I feel that we came away from the night with tons of potential for meaningful collaboration. For me, one of the first experiments that will likely come out of this exchange is a couple MakerBot 3D printing workshops at the Portland Art Museum, allowing education staff from both institutions to play with this technology and its potential applications for an art museum.
So this brings me to the next topic of my post … MakerBots! I have been eyeing the MakerBot station at OMSI for months now, chatting with their staff and volunteers about how it is being used, why it is being used, and what are the potential ways it could be used in an art museum context (or even with artists). Kristin Bayans, who manages this innovative lab space at OMSI, has been such an amazing person to brainstorm with, and she was able to download some objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection to print for us yesterday. Yes, earlier this year, the Met teamed up with MakerBot to make statues, sculptures, and other three dimensional artworks from the museum’s collection available for anyone in the world to access virtually on Thingiverse.com and physically recreate with The Replicator™– MakerBot’s third-generation 3D Printer. As Jackie Terrassa, the Met’s Manager of Gallery and Studio Programs, wrote about this Hackathon event:
“… by partnering with artists and programmers who are already using these accessible technologies as creative tools, we will advance a core component of the Museum’s mission to encourage the study and development of the arts, enhancing the Met’s role as a dynamic site for creativity, inspiration, and exploration by artists and visitors alike.”
I could not agree more, and this has made me so excited to experiment with some workshops here at the Portland Art Museum around these technologies, and ensure that the museum can be a place for open creative exploration. And, besides, now I have my very own 3D-printed replica of the Met’s sculpture of Marsyas by 17th-century German sculptor Balthasar Permoser … what could be cooler than that! Obviously, there will be more discussion coming up on this site around 3D printing and museums, especially the impact this type of work might have in the teaching and learning realm of the museum. But I would encourage everyone to learn more about what the Met has been doing, and check out the objects and the 123D Catch scene files you can download to make your own replicas.
OK, so that is a quick report from Portland’s first ever “Drinking About Museums.” I look forward to opening this up to more and more museums across Portland, and exploring the way we can learn from each other as professional, as creative thinkers, and as people. Cheers!
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Early in 2012, I came across a particularly inspiring TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” quoted above, warns that if we tell or hear only a single story about a people or culture, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories, and all of those stories matter and deserve to have a voice. As I was listening to Adichie’s transformative words, I immediately thought about museums and the cultural power they have historically possessed to tell a single story—the single story. As museums continue to adapt to become more relevant in the 21st century, they have also been struggling with whose stories to tell, whose voices can participate in that telling, and how much power can or should be handed over to our communities to tell and share their own stories.
Since first listening to Chimamanda Adichie’s talk almost a year ago, I have experienced an exciting career and life transition as I moved from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon, to become the Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. And these issues of power, voice, storytelling, and community engagement are central to one of the Museum’s most widely expanding educational projects, Object Stories. Launched almost 3 years ago, this project begins to address the need for museums to reject the single story, to create and share a multiplicity of stories around its collection, and to bring the meaning-making process of storytelling into the galleries. This post provides a much-needed spotlight on the Object Stories project, and I will definitely follow-up with future posts that reflect on the further challenges and successes of this exciting work.
The Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project was recently featured by EmcArts and ArtsFwd in their ‘Business Unusual’ Contest, and I’m very proud to say that we won the contest with a broad base of support from across our community (the Mayor of Portland even gave us a shout out, along with dozens of other cultural organizations across Oregon). Originally posted on ArtsFwd.org, the text below was created through a full team effort from the Education Department, including Stephanie Parrish, Amy Gray, Danae Hutson, Jess Park, Betsy Konop, and especially my amazing predecessor Tina Olsen, who passionately led this project from its inception to where it stands today. As a team, we are pushing this project to new areas and breaking down boundaries inside the museum as well as both locally and globally.
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In light of the challenges of the 21st century, institutions across the globe are reassessing their strategies to be more relevant in the lives of their communities. Framed by this larger discussion, the Portland Art Museum began to rethink how we relate to our audience. We questioned the role of the public as mere consumers of information and strove to diversify the populations that we serve. In doing so, we uncovered that both the Museum and the public needed a catalyst for active participation, personal reflection, and meaningful ways to rediscover works of art in the collection. It was out of this larger, ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born.
Launched in March 2010, Object Stories invites visitors to record their own narratives about personal objects—whether a piece of clothing, a cherished record album, or a family heirloom. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, this project aims to demystify the Museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities – while continuing to highlight the inherent relationship between people and things. Nearly one thousand people from throughout Portland—most of who had never before set foot in the Museum—have participated as storytellers in this project.
How Object Stories works
Current visitors to the Object Stories gallery encounter a recording booth, where they can leave their own story, as well as a central table with two touchscreens that enable them to browse, search, and listen to hundreds of collected stories about personal objects and works from the collection. On the surrounding walls, guests find a rotating selection of museum objects that have been the subject of recent stories in concert with portraits of community members posing with their personal objects.
The Museum has also produced a series of Object Stories that brings out personal perspectives on selected objects in the permanent collection, with recordings of the voices of museum staff, local artists, and cultural partners. This stage of the project has added a personal dimension to visitors’ experiences and their interpretation around works of art in the collection.
Change in organizational approach, a new culture of dialogue
This overarching shift in the Museum’s relationship with our audience is the culmination of a series of other changes away from “business-as-usual.” The internal process of developing and implementing Object Stories has encouraged the dissolution of long-established departmental silos, the growth of new partnerships with community organizations, and the confidence to experiment with a formative approach to programming that incorporates audience feedback.
Before the launch of Object Stories, the education departments of the Museum and Northwest Film Center partnered with Milagro Theatre and Write Around Portland to develop community-generated prototypes that led to the existing recording process and prompts. This prototyping phase brought in staff from across the Museum—as well as local design firms—to challenge our assumptions of who could and should hold authority in these decisions about content and interpretation within the museum. While more work has to be done to build upon this internal culture of dialogue and collaboration, this project has successfully led to a shared understanding of the value of representing community voices and displaying public-generated content on gallery walls.
A new platform for community collaboration
Since 2010, the Object Stories concept has essentially evolved into a comprehensive educational platform for engaging audiences and forging community collaborations. The Museum has since extended Object Stories into a multi-year partnership with area middle schools that involves in-depth teacher professional development, artist residencies, and multiple visits to the Portland Art Museum that culminates in students’ own personal “object stories.” Further success has brought the Museum into a new international partnership with the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City, and a more locally-focused proposed Object Stories project with the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland. These outreach efforts will also bring the storytelling process outside of the Museum through a new mobile iPad application currently in development.
Big impact with room for growth
The biggest shift and impact caused by Object Stories is the changing viewpoint of diverse audiences, who now see the Portland Art Museum as a place that invites the voices and stories of its community and welcomes the public in this act of co-creating content. As the Museum continues to integrate the Object Stories initiative into its growing educational programming and interpretive planning, we will no doubt discover new challenges, as well as exciting opportunities.
We’re super excited about where this project has been and where it is going, but I wanted to end with some open questions to invite your thoughts:
In what ways does storytelling and personal meaning-making enter the fabric of your institution?
What are some challenges to having these types of projects enter the ‘mainstream’ of museum planning around visitor experience and interpretation?
How can museums do a better job to design and support opportunities like this for visitor and community voices to enter the galleries?
And, finally, a big question that is very much on our minds: what is the next step for projects like this?
Please post your thoughts and questions below, and add to the ongoing conversation. You can also learn more about the thinking behind Object Stories by reading Nina Simon’s interview with Tina Olsen at Museum 2.0.
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.