Open Engagement is an annual international conference and gathering that focuses on social practice and socially-engaged art. For several years, the conference was hosted here in Portland, Oregon, and I was fortunate enough to attend the 2013 conference which linked up with the Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light event and the partnership our museum has with Portland State University’s Art & Social Practice program.
The conference was founded by artist and educator Jen Delos Reyes, who leads the planning and programming for each year’s Open Engagement. In 2014, the conference moved from Portland to Queens (sniffle, sniffle), and was co-presented by the Queens Museum and A Blade of Grass, and took place at the Queens Museum, New York Hall of Science, the Queens Theater, Immigrant Movement International, and various locations around New York in May.
The 2013 conference brought artists, thinkers, activists, and museum professionals from across the continent, and there were some tremendous conversations about the role of museums in social practice art, and the role of social practice art and artists in museums. We left with more questions than we had answers (which is actually a good thing — it means we’re not fooling ourselves that we have this all figured out).
To ramp up to the 2013 conference, Delos Reyes and conference organizers invited 100 contributors from the field to reflect on 100 questions collectively generated at the closing session of Open Engagement 2013. Each contributor wrote a short blog post, published online in rapid succession prior to the start of the conference. I was invited to write a short response to question #97: “Who stands to benefit from this work?” Below is my response — and I encourage you to read all 100 contributors respond to all 100 questions. And I invite your thoughts below — who do you think benefits from social practice and socially-engaged art, whether related to museums (as in my response) or out in the community?
“Who stands to benefit from this work?”
Originally published online at Open Engagement blog, February 9, 2014
I know that museums are not new players in the game of social practice and socially-engaged art, yet we are constantly coming back to the core questions about the value of this work. Who benefits? Who needs to benefit, especially if we are to sustain support for these types of artist-driven projects and programs? Does this work offer any long-term benefits to a museum’s communities, rather than just involving communities at the benefit of the museum? Are there any benefits at all? Do there need to be? The answers to these questions are so varied, localized, and subjective, but let me take a very quick stab at this from my perspective in museums—only a slice of the myriad responses that exist to this larger question.
While I recognize that museums only play one part in the larger developments of social practice art in recent years, these institutions do serve as major sites of public engagement with artists and their work. Far more than that, museums and social practice artists are working together to transform engagement and tap into the potential that museums have for experiences other than passive spectating. People today increasingly refuse to be passive recipients of what museums offer, and more and more institutions are working with artists in ways that expand far beyond simply placing their works on the walls. Instead, museums are inviting artists to bring their socially-engaged practice to bear on creating experiences that actively engage our public(s) and challenge them to rethink museums.
While these projects frequently meet resistance from within the museum institution for seeming frivolous or without intellectual content, this work largely succeeds in transforming museums into open spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity for our communities. Why?
Because of the involvement of artists.
Because of the process (complex and messy) of co-creation and collaborative thinking that can happen among museum staff, artists, and the public in these contexts.
Because of the potential for socially-engaged artists to pull people out of their everyday experience, break them from the familiar, and give them something to think about.
In describing his early discovery of the value of punk rock, Fugazi frontman and DIY punk guru Ian MacKaye uses this analogy:
“if you’re raised eating steak and potatoes every night and that’s dinner, when you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, you don’t know what’s in front of you. You just can’t recognize it. The thing is that not only is it good, it’s probably better for you.”
I think museums have a great deal to gain if they more frequently think of themselves like this Vietnamese restaurant, making a break with the business-as-usual ‘steak and potatoes’ experience. As Nina Simon once remarked, art museums are the least likely to empower their own staff to experiment in these ways, but the most likely to bring in artists to do this social/participatory work. So museums (as institutions, but more importantly as people) and their communities stand to benefit from working with social practice and socially-engaged artists as we work toward creatively expanding the menu of what’s possible.
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Header Image: Tom Finkelpearl sharing some of the questions generated at the final event of Open Engagement 2013. Photo: John Muse, openengagement.info
“Art is a space, which we have created, where we can cease to subscribe to the demands and the rules of society; it is a space where we can pretend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.”—Pablo Helguera
As museums face the current challenges to drive relevance through becoming more active, participatory, responsive, and community-based, projects such as the ones explored in this past week’s posts indicate a potentially transformative role for artists to play. Whether rethinking a museum’s visitor experience, reinventing the public spaces of and around museums, drawing on creative practice to break museums’ ‘old habits,’ or interrogating the internal culture and working of the museum, artists are effectively exploring museum institutions as sites with a distinct “possibility for evolution,” to reconnect with the powerful words from Joseph Beuys that opened this series of posts (and from which the title of my paper came).
This final excerpt from my paper presented as part of the International Museum Forum in South Korea in October 2013 discusses the artist-driven program I am directly involved in here at the Portland Art Museum. In addition, I’m concluding this post with some of the “core, burning questions” that institutions involved in this work are addressing — especially as many of these projects are in a current phase of reflection and rethinking.
Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light
“Art and everyday life share a common and continuous border. They coexist in the same reality, divided and defined by a border that twists, turns, open and closes. The edges of the museum are part of that border, and like the imaginary line between any contested territories, this boundary does not completely reflect the reality on the ground.” —Paul Ramirez Jonas (“An Imaginary Line,” Shine a Light 2013 program)
At the same time that the team at the Walker Art Center was preparing to launch Open Field and Machine Project had recently experimented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which preceded their work at the Hammer Museum), the Education team at the Portland Art Museum began conversations with the faculty in Art & Social Practice at neighboring Portland State University around similar types of experimentations. The immediate outcome of this collaboration was Shine a Light, a new annual one-night event at the Portland Art Museum dedicated to experimentation, play, and participation. Emerging out of a collaboration between the museum and Portland State University’s MFA program in Art & Social Practice, Shine a Light invited the MFA program’s faculty and students to propose a series of projects that would experiment in and with the Museum space — conceiving the museum as a laboratory for ideas and interventions. As Christina Olsen, then Director of Education and Public Programs at the museum, recounts:
“Over lunch one day, I began to talk with Harrell Fletcher and Jen Delos Reyes—co-directors of PSU’s Art & Social Practice program—about the the ‘habits of mind’ that govern both museum visitors and museum staff, and ways we might collaborate to expand such mindsets” (Shine a Light 2010).
Inspired by the Machine Project’s Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art one-day event in November 2008 as well as the broader approach and process of social practice art, the team at the Portland Art Museum and PSU launched the first Shine a Light event in September 2009. For six hours, the museum was a space in which sixteen artists enacted projects that offered visitors new, unanticipated, playful and provocative ways to experience the museum. The goals established during this first event—which have remained the core goals for this project up through the most recent Shine a Light event in 2013—included:
Situate art (producing, interpreting, enjoying, puzzling over) as a living activity that everyone can participate in.
Encourage an atmosphere of participation between the museum, its visitors, and artists.
Make the museum a “site” of artistic production and practice.
Inspire inquiry into the connection between art and everyday life.
Artist-led projects that have been part of Shine a Light since 2009 have ranged from live Greco-Roman nude wrestling, a museum cookbook, dead artist seances, and haircuts inspired by artworks in the collection to inviting visitors to have a work of art tattooed onto their body, to sing songs about a work of art, or to display their personal cell phone photos within the museum’s photography collection. Here is a video compilation that features projects from Shine a Light 2013:
Since the project’s launch in 2009, the annual Shine a Light event has brought together more than 9,000 participants to actively engage in a total of 88 artist-driven projects spread across the entire museum campus, successfully cultivating a younger “millennial” audience as well as encouraging existing audiences to rethink what is possible in an art museum. In its four iterations, Shine a Light has built a unique framework to work closely with emerging and professional artists and to provide an ongoing platform for the Museum, artists, and audiences to actively learn and experiment with one another.
In her introduction to the 2013 Shine a Light event program, Associate Director of Education & Public Programs Stephanie Parrish encapsulates much of the museum’s current thinking about this experimental project:
“In its ideal form, a program like Shine a Light is a platform that nudges us to wonder; to consider art museum spaces as flexible sites where one’s identity as an artist, an institution, or a member of the public is increasingly fluid…. We find ourselves in a hybrid zone, somewhere on a continuum where museums not only display but also produce art, where artists shape and are shaped by institutions and are not just pitted against them, and where multiple publics see themselves as participants in and reflected through the art. Shine a Light is a space where we co-produce museum experiences and adjust our perspective of where art, artists, and institutions intersect in our everyday lives.” (Shine a Light 2013 program, 1).
Raising Core Questions
During the 2013 Open Engagement conference — an international gathering of artists, educators, curators, and scholars in the field of social practice and socially-engaged art—one of the panel sessions entitled “Art Museums and Social Practice: Where Are We Now?” brought together nearly a dozen museum professionals and artists engaged in this type of practice within their own institutions. Facilitated by the Shine a Light team at the Portland Art Museum, the thinking around this panel session began months in advance by having museum professionals and artists define the ‘burning questions’ that were core to their own involvement with this practice in museums. After gathering ten pages filled with questions, the group was invited to “crowd-source” the most urgent questions by marking the questions most relevant to their own practice.
At the Open Engagement panel discussion, the top questions were revealed and discussed, and I think perhaps it is an appropriate way to end this paper by simply presenting these and other questions that are now sparking some open thinking in the field across institutions.
Are we doing this work to broaden our audiences or to serve existing audiences?
What’s the difference between an artist doing this work versus a public engagement or education department doing it?
What does success look like? How do we measure success?
What happens when institutions collaborate with artists? How can the questions artists ask reshape us as practitioners and reshape the museum itself?
Many of the answers to these and other questions are localized to each project and institution (some have even been addressed above by existing projects), yet certainly some common responses will emerge as institutions push ahead with experimental, participatory practices that open the spaces of museums to the work of social practice and socially-engaged artists, as well as museum staff that have been gaining a tremendous level of creative capacity through this type of work. Overall, many of these core questions bring the conversation back to the ability of these socially-engaged, participatory projects to effect change — whether that is shifting the ‘mindset’ for museum visitors as well as the communities that engage with museums, or a more broad social change felt in the community.
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.
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.
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.