Earlier this year, I started a series of in-gallery workshop sessions for docents at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) as a complement to their lecture-based training. The workshops, repeated four times each month, focus on topics and themes related to the process of gallery teaching. Previously, the CAM docents did not have an outlet for continually examining object-based teaching methods. They have received a lot of training on content, but not as much on methods for sharing their learning experience with visitors. We talk a lot about the importance of questions and methods for more active participation, but we also explore the connections between the museum’s permanent collection and current social and cultural issues. One of the first social issues that I decided to address was the American perception of Islam.
Muslims have been at the forefront of public discourse since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Much of that discussion has been based out of fear and anger, leading some Americans to adopt distorted views of Muslims and the religion of Islam. Considering the tone of the rhetoric from this year’s presidential election, it is an issue that unfortunately does not have an end in sight. However, museums like the CAM display art from the Islamic world that allows museum educators and docents the opportunity to use the power of art to emphasize the positive and uplifting aspects of Islam.
I collaborated on these workshops with Shabana Ahmed, a member of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, because I wanted to make sure there was a Muslim voice in the conversation. Shabana serves as a volunteer to the Islamic Center, so it was also fitting to have someone who could relate to a docent’s experience as a volunteer. Though the workshop format was slightly different from the format Shabana uses with the Islamic Center, she was flexible and open to ideas.
I had a few objectives in mind. The first was to create an environment in which docents felt confident to participate. Instead of overwhelming the docents with terminology and history, Shabana and I focused on the essential facets of a Muslim’s faith. In that spirit, we also wanted to focus on the human element of art from the Islamic world. As an encyclopedic museum, the CAM is dedicated to celebrating art from various cultures. By humanizing the religious practices of Muslims and the processes of the artists that made the objects we see at the museum, it becomes much easier to see the similarities between Islam and other cultures.
Each workshop was roughly an hour long with an average of twelve docents in attendance. We stationed ourselves outside of the CAM’s mihrab from Central Asia. Shabana used the first half-hour to outline the core beliefs and tenets of Islam as a base for the discussion. When speaking about her experiences as a Muslim, Shabana wasn’t afraid to inject a little humor (it was pretty difficult for her to sell the perks of fasting to her children during the dog days of a summer Ramadan). In the second half, the docents split up into groups of three or four and I gave each group a hypothetical tour scenario related to the mihrab. Some of the scenarios included:
You ask a group of third grade students, “What do we know about Islam?” A student raises his hand and says, “They’re the bad guys on TV.” How do you respond?
After explaining the function of a mihrab in a mosque, a visitor asks, “Why is this considered art?”
On a school-group tour, you overhear another docent telling her group that the people that made the mihrab “are not the terrible Muslims you read about on the internet.” What do you do?
After each group deliberated for a few minutes, we reconvened to share responses and ideas. Much of our discussions across all of the workshops revolved around maintaining open dialogue with visitors, and many docents noted the importance of the human element in the mihrab. One docent noted that, “art is integral to us.” Another mentioned that it was important to celebrate the unique qualities of Islam and connect it to shared elements from other cultures. We also talked about the consequences of characterizing Muslims as good or bad. Museum educators are increasingly adapting to the role of facilitator rather than speaking as an authority on a specific culture or artist. In terms of Islam, referring to good and bad Muslims flirts dangerously with honoring the association between Islam and terrorism where there is none.
There were some tense moments as well. Some docents balked at the thought of engaging in a conversation about the religion; their role is to strictly talk about art. While I don’t advocate for docents to get into political arguments with visitors, it is practically impossible to separate the culture and religion from the artwork, just as there are essential societal and historical contexts to artworks that remain obscured or overlooked. Other docents had trouble responding to the hypothetical scenario involving an offensive remark from a fellow docent. They said they couldn’t believe that a docent would say something like that (indeed, it has unfortunately happened before).
My hope is that this is a sign of things to come. We all understand the power of visual art combined with an open dialogue. The challenge before us is how to incorporate new, and sometimes unsettling elements into the fold. This year, I have plans to lead workshops on empathy, a subject many museum educators are invested in, and society’s views on the human body. I have also had preliminary discussions with a colleague about a workshop on LGBTQ issues. It is exciting and daunting all at once. But as this year’s election has shown us, our challenges have become clearer than ever. It’s time that we embrace them.
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About the Author
ANDREW PALAMARA is the Assistant Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team.
“We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever before.”
This quote has been on my mind often over the past days, weeks, months, and sadly, years—as senseless acts of violence and hatred hit the headlines at a numbing pace of regularity. This past Friday was no different, as we all awoke to the horrific news from Dallas, during a week when the country was already reeling from news of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We’re also seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes and xenophobia in the UK after ‘Brexit’ that correspond in unsettling ways to divisive rhetoric and acrimonious tone of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. All of this as we are still processing the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, where 49 individuals lost their lives.
I think in moments like these, it’s important for museums—and the people who work for them—to pause and reflect on the roles that we serve within our communities. Yes, museums are institutions that hold collections. But they can also serve a powerful role with our communities as active spaces for connection and coming together, for conversation and dialogue, for listening and sharing. Museums can be spaces for individual stories and community voices. They can be a space for acknowledging and reflecting on differences, and for bridging divides. They can be spaces for growth, struggle, love, and hope.
“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, the feelings, the ideas and experiences that make up their view of the world.”
In September 2015, Krznaric put these ideas into practice in the realm of museums with the development of the Empathy Museum, dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes. Its first exhibit, “A Mile in My Shoes,” did quite literally that, setting up in a shoe shop where visitors are fitted with the shoes of another person, invited to walk a mile along the riverside while being immersed in an audio narrative of this stranger’s life, and then write a short story about it. With contributions ranging from a sewer worker to a sex worker, the stories covered different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love.
Developing empathy has the potential to create radical social change, “a revolution of human relationships,” Krznaric states. So how can we spark this empathy revolution in museums?
Museums Are Us, Not It
I want to start by making an important foundational point about how we talk about museums. When we talk about them only as brick-and-mortar institutions or as ‘it’, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from the human-centered work we do. So it’s absolutely essential to remember that museums are made of people (yes, just like Soylent Green): from directors, board members, patrons, and curators to educators, guest services staff, registrars, conservators, security guards, volunteers, maintenance and facilities workers, members, visitors, etc. I am reminded of this by the Director of Learning at the Tate, Anna Cutler, whose memorable 2013 Tate Paper discussed institutional critique and cultural learning in museums. In it, she quotes artist Andrea Fraser:
“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions.”
This is an important basis for any discussion of empathy and museums, since it defines the vision, mission, and work of a museum as the vision, mission, and work of the people who belong to that museum. So if we, myself included, say “museums must be more connected to their communities,” we’re really talking about what the people that make up the museum need to focus on – being more connected to our communities. We are inseparable from the institution, in other words. Any critique of museums is a critique of us; and any change needing to happen in museums is, therefore, a change that needs to start with us.
The Growing Role of Empathy in Museum Practice
Krznaric’s work with the Empathy Museum is but one small example of the types of civically-engaged, human-centered practices that have been instituted in an effort to expand the role that museums serve in building empathy and human connection in our communities. Staff working for museums across the globe are launching new efforts to bring people together, facilitate open dialogue, and elevate the voices and stories of marginalized groups to promote greater understanding.
For example, I continue to be amazed and inspired by the Multaqa project developed last year by Berlin’s state museums, which brings in a group of refugees from Iraq and Syria to serve as Arabic-speaking guides. The project title, Multaqa, means “meeting point” in Arabic. The tours are designed to give refugees and newcomers access to the city’s museums and facilitate the interchange of diverse cultural and historical experiences. The tours have been so popular, according to a recent report, that the organizers are looking to expand the program to include “intercultural workshops, which the Berlin public can also participate in.”
Here at the Portland Art Museum, the Object Stories initiative (which began back in 2010) has continued to embrace storytelling and community voices here in Portland. A recent exhibition that opened earlier this year featured powerful stories and personal objects from the local refugee community. The exhibition was co-created with Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit focused on welcoming immigrants and refugees arriving in our city by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust.
The work of Portland Meet Portland and this Object Stories exhibition helped to highlight the important contributions that immigrants and refugees bring to their new homes here in Oregon, and also offered this area’s longer-term residents an opportunity to learn from these newcomers—their stories, resilience, and unique cultures. Visitors to the gallery (probably around 60,000 people) had the opportunity to listen to participants’ stories, leave a welcome message for these storytellers, and learn more about advocacy efforts and local non-profits working with immigrant and refugees in Portland (which ranks 11th among US cities resettling international refugees).
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an inspiring institution in so many ways, currently houses six different exhibits that explore the tragic story and legacy of the Indian Residential School system, one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. As a national museum and hub of human rights education, the Museum has an important role to play in efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. As is stated in the 2015 summary report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): “Through their exhibits, education outreach, and research programs, all museums are well positioned to contribute to education for reconciliation.” The team at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also working to keep the conversation alive and involve the voices of its communities, especially through its “Share Your Story” project that allows anyone to record their own story about human rights or listen to the individual experiences of others.
In their book Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenship discuss the human social behaviors of bridging and bonding that museums have the distinct potential to promote and amplify, especially through public programs, education, and exhibitions. Their final essay offers a comprehensive set of strategies for how museums can be of greater value to their cities and communities:
“Museums and cities have a strong role to play together in bridging and bonding. They bring people together at similar life stages … or with identity in common … where they can share their experiences. Museums also bridge among identities, offering a public place to bring different groups together around similar interests.” (p. 222)
The International Museum of Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, inaugurated in 2010, serves as truly unique and visionary example of how museums are experimenting in this area. The Gallery’s goal is to be an agent of positive social change by engaging history, dialogue, and personal reflection around issues of social justice and human rights. Since the gallery’s inception, exhibitions in this space have explored how traditional artists come together in the face of change or disaster to provide comfort, counsel, prayer, and hope through their art. This focus has earned the space membership in the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.
Exhibitions in the Gallery of Conscience are “community-driven, co-created, collaborative, participatory, and cumulative,” according to a press release. “Visitors and community members become part of the conversation from the very beginning—helping to shape the exhibitions and contribute to the dialogue throughout the exhibition’s run.” In 2013-14, the Gallery’s exhibition “Let’s Talk About This” focused on folk artists’ responses to HIV/AIDS through artist and visitor participation, community programs, and a digital storytelling project with LGBTQ youth developed in partnership with N’MPower and Youth Media Project. The oral histories that were collected were incorporated into the exhibition through listening stations, and also became part of the dialogue-based programs related to the exhibition.
Building a Broader Culture of Advocacy
The type of museum practice I’ve highlighted is certainly not new. Many of us read about this work in museum blogs (such as Incluseum, Thinking About Museums, Visitors of Color, Queering the Museum, Brown Girls Museum Blog, etc.) and emails from the Center for the Future of Museums or Museum Hack. Many of us work on programs like these ourselves. But what concerns me is that across much of this practice, I find a lack of a broader institutional culture of support. Too many community-based projects like the ones I mention above end up being relegated to education staff, isolated from the core mission of an institution, or left entirely invisible. And this lack of supports extends beyond the walls of the museum. When journalists, scholars, and critics write about museums and exhibitions, they frequently ignore or denigrate the spaces that invite visitor engagement and community participation. There are even individuals in my own field of museum education who refer to empathy-building practices and affective learning strategies as too “touchy feely.”
We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities. More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.
So let’s all be more proud of the work we’re doing in museums to bring people together and learn more about ourselves and each other — from tiny one-off gatherings and events to much larger sustained initiatives.
Time for an Empathy Revolution in Museums
How do we start an empathy revolution in museums? How do we more fiercely recognize and support the meaningful work that museum professionals are already leading to support open dialogues around the challenging, relevant issues of our time? And how do we radically expand this work to build a stronger culture of empathy within museums — one that measures future success through our capacity to bring people together, foster conversations, and contribute to strong and resilient communities?
In 2013, the Museums Association of the UK launched its Museums Change Lives campaign, establishing a set of principles based on research, conferences sessions, online forums, open public workshops, and discussions with charities and social enterprises. I think the core principles they developed from their vision for the social impact of museums (a must read!) are worth sharing to move this discussion forward and enact change:
Every museums is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
Active public participation changes museums for the better.
Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
Museums are not neutral spaces.
Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.
These principles, as with much of their vision, are inspiring — but too often we stop there, feeling inspired but lacking action. The Museums Association report continues, “It’s time for your museum to respond to hard times by making a bigger difference. It’s time for you to play your part in helping museums change people’s lives.” The report concludes with a pretty spot-on set of 10 actions that will help your museum improve its social impact. Here is a slightly abbreviated, edited list:
Make a clear commitment to improve your museum’s social impact (ie. having strategic goals).
Reflect on your current impacts; listen to users and non-users; research local needs.
Research what other museums are doing.
Seek out and connect with suitable partners.
Work with your partners as equals.
Innovate and be willing to take risks.
Reflect on and celebrate your work. Learn from and with partners and participants.
Find ways for partners and participants to have a deep impact on your museum. Bring more voices into interpretation and devolve power.
Strive for long-term sustained change based on lasting relationships with partners and long-term engagement with participants.
Print these out, put them on your office wall, bring them to staff meetings, share these with your visitors and audiences, and have some open conversations about the “so what” of museums. Take these principles and action steps seriously. Build a broader team to advocate for the work you’re already doing at your institution; rethink existing programs; and bravely propose new projects and partnerships that better serve your community. See how a human-centered focus on empathy and social impact might change your own practice, your museum, and your community.
“The best museums are now striving to realise their full potential for society and are far more than just buildings and collections. They have two-way relationships with communities…. They are becoming increasingly outward looking, building more relationships with partners. They are welcoming more people as active participants.” (Museums Change Lives)
Let’s be a part of making this happen!
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About the Author
MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com and currently Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as head of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. He currently also serves as the Pacific Region Director for the Museum Division of the National Art Education Association. Mike has given lectures and led workshops at institutions across the United States, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among many others. He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as creative sites for transformative learning and how we can take full advantage of the powerful types of learning, public participation, and community engagement that museums can offer. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Reposted from the Getty Museum’s website and The Getty Iris online magazine. Special thanks to Sarah Cooper and Annelisa Stephan at the Getty, as well as artist Julia Sherman, for allowing me to repost this content about such an inspiring, creative, and experimental project.
Presented by artist and writer Julia Sherman, creator of the popular blog Salad for President, the Getty Salad Garden is conceived as a dynamic platform for conversations, drawing together a wide variety of creative voices. Like the format of her blog, Sherman will invite a range of artists and creative guests to join her in harvesting and making salads, emphasizing that the simple act of cooking together can be the catalyst for fascinating conversations and a fruitful creative exchange. Through sharing their artistic and culinary interests and the surprising ways they intersect, the conversations reveal the potential for a simple salad to invigorate our creative lives. Throughout the fall, the Getty Salad Garden will serve as an unexpected, playful space for investigations into the historical material on display in the galleries, infusing it with contemporary perspectives.
For the project, Sherman collaborated with urban gardeners Farmscape Gardens, and art-historian-turned-landscape-architect David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape. Together they have designed a garden which thoughtfully responds to the Getty Center’s architecture and landscape, and utilizes rare seeds, including 19th-century varietals, that help preserve agricultural and culinary heritage. The garden will be drip-irrigated, using dramatically less water than a lawn requires.
The Getty Salad Garden will support a variety of projects documenting the salads and conversations Sherman has with exciting members of Los Angeles’s artistic community. Through student workshops, intermittent public hours, and small gatherings, the Getty Salad Garden explores the unique way gardens inherently foster community, and hopes to inspire new encounters between visitors, artists, gardeners, cooks, museum staff, and works of art.
An Interview with Julia Sherman of Salad for President (from The Getty Iris)
During Julia’s latest salad exploration adventure in Japan, where she sampled dishes with myoga wild ginger flower, ponzu dipped sea grapes, and fried lotus root, Sarah Cooper (Public Programs Specialist, Getty Center) spoke with her about how the Getty Salad Garden came to be and how the simple salad managed to get her vote.
What led you to create Salad for President?
In 2011, I had finished my MFA at Columbia University, and I was forging along, pursuing shows and residencies and paying a fortune for a studio on the fifth floor of a storage facility under the Manhattan Bridge. My space was sandwiched between a CrossFit gym and a 24-hour energy distributor, so you can imagine I was not feeling surrounded by “community.”
My husband started a Tumblr for me called Salad for President, urging me to catalogue my obsessive cooking, gardening, and hosting. These were the creative things I was doing without preoccupation, the equivalent of a sketchbook for most artists. There came a point where I finally admitted that I wasn’t inspired in the studio; I wanted to be in my kitchen or garden, making that which I knew exactly how to share. So I taught myself how to take photos of food, and I started inviting myself over to the homes and studios of all the salad-loving artists I knew. The energy I brought to the project was immediately contagious, and so it became a garden, a book, a cocktail syrup, and a soon a perfume. The open-endedness for me is the best part. Salad is a platform for me.
I read that you think making a salad is similar to making art in that it requires assembling various colors, textures, and sensory elements. Yet salads are not art. Why do you make this connection?
I think you could make an argument that a salad could be art if the maker wanted it to be, but for me, salad as an art object is not really the point. I am more interested in practice and dialogue, an artist’s approach to the entirety of their world, not just their finished works. If I were to call the salad itself a work of art, it would no longer feel like a casual gift, something I can so easily give to others. It’s not meant to be exhibited but consumed, and then reimagined the very next day.
What have been your favorite salad sessions?
Some of the best salad sessions have come from those who don’t identify as cooks. Sina Najafi—editor in chief of Cabinet Magazine—and Nina Katchadourian—one of my favorite artists—used the materials of their salad to make a tribute to Rafael Nadal, their favorite tennis player. They constructed a tiny tennis court out of pine nuts and chives, and we got so deep into the topic that it eventually turned into a potent lesson on role models and the importance of finding inspiration outside your given discipline.
If you had to choose a salad recipe that best reflects your own creative outlook, what would it be?
I always go back to the Greek salad, because I am fascinated by its staying power—I have never met a contemporary twist on a Greek salad that I preferred. In all creative pursuits, it is important to know when not to innovate but to instead appreciate things just the way they are. This is a trait I appreciate most in art—think of Bruce Nauman or the Fluxus artists. Things don’t have to complicated to be good.
What artists have been important for you throughout your career?
I have been very fortunate to have mentors whose work I admire. When I was in college, I identified with the work of Janine Antoni. I had the chance to work with her in grad school and assist her briefly, and she taught me about work-life balance, prioritizing, and taking risks. She has been making sculpture and installation successfully for over 20 years. Later she found her passion in dance and was not afraid to pursue that. That, to me, is what it means to be a great artist.
Same for Jon Kessler and Dike Blair, who have been painfully honest about the peaks and valleys of the art world and their own careers. We are all just trying to figure it out, over and over again, and it is so valuable to hear that from those who are succeeding. The art world is not a cult where you find your place and claim it; rather, we are just a roaming community of restless makers looking for a way to keep pushing ourselves.
Last year you created a salad garden on the roof of MoMA PS1 in New York. Why is it important to you to present Salad for President in the context of a museum?
The art world will always be my home, and I think it is crucial that I root my thinking there. A project like this, as innocuous as it might seem, asks some critical questions of both the visitors and the museum itself, the artists who show their work there, and the people who make the museum happen. How are you supposed to use the space and who does it belong to? How can a museum be an active place of engagement? How can it activate the imagination of the public?
For me, the garden is both familiar and strange—a place that allows for an ease of curiosity, discovery, and dialogue amongst the experienced gardener and the total novice alike. This mirrors the ideal engagement one should have at the museum.
For the Getty Salad Garden, you’ve brought in two collaborators: David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape and Farmscape Gardens. How did you meet these collaborators and bring them into the project?
David Godshall and I are old friends. He approaches everything he does with the utmost intention and respect. I knew that if we were to make a garden at the Getty, it would have to be beautifully designed and sensitive to its surroundings. So David created a really smart Tetris configuration, which was an elegant and cost effective solution to a functional garden. It’s also one that he sees as a midway point between the Getty Center’s architecture and Central Garden.
When I was in Los Angeles about six months ago, Gillian Ferguson, the producer of the radio show Good Food, wrote an article about Salad for President for Los Angeles Magazine in which I alluded to my plans to make my next salad garden in Los Angeles. Lara Hermanson of Farmscape Gardens reached out to me, offering to plant and manage a garden if I were to make it happen.
I consider myself the ultimate amateur gardener, but for a project of this scale, I could never have done it without the expertise of Lara’s staff, Dan Allen and Ariel Chesnutt, who spend all day creating and maintaining public and private vegetable gardens in California.
Why did you want to realize the second iteration of your garden project in Los Angeles?
I moved to Los Angeles with my partner, Adam Katz, in 2007, and he and I started a project space in the front of my studio called Workspace. It really served a need of our community of artists, just finding their way after school, not yet showing their work in commercial galleries. It was there that I found my place as an organizer, a host, a facilitator of artists’ projects. I am grateful to Los Angeles and its artists for their energy at that time.
I later moved back to New York for grad school, but I’ve always maintained a life in L.A. I also learned to garden here, so it seemed only right to make the next salad garden in the place where so many of my fundamental ideas came together.
Bringing people together and sharing their stories seems to be the central impulse of Salad for President. What is it about salads and gardens that make them such great connectors?
I’ve discovered that the intimacy of salad and the garden unlocks a world of people I admire. We are all trying to figure out how we can live our lives better, more honestly, more fully. What better way to spark a conversation about those big ideas than to start with something small?
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This season, Julia Sherman is in residence at the Getty Salad Garden, growing, harvesting, and cooking alongside members of Los Angeles’s artistic community. Through student workshops, intermittent public hours, and small gatherings, the Getty hopes the simple salad will inspire new encounters between visitors, artists, gardeners, cooks, museum staff, and works of art.
Reposted from project CODE WORDS, an experiment in online publishing and discourse around issues of technology and theory in museums. Read more great essays by leading thinkers in the field by visiting the project on Medium. [republished with permission of the authors]
In the early nineteenth century, a small population of free people of color speckled the United States. Some of them did not disrupt the status quo, but revolutionaries like Denmark Vesey of Charleston, South Carolina called for the nation to burn.
A founding member of Emmanuel AME Church, Vesey primarily recruited church members for the insurrection. His plan leaked to slave owners before he could make Charleston a site of liberation. The Mayor organized a militia to catch all co-conspirators. Vigilante justice reigned over the city too, but it did not stop for good. On June 17, 2015 self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylan Roof reignited that spirit of vigilante justice and murdered nine Emmanuel AME Church parishioners with the intent to start a race war nearly a century after Vesey planned his uprising.
Black people have long struggled for their freedom and civil rights in America. Denmark Vesey is an example of this. Therefore, uprisings across the nation after repeated incidents of white police officers shooting unarmed black citizens is not just an inciting 2015 headline. It falls along the continuum of black people protesting against state sanctioned violence and over policing in their communities. So why do museums continually hesitate in responding to Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland and Charleston and…?
Are Museums Really Ready to Respond to Ferguson?
In Bridget McKenzie’s Code:Words piece, “Toward the Sociocratic Museum”, McKenzie proposes a new model of museum to counter the existing plutocratic and bureaucratic archetypes that have arisen from plunder and oppression or are discomfitingly in bed with problematic corporate entities, respectively. In theory, the sociocratic museum would forego being participatory and engaging on its surface for “governance that is non-hierarchical, consent-based and rooted in its communities.” Recently, museums have championed inclusion and engagement. But the digital landscape and communities of color have pushed back, creating spaces that discuss their lived experience and critiquing how other people view it.
McKenzie’s piece cited #museumsrespondtoFerguson, a Twitter chat we co-host the third Wednesday of each month 1PMCST/2PMEST, as an example of how people-driven movements in the digital realm can inspire change in museums. In 2014, tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets protesting the killings of unarmed black citizens by police in Staten Island, Beavercreek, Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore (and unfortunately many more in subsequent months). These actions were inspired, organized, shared (and ultimately spied on) via a host of digital platforms, most notably Twitter, which has the highest percentage of black adult users according to recent research. It’s the digital equivalent of an old-school office water cooler. It’s where news breaks, information is shared, and racist tomfoolery is dragged to the carpet.
Claiming Their Space Digitally
#BlackLivesMatter, and other movements, rallied marginalized people and amplified their unified voices. They claimed virtual space instead of waiting for it to be doled out to them. Traditional gatekeepers were rendered moot. Schools, arts organizations, libraries, and other entities responded with public statements denouncing police brutality, presented related programs, or offered their venues as community gathering spaces.
“No matter what a museum’s legal structure, whether publicly funded, or authorised by society to function as a charity, it is expected to contribute to the common good. If its basic values do not include solidarity with the excluded, then the museum is reinforcing that exclusion”
Museums pride themselves on embodying the common good, on honoring its social compacts, and being physically and virtually relevant. Precious resources are devoted to “engagement”, a term so buzzy and overused that it often elicits groans and eye-rolls from museum employees tasked with bringing the nebulous concept to life.
These colleagues regularly communicate via tags such as #musesocial, #musetech, and #museEd to crowdsource solutions and exchange practices, so convening in digital spaces isn’t new. However, using those spaces to openly examine anti-blackness in museums certainly is.
Twitter: The Tool for Activists Online
Social activism is inherently risky but protest in the physical world can take place with a certain degree of professional protection. You can demonstrate outside of work hours or anonymously donate to causes of your choice. But participating in a Twitter chat explicitly dedicated to confronting your current or potential employers’ systemic oppression under your personal account, which might even include your image (and almost overwhelmingly some variation of a “these ideas are mine alone” disclaimer), is practically an act of rebellion in an industry with a long history of conformity, exclusion, and aversion to transparency.
The aforementioned Joint Statement was born digitally and continues to live online, making it more accessible than a paper document. Conversations responding to overarching themes like race, police brutality and community relations dominate the online landscape now. The monthly Twitter chat is a limb of the statement, keeping the conversation alive. Twitter has been the most appropriate online social media platform seeing that it is the most immediate and democratic.
Facebook, the most popular social media platform, originally started exclusively for Harvard students. Eventually, it expanded to a service for all Ivy League schools along with Stanford University. It was not until 2006 that anyone of appropriate age could join the site. Contrarily, Twitter has always allowed anyone with a valid email address to join the site. Anyone can build a sizeable audience without educational, economic or social weight.
While one of the high points of Twitter is that it very democratic, that aspect also hurts our ability to account for everyone engaged in the conversation. Twitter allows participants to see the full conversation. It also gives them the choice to be an onlooker without forcing them to participate. Because of this, we know there is a group of people who read the Tweets but do not contribute to the conversation. This is frustrating because it does not allow us to capture a complete sample of the comments surrounding certain themes.
To capture the Tweets that are present in the chat, we use Storify. While Storify provides a great summary of the chat, it does not retain tweets if a user deletes them. We are still researching the best tools for tracking tweets on a limited (i.e. no) budget. So far, NodeXL (visual) and TAGS (archiving) are possible contenders due to free, open source templates, although the TAGS archive reflects some bias in its often incomplete results.
Twitter is also useful in the sense that it’s immediate. It’s a space for discourse and thinking aloud in public. And it has a record for social change. Among many other times, Egyptians most notably used Twitter in 2011 to organize actions in hopes of overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak. Its record for serving as a platform for social change made it the top choice for housing #museumsrespondtoFerguson.
This particular Storify, which focused on museums and oppression illustrates how Twitter introduced new perspectives and sources outside the mainstream to some of our chat participants. Margaret Middleton noted, #BlackLivesMatter has completely transformed the way I see the world.” Through these chats, Twitter continues to demonstrate to us that we can spread information that disrupts traditional narratives quickly and effectively.
The Stutter-Step Between Hashtag to Action
For all the good Twitter is, it still presents some challenges. How do we move out of an online safe space, to a space of action? We did not even provide a Storify for our fifth chat which asked participants to share anti-blackness work they have engaged since being a part of #museumsrespondtoFerguson. There were barely any tweets to archive. Instead of seeing action, that particular chat pulled back a veneer and exposed fear and tepid hopes. After several chats, it seemed like participants were still unsure about how to respond to Ferguson. We have pushed for museums and museum professionals to first examine the ways they perpetuate or dismantle oppression. Before museums can truly engage communities, they have to do the internal work. To be sure, this work is not easy, and it is far more complex than providing a tidy and succinct list of ten steps to engage with the black community.
Some comments, like one that relegated #museumsrespondtoFerguson to being “about museum staff talking amongst themselves — not a bad thing, but seems tangential in some way to community engagement,” are discouraging. Museums can’t engage communities of color before acknowledging and working through their role in marginalizing black and brown people. Furthermore, museum professionals cannot continue to cite early museologists like John Cotton Dana without providing the context that Newark struggled with desegregating its public spaces.
While John Cotton Dana wrote about engaging all people and making collections accessible and relevant, black people were not necessarily included in this plan. Dana demonstrated progressive ideas about gender, but never explicitly advocated for race equity. This is the type of deconstruction that needs to take place before museums attempt to engage a community that they have historically turned away. Learning about the likes of Mabel Wilson, in addition to Dana, makes for a more thoughtful and relevant approach to engaging black communities. #museumsrespondtoFerguson seeks to expose participants to different voices and thought processes that museums continue to ignore.
The chat generates thoughtful commentary, and has also inspired #MuseumWorkersSpeak, a conversation about labor and equity in the field. However, participants express some hesitancy, and even fearfulness, in putting these conversations to action. This was especially evident in our fifth chat where participants could barely answer the questions because they had not actually put in work to evaluate or comment on. We have not found the best solution for moving the conversation to action. Jumping back to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, participants in their online advocacy never hesitated to take action. Action was intuitive. They believed in change and were willing to work for it.
Maybe, in this country racial change is not intuitive. And while Twitter can foster productive conversations, it has not fostered enough tangible actions in the museum community. The Charleston Massacre unfortunately connects us to the nineteenth century motto of vigilante justice against black people. Museums can no longer view contemporary iterations of racialized violence as traumatic headlines too difficult to work through in their spaces. As organizations with renewed commitment to community engagement, #museumsrespondtoFerguson needs to manifest in gallery spaces, programming and outreach.
Invisible Pedagogies (IP) is a collective that works on the creation of a space in which we can rethink the relationship between art and education. It was born in Madrid in 2009 and was formed by educators from different areas such as high schools, colleges, community contexts, and art centers. It was created of the need we felt to look for new ways of thinking about the theory and practice in art education. We met while taking a doctorate course entitled Didactics of Suspicion, whose professor, Maria Acaso, is now the director of most of our doctorate studies. A strong bond was created between us, and it still helps us to become stronger in our struggle against the establishment. We were born as a “self-doctorate” (self taught) group who deals with theory but because of our methodological nature, yet based upon action-research strategies, we were soon forced into practice.
On the other hand, invisible pedagogies is a concept that already existed before the collective, exploring education beyond the boundaries of the curriculum and considering pedagogical elements that hadn’t been addressed in the learning-teaching experience until now. Invisible pedagogies is the reflection upon the non-explicit micro-discourses that all-together form the macro-discourse that is the pedagogical act. And although they remain on a second level, they are likely to transform the body and soul of the participants involved in it.
In other words, the teaching act is a mediated performance in the same way that a theatrical performance is mediated and its different elements (micro-discourses) will make up a pedagogical narrative. What do our students in class, the participants in a workshop, or museum visitors learn beyond the contents we have prepared for them? An example we always use to explain invisible pedagogies is the door. What is the meaning of closing a door in the classroom? And of leaving it open? Or asking the students which they prefer? In a museum the fact that the entrance doors are automatic or revolving or that one must push them, will send a specifically different message to the visitor and will affect the way he or she interacts with the art inside.
“Invisible pedagogies have many ways of changing people in their participation in the educative act. They help them to learn or not; they get people to become passionate for knowledge or deadly bored, they make them feel fear or pleasure, they invite them to share or to hide” (Acaso, 2012)
Invisible Pedagogies in Museums
We do not limit ourselves to making invisible pedagogies visible, but, once we have detected them, we analyze and transform them by applying them in new contexts and using new educational theories in different projects.
In the case of the three educators in the Invisisble Pedagogies (IP) collective that work in museums and art centers (Eva Morales, David Lanau and myself, Andrea De Pascual), rather than changing doors, we are offering whole new formats that expand the concept of education in museums. Little by little, museums and art centers are changing their attitudes and are opening their minds to new educative proposals which go beyond guided tours, audioguides, or workshops out of the exhibition spaces. However, the real opportunity for us came from Matadero Madrid.
As a contemporary art center, Matadero Madrid does not have an education department as such, but it does have great interest in educative aspects far beyond offering the heritage of the institution as an educational resource available for schools to complete their curriculums, or the simplification of the contents of curatorial work. This institution gave us the possibility to design our educative actions from an approach which Carmen Mörsch calls transformative discourse:
“Practices related to this discourse (transformative) work against the categorical or hierarchical differentiation between curatorial effort and gallery education. In this practice, gallery educators and the public not only work together to uncover institutional mechanisms, but also to improve and expand them” (Mörsch, 2009)
Working for Matadero Madrid helped us to visualize the (post)museum more as “a process or experience not a building to be visited. In it the role of the exhibition is to be focus for a plethora of transient activities” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000). And it helped us see education as “an element of ongoing personal growth, that is not limited to one particular stage of life. Education as play, a way of unravelling the media theatre. Education as an open source operating system that turns us into critical citizens. Education as a game played by all individuals, from all eras. Education as a utopia for a culture-sharing society” (Zemos98, 2012).
These are just a few of our references that helps us to transform directionality, format, and methodology (among other aspects of traditional museum education) when designing our educational actions.
Transforming Invisible Pedagogies
I will present now some of the invisible pedagogies we have detected, analyzed, and transformed during the almost 5 years we have been working together, as well as issues and goals that are part of our methodological frame.
One of the most important discourses we want to change is the power-knowledge barrierbuilt between educators (visible voice of the institution during the praxis of museum education) and participants (individuals that in most cases feel they don’t have anything to say about contemporary art). In order to change this invisible directionality, we think that just sitting in a circle or introducing ourselves at the beginning of an activity (strategies that are already common practice) is not enough. One of our strategies to change that invisible pedagogy is to have always more than one educator per workshop. The idea is not only to decentralize people’s attention, so as not to have a single point of view, but also to show that among the “agents of the institution” there can be disagreements and even discords. It is a scheme to make the one true voice disappear in favor of a multiplicity of voices, all of them being equally valid. We also think that it was fundamental, in order to bring down this wall of conventional teaching, to introduce analytic dialogue (based on the possibility instead of the agreement) and open-ended activities receptive to the unexpected.
Another important invisible discourse we have to dismantle and transform is that Art and Education are two separate things. Art and Education are the two sides of the museum coin and should be approached at the same time. Just as art can be educative, education can be artistic. Why not use performance, installation, minimalism, video, body action. etc. as educative tools? We’re interested in the idea of using contemporary art not only as content of the program but also as a pedagogical format.
I think that nowadays we, museum educators, will in most cases agree that participants in our programs produce knowledge and add meaning to the exhibits but are we really honest? Are we prepared to believe it? What are we really telling our participants? If we want the museum to be a social agent and a place of action and transformation, we need to consider the participants in our actions as learning-communities capable of producing knowledge of the same quality, interest, and authenticity as the knowledge produced by artists and curators. To make this more than a statement, we never use a separate space in the museum (like a workshop reserved for education activities) and we find strategies through which participants and visitors can leave a footprint in the gallery or the museum. We mean to use the galleries, halls, atriums, or even the patios of museums as learning sites. We think of the museum as a learning laboratory in which new layers of knowledge are added to the pre-existing ones by the visualization of the knowledge production of the participants.
Last but not least, we introduce the action-research tool in museum education to change the invisible discourse that exists inside institutions around education departments. Although education departments in museums are now common and have their importance, the untold truth is that they still don’t have the resources or the tools needed to reach the status they deserve within the institution. Research is essential to change this dynamic. First, because the knowledge and research produced in museum education departments should be available to specialists; therefore archives are just as indispensable in education departments as in those of curatorship. Second, because in education there is no way of knowing how to improve the practice if you don’t analyze it.
IP Museum Projects at Matadero Madrid
The first time IP worked with Matadero Madrid we developed a family workshop program that we called En Construcción. Disculpen las molestias (Under construction, sorry for the inconvenience) to activate a gallery dedicated to contemporary art called Abierto X Obras (Open for Repairs). IP transformed the family workshop format into intergenerational workshops, or, as we called them on that occasion, 0-99 workshops (from 0 to 99 years of age). The goal was to create a more inclusive format in which teenagers or babies could participate, or in which family was extended to include roommates, close friends, or even to allow adults (alone or accompanied with or without children) and to have them all participate in active way.
For our second project, we were invited to strengthen and activate the relationships between the audience and the art production that was taking place in El Ranchito— an exhibition that made visible the working processes of artists rather than the finished work. The project was called Espacio Visible (Visible Space), and it was literally a space inside the gallery available to educators and visitors to add meaning to the exhibition through their own contributions.
Our third project called Here, together now: Building art communities in a changing world, was a multi-national collaborative project to rethink how an art exhibition is produced, with and for whom. The three members of IP Museums were artists-educators in residence invited to create a scenario of mediation where the public could relate with what was being done.
In 2013 and 2014, we are developing the project Microondas: Recalentando la educación(Microwave: reheating the education) that consists of a collaborative-research and action group that rethinks current educational methodologies within new activist frameworks and theories. Our last seminar was called “Activist (?) Pedagogies”.
Opening the Conversation
Can you detect other invisible pedagogies in museum education? How would you transform them to change the dynamics of teaching in the museum? By incorporating invisible pedagogies in the practice of museum education, in what ways do you think they could expand the concept of education within the museum? Add your voice to the conversation below, or on Twitter with hashtag #invisiblepedagogies.
About the Author
ANDREA DE PASCUAL: A bilingual (Spanish-English) education specialist, artist, and researcher, Andrea is founding member of the collective Invisible Pedagogies and creator of the project The Rhizomatic Museum. She has worked for the past 8 years in a variety of museums, cultural institutions, and praxis collectives. Her work has focused on how the museum can be activated not only as a site for individualized contemplation, but also as a community-based site where knowledge is shared, and social, political and environmental issues are addressed. Andrea graduated from the Masters Program in Art Education at New York University in 2013 while on a Fulbright Fellowship, in connection with her Doctoral work as a candidate in Art Education in Museums at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Her dissertation is titled “Non Hierarchic Knowledge Production Strategies Within Western Visual Art Museums: The Rhizomatic Museum.” Andrea’s postings on this site are her own.
Open Engagement is an annual international conference and gathering that focuses on social practice and socially-engaged art. For several years, the conference was hosted here in Portland, Oregon, and I was fortunate enough to attend the 2013 conference which linked up with the Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light event and the partnership our museum has with Portland State University’s Art & Social Practice program.
The conference was founded by artist and educator Jen Delos Reyes, who leads the planning and programming for each year’s Open Engagement. In 2014, the conference moved from Portland to Queens (sniffle, sniffle), and was co-presented by the Queens Museum and A Blade of Grass, and took place at the Queens Museum, New York Hall of Science, the Queens Theater, Immigrant Movement International, and various locations around New York in May.
The 2013 conference brought artists, thinkers, activists, and museum professionals from across the continent, and there were some tremendous conversations about the role of museums in social practice art, and the role of social practice art and artists in museums. We left with more questions than we had answers (which is actually a good thing — it means we’re not fooling ourselves that we have this all figured out).
To ramp up to the 2013 conference, Delos Reyes and conference organizers invited 100 contributors from the field to reflect on 100 questions collectively generated at the closing session of Open Engagement 2013. Each contributor wrote a short blog post, published online in rapid succession prior to the start of the conference. I was invited to write a short response to question #97: “Who stands to benefit from this work?” Below is my response — and I encourage you to read all 100 contributors respond to all 100 questions. And I invite your thoughts below — who do you think benefits from social practice and socially-engaged art, whether related to museums (as in my response) or out in the community?
“Who stands to benefit from this work?”
Originally published online at Open Engagement blog, February 9, 2014
I know that museums are not new players in the game of social practice and socially-engaged art, yet we are constantly coming back to the core questions about the value of this work. Who benefits? Who needs to benefit, especially if we are to sustain support for these types of artist-driven projects and programs? Does this work offer any long-term benefits to a museum’s communities, rather than just involving communities at the benefit of the museum? Are there any benefits at all? Do there need to be? The answers to these questions are so varied, localized, and subjective, but let me take a very quick stab at this from my perspective in museums—only a slice of the myriad responses that exist to this larger question.
While I recognize that museums only play one part in the larger developments of social practice art in recent years, these institutions do serve as major sites of public engagement with artists and their work. Far more than that, museums and social practice artists are working together to transform engagement and tap into the potential that museums have for experiences other than passive spectating. People today increasingly refuse to be passive recipients of what museums offer, and more and more institutions are working with artists in ways that expand far beyond simply placing their works on the walls. Instead, museums are inviting artists to bring their socially-engaged practice to bear on creating experiences that actively engage our public(s) and challenge them to rethink museums.
While these projects frequently meet resistance from within the museum institution for seeming frivolous or without intellectual content, this work largely succeeds in transforming museums into open spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity for our communities. Why?
Because of the involvement of artists.
Because of the process (complex and messy) of co-creation and collaborative thinking that can happen among museum staff, artists, and the public in these contexts.
Because of the potential for socially-engaged artists to pull people out of their everyday experience, break them from the familiar, and give them something to think about.
In describing his early discovery of the value of punk rock, Fugazi frontman and DIY punk guru Ian MacKaye uses this analogy:
“if you’re raised eating steak and potatoes every night and that’s dinner, when you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, you don’t know what’s in front of you. You just can’t recognize it. The thing is that not only is it good, it’s probably better for you.”
I think museums have a great deal to gain if they more frequently think of themselves like this Vietnamese restaurant, making a break with the business-as-usual ‘steak and potatoes’ experience. As Nina Simon once remarked, art museums are the least likely to empower their own staff to experiment in these ways, but the most likely to bring in artists to do this social/participatory work. So museums (as institutions, but more importantly as people) and their communities stand to benefit from working with social practice and socially-engaged artists as we work toward creatively expanding the menu of what’s possible.
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Header Image: Tom Finkelpearl sharing some of the questions generated at the final event of Open Engagement 2013. Photo: John Muse, openengagement.info
“Art is a space, which we have created, where we can cease to subscribe to the demands and the rules of society; it is a space where we can pretend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.”—Pablo Helguera
As museums face the current challenges to drive relevance through becoming more active, participatory, responsive, and community-based, projects such as the ones explored in this past week’s posts indicate a potentially transformative role for artists to play. Whether rethinking a museum’s visitor experience, reinventing the public spaces of and around museums, drawing on creative practice to break museums’ ‘old habits,’ or interrogating the internal culture and working of the museum, artists are effectively exploring museum institutions as sites with a distinct “possibility for evolution,” to reconnect with the powerful words from Joseph Beuys that opened this series of posts (and from which the title of my paper came).
This final excerpt from my paper presented as part of the International Museum Forum in South Korea in October 2013 discusses the artist-driven program I am directly involved in here at the Portland Art Museum. In addition, I’m concluding this post with some of the “core, burning questions” that institutions involved in this work are addressing — especially as many of these projects are in a current phase of reflection and rethinking.
Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light
“Art and everyday life share a common and continuous border. They coexist in the same reality, divided and defined by a border that twists, turns, open and closes. The edges of the museum are part of that border, and like the imaginary line between any contested territories, this boundary does not completely reflect the reality on the ground.” —Paul Ramirez Jonas (“An Imaginary Line,” Shine a Light 2013 program)
At the same time that the team at the Walker Art Center was preparing to launch Open Field and Machine Project had recently experimented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which preceded their work at the Hammer Museum), the Education team at the Portland Art Museum began conversations with the faculty in Art & Social Practice at neighboring Portland State University around similar types of experimentations. The immediate outcome of this collaboration was Shine a Light, a new annual one-night event at the Portland Art Museum dedicated to experimentation, play, and participation. Emerging out of a collaboration between the museum and Portland State University’s MFA program in Art & Social Practice, Shine a Light invited the MFA program’s faculty and students to propose a series of projects that would experiment in and with the Museum space — conceiving the museum as a laboratory for ideas and interventions. As Christina Olsen, then Director of Education and Public Programs at the museum, recounts:
“Over lunch one day, I began to talk with Harrell Fletcher and Jen Delos Reyes—co-directors of PSU’s Art & Social Practice program—about the the ‘habits of mind’ that govern both museum visitors and museum staff, and ways we might collaborate to expand such mindsets” (Shine a Light 2010).
Inspired by the Machine Project’s Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art one-day event in November 2008 as well as the broader approach and process of social practice art, the team at the Portland Art Museum and PSU launched the first Shine a Light event in September 2009. For six hours, the museum was a space in which sixteen artists enacted projects that offered visitors new, unanticipated, playful and provocative ways to experience the museum. The goals established during this first event—which have remained the core goals for this project up through the most recent Shine a Light event in 2013—included:
Situate art (producing, interpreting, enjoying, puzzling over) as a living activity that everyone can participate in.
Encourage an atmosphere of participation between the museum, its visitors, and artists.
Make the museum a “site” of artistic production and practice.
Inspire inquiry into the connection between art and everyday life.
Artist-led projects that have been part of Shine a Light since 2009 have ranged from live Greco-Roman nude wrestling, a museum cookbook, dead artist seances, and haircuts inspired by artworks in the collection to inviting visitors to have a work of art tattooed onto their body, to sing songs about a work of art, or to display their personal cell phone photos within the museum’s photography collection. Here is a video compilation that features projects from Shine a Light 2013:
Since the project’s launch in 2009, the annual Shine a Light event has brought together more than 9,000 participants to actively engage in a total of 88 artist-driven projects spread across the entire museum campus, successfully cultivating a younger “millennial” audience as well as encouraging existing audiences to rethink what is possible in an art museum. In its four iterations, Shine a Light has built a unique framework to work closely with emerging and professional artists and to provide an ongoing platform for the Museum, artists, and audiences to actively learn and experiment with one another.
In her introduction to the 2013 Shine a Light event program, Associate Director of Education & Public Programs Stephanie Parrish encapsulates much of the museum’s current thinking about this experimental project:
“In its ideal form, a program like Shine a Light is a platform that nudges us to wonder; to consider art museum spaces as flexible sites where one’s identity as an artist, an institution, or a member of the public is increasingly fluid…. We find ourselves in a hybrid zone, somewhere on a continuum where museums not only display but also produce art, where artists shape and are shaped by institutions and are not just pitted against them, and where multiple publics see themselves as participants in and reflected through the art. Shine a Light is a space where we co-produce museum experiences and adjust our perspective of where art, artists, and institutions intersect in our everyday lives.” (Shine a Light 2013 program, 1).
Raising Core Questions
During the 2013 Open Engagement conference — an international gathering of artists, educators, curators, and scholars in the field of social practice and socially-engaged art—one of the panel sessions entitled “Art Museums and Social Practice: Where Are We Now?” brought together nearly a dozen museum professionals and artists engaged in this type of practice within their own institutions. Facilitated by the Shine a Light team at the Portland Art Museum, the thinking around this panel session began months in advance by having museum professionals and artists define the ‘burning questions’ that were core to their own involvement with this practice in museums. After gathering ten pages filled with questions, the group was invited to “crowd-source” the most urgent questions by marking the questions most relevant to their own practice.
At the Open Engagement panel discussion, the top questions were revealed and discussed, and I think perhaps it is an appropriate way to end this paper by simply presenting these and other questions that are now sparking some open thinking in the field across institutions.
Are we doing this work to broaden our audiences or to serve existing audiences?
What’s the difference between an artist doing this work versus a public engagement or education department doing it?
What does success look like? How do we measure success?
What happens when institutions collaborate with artists? How can the questions artists ask reshape us as practitioners and reshape the museum itself?
Many of the answers to these and other questions are localized to each project and institution (some have even been addressed above by existing projects), yet certainly some common responses will emerge as institutions push ahead with experimental, participatory practices that open the spaces of museums to the work of social practice and socially-engaged artists, as well as museum staff that have been gaining a tremendous level of creative capacity through this type of work. Overall, many of these core questions bring the conversation back to the ability of these socially-engaged, participatory projects to effect change — whether that is shifting the ‘mindset’ for museum visitors as well as the communities that engage with museums, or a more broad social change felt in the community.
This post is part of a series I am writing this week to explore the role of artists and artistic practice in the experimental work occurring in art museums across this country, and beyond. In order to more effectively examine the ways in which art museums have become sites for socially-engaged practice and new forms of artist-driven public engagement, I’m interested in taking some time to showcase three telling cases that have been developed in museums at a parallel moment these past few years:
Walker Art Center’s Open Field
Machine Project’s residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum
Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light
Selected from more than a dozen examples of this type of practice, these three projects each have stretched and pushed their institutions in new and productive ways, opening up unanticipated, thought-provoking, exciting, and even uncomfortable ways for visitors to experience an art museum. The teams and communities involved with each of these projects have certainly walked away with their own unique ‘lessons learned’ as well as several core questions that have already led to pushing this type of practice forward at these and other institutions. Given the co-produced and co-authored nature of this type of experimental practice in museums, the text for each of these posts similarly draws in many of the voices involved at each site — quoting artists and museum staff to honor their core role in this challenging and meaningful work.
Before we begin, I have a question to ask you. To help get a sense of how many arts enthusiasts, museum professionals, and educators are aware of these types of experimental museum projects, please take a few seconds and complete the poll below. I’m going to keep this poll going for a while, so please invite your peers and colleagues to submit their own response.
Thanks for responding to the question above (BTW, the first poll ever on ArtMuseumTeaching.com — don’t worry, it’s not going to become a regular feature of my posts). Now onto the first telling case of great work being done in this area of museum practice.
Open Fieldis the Walker Art Center’s experiment in participation and public space. Taking place outdoors in the summer months since its launch in 2010, the project invites artists and visitors to imagine and inhabit the museum’s campus as a cultural commons—a shared space for idea exchange, creative gatherings, and unexpected interactions. The Walker’s backyard has been home to numerous planned and spontaneous activities during its three years of Open Field, including music performances, artist-in-residence projects, Internet cat video festivals, juggling lessons, Drawing Club, pickling workshops, yarn-bombing, temporary sculpture installations, a concert of people mowing the field in tandem, and so much more. The initiative began with a simple question: “What would you do in an open field?” Through this experiment in ‘letting go’ of cultural authority and control, the Walker Art Center has been pioneering in its rethinking of public gathering spaces and the role of the art museum in creating something with its public rather than simply for its public.
In addition to being an open creative space for public participation, the Walker Art Center also imagined the potential for professional artists to experiment with public practice in the commons. Working with artists and collectives who embraced their vision for public engagement and collaborative investigation, the Walker Art Center commissioned groups such as Futurefarmers, Machine Poject, and Red76 to envision and implement projects during the summer—both pushing the creative and artistic thinking about the space, as well as to model possible creative activities to the larger community (who were interested in participating, but nervous about what this might look like in the context of a contemporary art center). In the 2012 publication Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, which documented the first two years of the project, Open Field co-creator Sarah Schultz describes the vital role that these artists played:
“The socially engaged practices of these artists and the intellectual and creative rigor with which they approached the aesthetic, social, and political implications of commons-based cultural practices were crucial to project’s evolution.
“The resident artists’ openness and warmth toward the public and their willingness to allow their work to unfold alongside whatever else was happening on the hill played an important role in what Open Field would eventually become: a porous environment that blurred the lines and leveled the playing field between professional and nonprofessional artists, weekend hobbyists, and creative enthusiasts.”
As the Walker Art Center’s education and public practice staff continue to reflect upon Open Field and plan for future directions for this project, there is little doubt that they have shifted the conversation about museums, public practice, and community participation as well as the ways in which museums can collaborate with artists and artist collectives.
Did you get the chance to visit Open Field and attend any of their programs so far? What were your experiences? What is the role of a space like this at an art museum? Does it matter if anyone actually enters the museums itself? What does the future hold for projects like this? Please chime in below and add your perspective.
I was honored to have been invited to participate as a speaker at the forum, presenting in the area of “Social Responsibilities and Roles of Museums for Participation, Communication, and Change.” I took this opportunity to spend time thinking more about the role that artists play in museums working toward a more participatory, public, and social practice. At the Portland Art Museum in 2013, we were entering our fifth year of collaborating with social practice artists, and our “Shine a Light” program has been developing in parallel with (and informed by) several other such programs across the country. For the international audience at Yeongwol, I chose to take a few steps back and reflect on the importance of artists in the experimental work of museums, bringing to the foreground projects at the Walker Art Center, Hammer Museum, and Portland Art Museum. Below is an excerpt from my paper (you can view my presentation slides here), and I have followed-up with individual posts focusing on each of these three institutions as well as some core questions that emerge as institutions push ahead with experimental, participatory practices that open the spaces of museums to the work of social practice and socially-engaged artists.
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“Art is the only possibility for evolution, the only possibility to change the situation in this world.” —Joseph Beuys
In a rapidly transforming world of social media, massive open online learning, and increasing demands for active participation and collaborative engagement, museums have been faced with the challenge of redefining their public practice. As Graham Black states in his recent book Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (2012), “people today increasingly refuse to be passive recipients of whatever governments, companies, or cultural institutions such as museums offer” (3). Instead, museums need to engage with users as active participants, contributors, and collaborators, continuing to change and take on new meanings and roles as society continues to transform itself. Nina Simon’s pivotal book The Participatory Museum (2010) firmly established the need to develop a more participatory mindset and to reconnect with audiences through diverse forms of participatory experiences—a text that has remained at the core of conversations about this element of museum practice since it’s publication, in part due to Simon’s widely-read blog Museum 2.0. However, the broader arts and culture sector in the United States has also seen this shift occurring.
The 2011 study published by the James Irvine Foundation entitled Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups Are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation draws insights from a much wider field of nonprofit arts groups and experts to explore a new model for understanding and supporting active, participatory practices. The Irvine Foundation report suggests that “the value of the arts in this participatory culture is its ability to connect people through shared experiences and to contribute to vibrant, livable communities.” The report’s human-centered focus brings much-needed attention to the value of the arts—and especially arts institutions such as museums—to connect people, to create shared social experiences, and to contribute to the cultural fabric of the communities in which we live and work.
Over the past few years, the Irvine Foundation’s Arts Innovation Fund has supported arts organizations across California—including 7 art museums—to experiment with innovative projects geared toward achieving new relevance for audiences, communities, and artists. One example of such a project is the Public Engagement Artist in Residence program at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Outside the boundaries of the museum’s traditional curatorial operations, this recently developed initiative brings artists together with museum staff in a collaborative process to investigate public engagement and, according to artist Mark Allen, to open up a more exciting and fundamental challenge:
“to rethink the way museums operate and to propose changes that would make the museum as an institution better attuned to contemporary art practices” (Machine Project Hammer Report, 12).
The Hammer Museum is now one of several institutions bringing artists and artistic practice into their efforts to become more audience-centered, community-based, and participatory. As artists gain more creative input in museums and activate museum spaces and publics in new, unexpected ways, it is important to take a closer look at these emerging experimentations and consider their place in the evolving practice of museums.
ARTISTS EXPERIMENTING IN ART MUSEUMS
“I don’t think ideas are very valuable in themselves. It’s only in the doing of the idea that you learn anything, or anything interesting happens.”—Mark Allen, Machine Project Hammer Report
Experimental work in museums has been a growing topic of conversation among museum professionals, and an increasing number of institutions have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects that consider the roles of art, artists, and visitors from a fresh perspective. As part of this shift in museums, more and more institutions are working with artists in ways that expand far beyond simply placing their works on the walls, instead inviting artists to bring their artistic practice to bear on creating experiences that actively engage visitors and, in many cases, also interrogate the role of the museum within their community. While they frequently meet resistance from within the museum institution for seeming frivolous or without intellectual content, these projects largely succeed (because of the involvement of artists) in transforming museums into open spaces of curiousity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity. In writing about the November 2012 panel discussion entitled “Do We Need Artists in Art Museums?” held at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Annelisa Stephan aptly remarks:
“Inviting artists into the institution … has ramifications far beyond any individual project. Including artists means taking risks and ceding control; it means changing how museum staff work together; and it even means shifting what a museum is, from a space for art to a space of art.”
During the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting, a group of museum experts including Maria Mortati (independent exhibit developer), Sarah Schultz (Walker Art Center), Susan Diachisin (Dallas Museum of Art), and Stephanie Parrish (Portland Art Museum) came together to address some of the issues and questions surrounding experimental projects in art museums, thinking about public practice as well as working with socially-engaged artists. This important session explored how to support, realize, and engage with a variety of experimental projects, leaving attendees—and the entire museum community—with an “An Elastic Manual for Experimental Museum Projects.” Thinking critically about why art museums would do this type of work, they laid out a series of key statements supporting projects driven by these artistic practices; among them were:
It will expand your role in the community: the work is more social and each project appeals to different audiences. It relies on networks inside and outside the museum to function and therefore has a greater reach.
It pushes all departments: it innovates all areas of the museum, by engaging them in the art-making.
It is the closest thing so far to working in line with how artists create.
You are furthering a conversation with contemporary work: these projects directly engage with new art forms.
In a March 2013 article entitled “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture,” New York Times arts writer Randy Kennedy examines the recent rise of social practice art and its connection with museums. “Its practitioners,” states Kennedy, “freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system.” As he notes, social practice artists more frequently find themselves in dialogue with museums through the education and programs departments rather than through the traditional curatorial route — this would be true of the institutions and projects described here. In an interview with Helen Reed, Artist and educator Pablo Helguera discussed how institutions, and education departments more specifically, can provide some safety to these types of socially-engaged projects. He suggests that:
“the reason why education departments appear to be very welcoming and very appropriate for this kind of stuff is because they are designed for people. Education is about people and about visitors and they are adjusted to the porosity of social relationships.”
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A series of subsequent posts (see links below) shed some light on 3 projects that are working to redefine how art museums work with artists and their publics via a new form of participatory practice. And be thinking about some of these core questions as you read this series of posts, which will end by grappling with some of the challenges:
What happens when institutions collaborate with artists?
How can the questions artists ask reshape us as practitioners and reshape the museum itself?
What’s the difference between an artist doing this work versus an education department doing it?
What does success look like? How do we measure success?
Header Image: Photo of “The Serenades” from https://publicwondering.wordpress.com, taken at Portland Art Museum during a Shine a Light event. The Serenades were a series of performances by Portland based musicians for the Shine A Light event at the Portland Art Museum. Artist Ariana Jacob invited each musician to compose an original piece of music specifically for an artwork of their choice from the museum’s permanent collection. The performances explored and modeled creating direct and personal relationships with visual artworks using different forms of music, including pop, electronic, spoken-word/hip hop and classical. Original songs written and performed by: Mirah; Joe Preston of Thrones; Honey Owens of Valet; Khaela Maricich of The Blow; Christopher Doulgaris of Hooliganship & Jonathan Sielaff and Drew Slum, Terms None & Blacque Butterfly.
“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!
The we/customize project at Oakland Museum of California explores the Bay Area perspective on the popular cultural activities of hacking, remixing, tailoring, modding, mash-ups, kit bashing, and customizing. The connecting spark in each of these spheres of activity is the shared impulse of the maker to radically alter the familiar to personal standards.
we/customize was born of a conversation about custom motorcycles, and grew into something akin to adulthood as the consequence of friendship and collaboration.
As non-participants in this part of our culture, Carin Adams (Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture) and I (as the Research and Experience Coordinator) were trying to find the kernels of interest connecting us to choppers. This lead us to observe how people form communities focused on the radical alteration of objects, how these groups self select themselves, and develop identity by means of their chosen activities. To round out the team and help us think about connecting disparate groups, Carin and I asked Evelyn Orantes (Senior Experience Developer) to join us to create our curatorial trio.
To create an exhibition around the activity of customization and the associated communities, we set out to develop the project differently than through the traditional museum approach. Our goal wasn’t to create a new working model for museum exhibitions, nor would we necessarily recommend the particular path we took. We wanted to have fun putting the project together while finding a means to exhibit the content we felt was the most exciting. This subject matter lent itself to be sifted out of conversations and by building relationships with these communities. Our process of content development, did however, reinforce the changing role of the museum as a forum for living cultural activity.
To build the exhibition in conversation with audiences – we made our initial public foray on two fronts. First by going out into the public at Oakland Art Murmur and asking people on video – “What do you customize?” The second, we hosted a panel discussion at OMCA, with Johnny Chung Lee, Jesse Hernandez, and Daniela Rosner about their work and views on customization. These conversations became the basis for how we framed our research, and the public interviews remain part of the content.
To further the dialog, we began with our interviews and panel discussion, we decided to continue going out into the public to build the content for the exhibition. This decision either allowed or forced us to divide the public side of the project into three main phases.
PHASE I: September 26–December 22, 2012
Using the Oakland Rover—a Might-E Truck by Canadian Electric Vehicle, customized by designers Martin Sprouse and Dan Rosenfeld for Oakland Museum of California, we traveled throughout the Bay Area engaging communities in creative projects that explored how people modify objects to serve their own needs. From toy hacking to airbrushing, sound remixing and bike modification— Oakland Rover programs led to rich interactions with the public, who contributed their projects and ideas. These “missions” featured customizers who brought the public a variety of workshops, demonstrations, and participation in the conversation about customization.
The first phase of our project also saw the launch of our social media campaign to continue our conversations with the public online with our blog (wecustomize.org) and on Twitter (@OaklandRover). These exchanges gave us valuable feedback shaping the second and third phases of the project.
PHASE II: December 22, 2012–January 28, 2013
The Oakland Rover’s missions ended when it rolled into OMCA’s Great Hall on December 22. The exploration of customization continued with the transformation of the gallery itself. With paint still on the walls from the previous exhibit, we filled in the space with findings from the Oakland Rover missions as well as visitor input. Starting January 4, guest customizers began on-site demonstrations of their work and invited visitors to join their projects. From scraping out bikes to toy hacking to clothing customization, visitors helped us prototype the Customizer-In-Residence Series and develop interactives.
PHASE III: February 9, 2013–June 2, 2013
The final phase of the we/customize project is the exhibition, exploring the many forms of customization. The weekly Customizers-in-Residence Series will activate the space through live interactions with people from a variety of customization groups. Through the four months of the exhibition, the space will continue to build, with new projects by both our audience and our Customizers-in-Residence living in the space.
While planning the project we realized a tradition opening celebration was out of context with our intent. As the exhibition transforms over time – as a consequence of customizers on site and the objects we’re accumulating – we realized the exhibition wouldn’t be complete until the show closed. With this in mind, we’ve planned on brining all the Customizers-in-Residence as well as museum staff together for a final closing party. Not only as a celebration of the conclusion of the project but our final attempt at igniting that initial spark, within each of these spheres of activity, in a culminating experience.
“What do you customize?” – Join the Conversation
The we/customize project began when we asked ourselves how we connect across communities. We launched the project by asking the public “What do you customize?” While we’ve refined our questions as the project developed, we still want to know – What do you customize? What do you start with? What tools do you use? and Why? Where is the boundary between a customization and an invention?
Sean Olsonis the Research and Experience Coordinator at the Oakland Museum of California, and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. An artist and an educator, he has an MFA from Mills College. He has taught at Diablo Valley College as well as Mills College. Sean lives and rides his bike in Oakland. Look for the guy with the custom dress shoes with SPD cleats.
Carin Adams is the Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture at the Oakland Museum of California and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. She joined OMCA in 2006 as curator for the off-site exhibition program at Oakland International Airport. A resident of Oakland and the mother of two, Carin has an endless supply of toys to hack. She has BFA from California College of the Arts and a MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Evelyn Orantes is the Senior Experience Developer at the Oakland Museum of California, and is a member of the we/customize curatorial team trio. With over a decade of museum work at OMCA under her sparkly belt, she delivers meaningful moments of honor, discovery, memory and inclusion for visitors, from the annual Días de los Muertos special exhibition to programs stimulating the minds of all ages. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she is the queen of California culture mash-ups, dishing the authentic complexities of California, one exhibition or program at a time.