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.
This week, one of the contributing authors here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, brought to my attention a recent column from LA Youth written by 15-year-old Howard Hwang who felt compelled to write about his distaste for visiting museums. His piece entitled “Why museums suck” seems to have already generated an interesting response from the museum community and beyond, so I thought perhaps I would throw this post up and see if, in fact, anything productive could come from this teenager’s rant. Howard admittedly hates museums, but he recently decided to visit six of them in the LA area anyway and then filed his ‘report.’
So the question presents itself: do museums really suck?
I’m probably not using Howard’s exact language or ideas when I define what it means for a museum to “suck,” but I think many of the reasons for his lack of connection with these institutions are not necessarily new. For him (and he is definitely not alone), museums are boring and notfrequently places where teenagers go to have fun and hang out. But is this entirely true? While Howard’s article seems to provide an opportunity for us museum folk to lament on the perpetual problems museums have engaging teenagers (adding fuel to Howard’s flame), I would rather take this as a moment to shine some light on what museums are doing that doesn’t suck. I’m certainly not saying that museums are doing everything necessary to engage teen audiences (far from it), but I would rather counter Howard Hwang’s diatribe with some thoughts on “why museums don’t suck.” And then maybe the conversation can productively refocus on what museums could be doing better to connect with teens like Howard.
So what are some ways that art museums are pushing forward with teen engagement?
It only seems appropriate to begin this look at museum teen programs and offerings by checking out what some of the museums that Howard visited actually offer for teens. In other words, if Howard had decided to hop on the Internet before his visits, what would he have found about their offerings for he and his friends?
Norton Simon Museum: Not sure Howard would have found much at the Norton Simon. They do offer a Teen Art Academy program, but the next session is not being held until December 1st when artist J Michael Walker leads a group of teens through the galleries to examine self-portriature, followed by a workshop in which students create their own self-portraits. Pretty cool artist to work with, but certainly not a pop-in experience (the workshop asks teens to give up 3 hours spread across 2 days).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Being one of the largest art museums in the country, it is not surprising that LACMA has a range of teen programs. But it’s still exciting to see LACMA trying out new ways of bringing in the teen audience. They offer teen art classes periodically and a free NexGen membership to those 17 and under, but I think Howard would be more interested in their “After Dark” teen night that is free for teens, ONLY for teens, and offers a chance for LA teens to hang out, see art, and have fun. LACMA also has offered a teen High School Internship Program for several years, which sounds like a great opportunity for interested teens (perhaps not Howard) to learn more about museums and gain in-depth experiences with art and artists.
J. Paul Getty Museum: Hmmmm, looks like the main Getty Museum does not offer any programs specifically geared toward teens. The Getty Villa does have an interesting Teen Apprentice Program and Summer Latin Academy, but I think both sound more suited to Howard’s ‘nerdy’ friend Jennifer than to him (perhaps maybe even too academic for her). But, come on Howard, you can’t beat those views of LA from the Getty.
Skirball Cultural Center:The Skirball offers an interesting Teen Corps volunteer program that exposes interested teens to a range of museum jobs and skills. Yet, I think the work that the Skirball has done to rethink its visitor experience and interpretation model has done more to improve its experience for teens than anything else. Howard seemed to connect to this institution more than any other, likely in large part due to their work to reinvent exhibition design. I also noticed that they installed an exhibit a few years ago on immigration in LA that was told from the perspective of local teenagers — and that would only happen at an institution that seems to truly value teen voices.
Outside of Howard’s tour-de-LA-museums, there are lots of art museums that have developed robust programs to connect in meaningful ways with teenagers. I wanted to highlight a few of them, but this list is no where near exhaustive. Almost all art museums these days offer something for teens, from drawing classes and high school art projects to full-blown teen councils, teen-designed websites, parties, internships, etc. Here are a few of the best that I have learned about over the past several years (please add your favorites by commenting below):
WACTAC: Working to target teen audiences and engagement for more than the past 15 years, the Walker Art Center certainly gets a nod here. I remember speaking with their education staff a few years ago during a visit I made to Minneapolis, and I was blown away by everything they were doing to attract teen audiences and, more importantly, to listen to teen voices as they programmed and planned. Their WACTAC (Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council) provides the institution with a dedicated, core group of teenagers who work closely with staff to plan program and events for teens. Past programs have included teen art exhibitions, printed publications, performances, film screenings, artist talks, and art-making events. They even worked to design the museum’s teen website, which I think is awesome (how many museums let go this much, and open the thinking process to teenagers). The Walker also holds teen art workshops, exhibits the work of area teenage artists, and offers additional internships for this age group.
MoMA Teens: While I have always been a fan of MoMA‘s teen website called Red Studio (which is really quite fantastic, you should check it out), I recently learned more about their other offerings for teenagers. Beyond Red Studio’s teen interviews with artists and online art activities, MoMA offers free classes, film screenings, Teen Night Out events, and other websites designed by and for teens. One, called Pop Art developed in 2009 in conjunction with MoMA’s Youth Advisory Council, seems to be a new way to browse selected work in the collection and share them with friends (and I’ll admit that I spent a bit too much time on the site making my own collections and simply exploring the artworks that popped up on my screen). And if you’ve ever been to MoMA on one of their Free Fridays, you know that they are not having too much trouble attracting young audiences.
ICA Teens & the National Convening for Teens in the Arts:The institution that has continued to impress me the most when it comes to teen audiences is the ICA Boston. Like the Walker and MoMA, they utilize a core Teen Art Council to help them plan events for teenage audiences, such as their upcoming Teen Night in November that merges early hip hop with the imagery of dreams through live music, breakdancing tutorials, and spinning all night from the ICA teen DJ collective (yes, you heard me correct … they have their own DJ collective). The ICA also runs a program called Fast Forward that brings together teenagers around creating film, video, and new media. Yet above and beyond all of these individual programs, the ICA Boston has worked to pull off its annual National Convenings for Teens in the Arts — an event that was initiated “in response to the lack of opportunity for students and educators to collaboratively discuss the issues, challenges, and possibilities facing the field of contemporary arts education for urban teens” (2011 Education Report). The convening brings together teen arts leaders and museum educators to explore the role museums can play in youth development, teen program advocacy, and experimenting in museums. The ICA has created an Education Report for each of the past events, and these documents are available on their website and totally worth a close look.
This just skims the surface when it comes to teen engagement in museums — notable mentions should also go out to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Youth Insights program, as well as the much smaller but perhaps equally-as-powerful YouthSmart program at the Saint Louis Art Museum that hires Summer Teen Assistants to work closely with education staff and artists as well as lead tours for thousands of youth groups (unfortunately, you can’t find much information at all about this incredible opportunity for teens at SLAM, making it that institution’s best kept secret).
While this wide array of teen councils, parties, and online activities certainly shows that museums are paying attention to teens, I’m still unsure how these types of programs make a difference for the drop-in teen visitor (like Howard). Have these institutions and others changed their visitor experience due to their close work with teenagers? Is the remainder of the museum experience simply “business as usual” (which, for Howard and most teens, would mean ‘boring’)?
A Challenge to Museums
So I’m going to wrap-up this post where I started, and let the conversation turn back on museums. As I mentioned, the link to Howard Hwang’s article came to me via a great colleague and friend, Dana Carlisle Kletcka, who directs education programs at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State (meaning that she is constantly struggling with issues that pertain to the slightly older teen audience). In her email to me, she summed up what many of us museum educators are thinking when we read Howard’s words and reflect back on our own efforts (or lack of effort) to listen to teenagers, open up opportunities for younger voices to be heard in our institutions, and allow for something interesting to happen as teens like Howard walk through the door. So I’ll give Dana the last word here, and I invite your thoughts and responses below:
“[Howard’s] words certainly made me wonder what museum staff and volunteers can do to respond to his very honest assessment of museums, which is present in a certain portion of the population whether we like it or not…. What I had hoped to do by passing along this article was to stimulate thinking as to how the role of educators in museums–volunteer or not–can mitigate and in fact change such superficial reactions to the museum. What if he had been in a group with a really good docent? What if he had engaged in conversation with the other nameless gallery visitors who challenged his “I could do that” thinking? What if he had been greeted at the door by a friendly adult? What if he had engaged in any type of art-making activity that showed him just how challenging it can be to make something with your hands in concert with your mind?
“I’m certainly not suggesting that we modify our practices to suit one surly 15-year-old. But it is worth pondering how the work that we do is a catalyst for changing such opinions and in fact igniting sparks of intellectual curiosity that will grow in time.”
UPDATE: I was lucky enough to speak with the now 26-year-old Howard about his article (actually written in 2001), his thoughts about museums, and what he thinks about all this attention surrounding his article so many years later. Here is the link to my “epilogue” to this post, which includes notes and thoughts from my short but very interesting phone conversation with Howard Hwang:“Epilogue – Why Museums Don’t Suck: Connecting with Howard Hwang”
Teen group drops by for a visit at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.
Educational practices in art museums don’t often make the pages of major newspapers, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this article, “From Show and Look to Show and Teach,” in the New York Times a few months ago (see also Lindsay Smilow’s earlier response to this NYT article). After a cursory glance, I assumed it would detail educational activities as part of an ongoing commitment to fostering free-choice or constructivist learning experiences in some of the most well-known museums on the planet.
As I read, two assumptions of the author began to take shape:
“education” in museums is equated primarily with engaging in processes of art making; furthermore, museum guests expect such offerings under the auspices of “participatory events;” and
the locations of education programs provide significant but conflicting messages.
On one hand, the writer cites the director of the Whitney asserting that “education is part and parcel of what we do” after explaining that the physical space for educational activities (presumably at other institutions) is often physically isolated. Shortly thereafter, the author lauded the rather unique Whitney Studio, a “pop-up” center for education at the Whitney that is not only isolated, it is separate from the building altogether. It seems metaphorically significant in this instance that this temporary space is made from enormous shipping containers.
These assumptions prompted me to reflect on my own thoughts about what constitutes education in museums, and where that education should occur. As a graduate student in the mid-1990s I was fully ingratiated in the paradigm of Discipline-Based Art Education, in which aesthetics, art history, art production, and art criticism are considered basic subject areas from which to derive content for art education—while art production for me has always been one way to come to a better understanding of art, the conversations that may be engendered in gallery and other spaces have always been far more intriguing and significant in my own educational practices.
I am certainly not the first person to reckon with the importance of art making as part of an overall educational endeavor. My colleague and friend, Professor B. Stephen Carpenter, made an interesting comment during a panel presentation on reconceptualizing curriculum at the 2012 NAEA convention in New York City. He questioned, ever so briefly, whether or not the act of art making is, in fact, the primary goal/foundation of every model of art education, though his question specifically focused on eco-environmental curriculum. At the time, I thought… if it is primary, then where does that leave the myriad other discourses that surround art education and art museum education? What happens when we as professional educators privilege a particular kind of knowing over all other ways of relating to objects in the museum, particularly when few people excel at those skills, especially as they are presented in very short classes?
The article featured other examples of art-making-as-education in spaces outside the museum, such as Open Field, a grassy space next to the Walker Art Center, and several digital spaces, including online art production classes offered by the Museum of Modern Art. Art museum education has long been relegated to basements and other hidden or cordoned-off areas of the museum, and I pause to wonder what messages are being transmitted when learning is offered outside the physical space of the museum.
Does this practice reify the notion that education is a by-product of the more serious business of being in the galleries? Or is it simply a practical response to a space issue for educators who are increasingly offering educational opportunities that are responsive to their particular learning communities, collections, and spaces?
If one considers art making to be an important exercise with which to engage in order to understand art, a separate space is necessary for obvious reasons, as art can be (and should be) messy. If not, then the what and the where of art museum education is an important and evolving conversation.
I invite you to add your own thoughts and perspectives below, so we can continue to engage in productive exchange about these ideas that are core to our profession.
For the past 4 years, Chinese artist Yang Weidong has posed a deceptively simple question to over 300 Chinese intellectuals: “What do Chinese people need most today?” These wide-ranging interviews have now become the core of a book by Yang as well as a in-progress documentary film titled “Xu Yao” or “Need” in Chinese, and “Signal” in English. As for their answers … “Of China’s thinkers,” Yang tells NPR’s Louise Lim, “more than 95 percent of those I interviewed need freedom, though they used different ways to express this.”
“Freedom of speech,” “freedom of expression,” and “free space for creative work” are combined with other responses in which people talked about the need for faith or spiritual life. As the Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut succinctly puts it, Yang’s project is about “China’s thirst for freedom.” His simple question opened up some really powerful conversations with China’s intellectual and creative class about sincere needs and legitimate concerns — conversations that, interestingly enough, have not yet been shut down by the Chinese government (despite repeated searches of Yang’s home and after some of the interview tapes have been confiscated).
Taking the spark of motivation from Yang’s inspiring and ongoing “Need” project, I recently decided to develop an experimental prototype that would explore how museums might interact with this idea of personal/universal needs — real, sincere needs that could build toward new forms of public engagement. For the second year in a row, I am facilitating the Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program at the Saint Louis Art Museum, a unique program that brings together a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students to explore and create different types of museum teaching and learning experiences.
On the first day of this summer’s program, I invited each of our 18 interns to take some time and reflect on the big question: “What do you need most today?” Not thinking about museums or art in anyway, their task was simply to dig into their own, personal needs and decide on one that seemed urgent right now (‘today’). After everyone had identified their “I need” statement, they wrote their needs on large pieces of posterboard and stood on the front steps of the art museum so I could take each intern’s photo (see the Pinterest board of all the photos).
For me, this was planting the seeds of a 10-week project through which these interns are slowly and intentionally developing their own public engagement projects to be enacted in August. And the next step pushed things in that direction the following week, as each intern was invited to reflect on their need statement and think about how, in some way, museums might fulfill that need — thinking creatively and outside-the-box. Below are just a few excerpts from those reflections:
An engaged community:“Experiencing art is a tangible way to engage with and learn about others – it’s an opportunity to have a conversation, which builds a community by sharing experiences that can be taken home with you. In this way, the art museum offers a unique setting for community engagement. I believe that viewing art as this kind of open invitation is what inspires visitors to return, and it is the museum’s responsibility to continue this discussion”
A variety of choices:“I believe the museum setting encourages a structured approach to the works contained within them … the standard Look, Read, Look, Move On. [B]ut without encouraging or allowing new ways to interact with the works, most viewers will stay within the confines of the standard viewing methods. By encouraging a variety of ways to interact with the works within the museum, it will allow for a visit that breaks from the norm, and encourages the development of new avenues of interest, and make visits a more unique experience.”
Stories: “People love stories — to feel connected to their fellows even across the boundaries of nationality, culture, and language. We like to know that we are not alone in our desires, our longings, and our needs. [And] an art museum seems to me to be the perfect place to go to find stories. One could invent a story based on a single painting or sculpture; perhaps all the works in a gallery could be different parts of the story; maybe the different parts of a story are scattered across the museum and the game is to find them all. Art museums have endless possibilities for finding stories.”
For the past 3 weeks now, we have been extending our conversations about these needs and how they might build toward a public engagement project at the museum. First, we laid out everyone’s needs and did a short mapping activity — a great way to make our thinking visible and allow us to explore potential connections and relationships among the group’s needs. Then, from there, everyone got into pairs based on “adjacent” needs on the map, and each pair interviewed each other about their need and how it might translate into a museum-based project. Most recently, we all connected with experimental museum work at institutions such as the Walker Art Center’s Open Field and the Hammer Museum’s Public Engagement programs, paralleling our learning about “public engagement” and social practice with our own developing ideas.
As we enter our 4th week of this summer’s program, I think we’re heading in interesting directions. This week, we will begin to form more concrete ideas and develop prototypes for projects. While I know we have lots of questions to ask and issues to navigate, I am excited to have launched into this project over the summer. The Summer Museum Teaching Internship Program has always been an exceptional time and place for experimentation, especially due to the diverse and energetic group of students who participate each summer. For me, exploring museum work from the point of view of personal and universal “needs” has the potential to make these projects so much more relevant, sincere, and “real” (however you define that). And these are all things on the minds of museums — and especially museum educators — as we trudge through the second decade of the 21st century.
Much like artist Yang Weidong’s “Need” project, mindful museums have tremendous potential and power in their engagements with communities and the issues that these communities care about most. Sometimes simply discovering those needs is an important first step, building up from them to create opportunities for engagement and learning that are more responsive and relevant to the issues facing us ‘today.’ Towards the conclusion of his 2009 book entitled Museums in a Troubled World, Robert Janes provides us with some provocative thoughts that may connect with why this type of work is valid and valuable:
“All museums have the responsibility and the opportunity to become synthesizers, and foster an understanding of the interconnectedness of the problems we face, both environmental and social. A mindful museum can empower and honour all people in the search for a sustainable and just world — by creating a mission that focuses on the interconnectedness of our world and its challenges, and promotes the integration of disparate perspectives.” (p. 166)
“It has been noted that ‘There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.’ Will communities continue to care about museums in their current guise? Will museums discover what they care about? Or are museums at risk?” (p. 168)
I will certainly be posting again as the summer’s intern program continues and we get closer to the series of public engagement projects we plan to enact on August 9 and 10. So stay tuned. In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and perspectives below. How might you tap into “needs” (external/internal/audience) as a core for experimental program development? How important is this type of work for museums? Share your stories and practices here or on Twitter via @murawski27.
SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27. See all posts in the series by clicking here.