I recently attended the American Association of Museums (AAM) conference in Minneapolis, an enormous interdisciplinary gathering of over four thousand museum professionals from institutions of all kinds – performing arts, visual arts, science, natural history, air & space, you name it. The theme of the conference was “Creative Community,” and for my fine arts colleagues, this thrust resonated with a February 2011 NEA study authored by Jennifer Novak-Leonard and arts evaluation guru Alan Wolfe, about an increasing diversity of arts participation in America—despite the rapidly diminishing role of the art institution.
Whereas the 2008 NEA survey on the arts in America showed a significant decline in attendance at all arts institutions (34.6% of all Americans, down from 39.5% in 2002), as well as an audience that has become disproportionately white in contrast to increasing demographic diversity, the 2011 study offers a glimmer of hope. Rather than focusing only on benchmark attendance at arts institutions, the authors evaluated engagement using a broader “multi-modal” approach—taking into account arts creation, electronic media use, and participation in community venues like schools and religious institutions. Surprising in the face of declining attendance, they found that no less than 74% of Americans engaged in one of these artistic modes—the bulk participating not in museums or performing arts venues, but in their neighborhoods and homes.
All through the non-profit arts sector, this notion is rumbling the foundation of culture and widening the cracks in the walls of the ivory tower. It is not that Americans are not engaging in artistic activity – much to the contrary. They are simply choosing to participate in ways that do not include museums. From the theme of AAM to the shifts in funding priorities recently announced by several philanthropic organizations including the James Irvine Foundation, community engagement and pushing beyond the four walls of the museum are becoming urgent strategies for the continued survival of art institutions. Irvine’s new set of priorities is called “Exploring Engagement,” and apropos to the arts participation study, focuses on broadening audience demographics through an increased focus on non-traditional venues for art embedded in communities. This is not to say that these trends are a result of this data alone; rather the rise of social engagement in artistic practice, the urgency of budget crises, and the void of institutionalized arts education are all combining to make broad social engagement by museums a necessity rather than an afterthought.
The winds are shifting, and museums of all kinds are reacting—sometimes fundamentally shifting their missions and structures in response, calling into question what comprises the boundaries of the institution. At AAM I encountered many models, too numerous and multivalent to go into much detail here, but perhaps could be categorized as such: Radical Openess, Museum as Service, and Decentralized Museum. These formats are inevitably infused with socially-engaged artistic practice, a flexible and hybrid process of working that is naturally aligned with such participatory formats.
Open Field at the Walker
“Radical Openess” can be described as efforts to bring community-generated content into the space of the museum, opening the space for curation and artistic production by a broad swath of publics. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is programming the massive four-acre field outside of its building with museum-curated events (Machine Project did several projects there) but also with music, performance, and workshops programmed by a swath of public participants. The Queens Museum of Art likewise brings community events and programs into its space, and the Dallas Museum of Art dedicates an unprecedented 12,000 square feet of space smack dab in the middle of its galleries to participatory work and community exhibition space.
Immigrant Respect pin from Immigrant Movement International
The “Museum as Service” model is so named because it describes programs that expand the museum’s educational mission to encompass life skills and services beyond art. The Queens Museum of Art again has some of the most innovative programs addressing its unique and diverse immigrant constituencies, including the New New Yorkers program, which provides language, art, and technology classes to recent immigrants. Another fascinating ongoing project was artist-generated—Tania Brughera’s “Immigrant Movement” which now comprises a community-run revolutionary political advocacy group for immigrants including over 40 neighborhood organizations.
Trade City's PopWagon
One of the most interesting models that deeply calls into question the future of the institution I am naming the “Decentralized Museum.” These strategies stem from concerns about declining institutional attendance and seek to leverage still-thriving local arts participation by embedding the institution within communities on an intimate smaller scale. One tactic is mobility – Maria Mortati has a mobile pop-up exhibition space in San Francisco that completely packs up into a single car, and the Los Angeles Trade City theater group just debuted its mobile community stage called PopWagon. Another tactic is the satellite space, which science museums seem to be utilizing more and more – the Buffalo Science Center has created temporary “Science Spots” that appear in storefronts across the city and offer educational science programming, whereas the Los Angeles California Science Center is experimenting with institution-sponsored neighborhood “science clubs” in partnership with existing community organizations (focusing on regions that are distant and may find visiting the center an improbability).
A satellite "Science Spot" of the Buffalo Science Center
What does this mean for the future of the institution? A huge challenge of this work is capacity – museums are organized to sustain an exhibition program, and working in a tactical, mobile, or radically open way necessitates a reskilling. Queens Museum has a community organizer on staff to form stable relationships as a foundation for the programming, and other museums are assembling ad hoc teams cobbling together working processes and knowledge from many departments and staff levels. There remains a dearth of appropriate evaluation tools to measure impact beyond basic attendance, which becomes meaningless in the face of an expanded model. How does one assess the feelings about a museum, the reach of a program, from participants who may never walk through the doors? And how does this shift the perception of the museum’s success from the point of view of donors, funders, and board members? Finally, what does this mean for artists? Perhaps a broadening of opportunity, and a need for developed organizational and participatory strategies – not to mention a coalescing of best working practices and a steadfast position that socially-engaged art will not solve the audience problem for museums, but perhaps help us shift our thinking about the future of museums in more layered complexity.
Every couple of months at the Hammer, a group of older women from a Brandeis Alumni group come for a tour and lunch in the museum cafe. I had the pleasure of touring this group the last time they came, through the show “Second Nature.” The show, which is coming down very shortly, consists of a fantastic collection of sculpture from the last 10 years (mostly by Los Angeles-based or educated young artists) donated by media exec Dean Valentine to the Hammer’s contemporary collection. The varied pieces within it, though having some relationship to one another in their generational response to object making, are quite diverse, and challenging in terms of an overarching tour.
The Brandeis women, of a clearly different generation than these artists (who included Edgar Arceneaux, Sterling Ruby, Ruby Neri, Stephen G. Rhoades, Martin Kersels, Paul Sietsema, and Nathan Mabry among others), were resistant to art in these forms, and had much to say. One protested the “cerebral” nature of conceptual or post-conceptual art, a refrain I hear frequently as a docent. “These artists need to get out of their heads and into their hearts,” she admonished. Others just shook their heads disapprovingly when I introduced Sterling Ruby’s monumental “Stalamite: Recondite Burning,” an obelisk-like organic coagulation of melted plastic, enormous and stunning in its expressionism.
As their guide, I tried my best to give context for the work they were seeing, to try to lay the groundwork that these artists were not attempting to represent or even necessarily “express themselves” in the vague, cliched sense, but were posing a question or conceptual critique - about the larger framework in which they were making art, about art and object-making in a digital age, about media in general. This leap is still nearly impossible for many art viewers of a certain generation. They are interested (they are there, after all) but they don’t get it, and they become frustrated that they don’t get it.
I think those of us who live and breathe contemporary art forget this, quite often. We like preaching to the converted, and the divide between those who “get it” and those who don’t remains difficult to hurdle. Building access to contemporary art and learning to appreciate good contemporary art takes time. It’s like trying to explain the taste of a good apple versus a bad apple when the person you are talking to has never tasted an apple before…and not only that, is absolutely resistant to apples in general. I was more than thrilled when at the end of the tour, one of the women said, “Well, for art we didn’t like that much, we sure did talk about it a lot.” I felt like hugging her - yes, I wanted to say, yes, that’s the whole point.
Which brings me to the space for museum education - a really fascinating and dynamic space that embodies all sorts of interesting conflicts, like the Brandeis group experience described above. Museum education departments are morphing beyond the docent-training, curriculum-building, K-12 oriented places they once were, where kids fingerpaint after learning about Impressionism. These departments are increasingly the incubators for social practice…for like the artists who are so interested in problem-solving and spatial and social context, museum educators have long had to deal with both art and its public context. Traditional curators are sometimes a bit baffled by social practice, especially as it becomes less and less object-based - a couple of curators have admitted to me that they don’t feel they have the skill set to “judge” good or bad social practices (apples to oranges, again). But museum educators are used to integrating publics with pedagogy and art historical context - they are programmers and teachers and problem-solvers. Obviously not all educators are equipped to really explore these liminal social spaces, preferring to confine themselves to lesson plans and traditional notions of art education - but the space is there. Educators like Eungie Joo of the New Museum and her fantastically interdisciplinary “Museum as Hub” program, or Sarah Schultz of the Walker, are consistently breaking new ground in terms of curatorial and educational collaboration, supporting social practice, pushing the boundaries of arts education, and creating spaces to incubate new pedagogical ideas. It is no surprise that among the three LA art institutions interested in partnering with the Watts House Project, all three are doing so through their education departments.
Clearly I’m a bit of a booster, being a museum educator myself, but I find deep connections forming between these departments and the art practices I am so interested in, and I am excited to see what innovative programs arise from those interstices.
Barbara Steveni and John Latham, Artist Placement Group (APG)
@ apexart coming up…
The Incidental Person
Curated by Antony Hudek
January 6 to February 20, 2010
Opening reception: January 6, 6-8 pm
“The “Incidental Person” was coined by the British artist John Latham (1921-2006) to qualify the status of an artist involved in non-art contexts such as government or large corporations. This exhibition expands on Latham’s original definition of the Incidental Person to include those persons for whom all aspects of life – political, social, esthetic, professional – are integrated into a unified whole. The new Incidental Person can be an artist, but does not need to be since for her or him meaningful production is not the exclusive property of any one member of society: the Incidental Person can be anyone as long as each of her or his actions partakes of a larger, unified life practice.
The exhibition argues that the Incidental Person stakes out a new position, outside of the 20th-century triad Joseph Beuys-Marcel Duchamp-John Cage. Unlike the latter, the Incidental Person does not seek to solve the “art-life” or “mind-body” problems. Instead, she or he fails to see them as problems at all, since for the Incidental Person art, life, mind, and body cannot be understood in opposition to one another. But this does not mean that the Incidental Person declares that anything can be art, as Duchamp suggested with the readymade. Rather art itself becomes subsumed under a larger, all-inclusive category of motions or things that bear the elusive imprint of Incidentality. And while the Incidental Person shares Beuys’ interest in pedagogy, she or he eschews the self-mythologizing of the avant-garde: if you do not recognize the Incidental Person walking past you in the street, this is probably because you have yet to learn what makes their life-practice Incidental - and vice-versa. This exhibition bring together persons formerly known as “artists”, “writers”, “technicians”, and “bureaucrats”, who imbue their everyday existence with Incidentality. In particular, the exhibition will underscore aspects of the Incidental Person’s life-work that do not appear obviously “artistic”, thus becoming a pedagogical forum to learn how to recognize and act out the potential behind seemingly disparate gestures, regardless of their professional or aesthetic tags.”
Interesting thought, this idea of “incidentality” and life-practice. I’ve been reading a bit about the fascinating Lygia Clark, who like Latham, brought together conceptions of time, mortality, metaphysics and the body in her practices. She said she “longed to live like the hand of a clock; passing a thousand times through the same route.” Ever concerned with divisions between the past and the future, this sense of time defined the wholistic conception of her practice. She said, “With me it is always like this - while I live a thousand turns of the earth the rest of the people here are marking out time, with rare exceptions, going backwards, and nothing is dynamic, everything is pause or death.”
A language of critique can be formed around life-practices such as these, as evidenced in the truly stunning survey of conceptual art curated by Peter Eeley at the Walker Art Center, “The Quick and the Dead.” Eeley’s cogent essay on the works of artists like Clark, Robert Barry, George Brecht, On Kawara, James Lee Byars, Tacita Dean and others highlight these concerns with death, time, and the metaphorical object.
Yet the notion of the Incidental Person that Latham puts forth and Hudek will attempt to expand upon in this exhibition might be more problematic to discuss in such a manner. Many artists concerned with social practice are “incidental people” inserted into political and social arenas as problem-solvers, but where do the parameters and limits of their artistic practices exist? It is problematic to call everything that an artist does in a social or political realm an “artwork.” Are the workings of government or community or social service utilized only as the context for performativity? Are the artists actually “solving problems,” somehow pointing out problems that no one else can see? I could cite many examples, from Merle Laderman Ukeles’s “Touch Sanitation,” during which the artist was in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation, to John Latham’s stint at the Scottish Office’s Development Agency (through the Artist Placement Group). Besides these insertions, there is also the question of artist-conceived organizational structures that are called artworks, like Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses or Watts House Project. Is this a strategic in some way, positioning these entities in an “innovative” categorization (not to mention funding and development), or is there a larger intellectual and conceptual artistic process at work? Something special and unique that an artist brings that no one else can, a revelatory experience?
It’s certainly a romantic notion, but I struggle with it. And if it’s true, what about these other “incidental people” that Hudek speaks of? The engineers, the scientists, the technicians, and the bureaucrats? I can’t help but believe that there is some hierarchy, some question of authorship, and general muddiness about shoehorning these artists/non-artists into a curated art show that is not being addressed here.
(Thanks to Aimee Chang for the conversation that led to some of these questions).