Who stands to benefit from this work?
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.
About the contributor: Mike Murawski currently serves as Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum as well as founding editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, a collaborative online forum for reflecting on issues of teaching, learning, and experimental practice in the field of art museum education. 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 public participation and community engagement that museums can offer. artmuseumteaching.com