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Film: What Happens Artists Take Over the Museum at Night?

What happens when artists take over the museum at night? ARTBAR is a monthly sell-out artist-led museum experience, bringing one-off installations, performances, exhibitions, talks, workshops and music that transforms the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia into a piece of performance art.

This presentation shares what it has meant for the Museum to let go of control – or elements of control – to live out one of its core values – that artists are at the heart of everything that the museum does.

Lucy: Hi everyone, thank you. We’re doing a double act today as Lucy has done the introduction but we’ll just go through it again. I’m Gill Nicol and I’ve being working as director of audience engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, MCA for short, for the last 18 months. Audience engagement covers everything outward facing, so that is learning, public programs, visitor experience and marketing.

Aileen Robalino: I am Aileen Robalino and I am the MCA Art Bar co-ordinator. My role is part of the public programs team and that’s part of Gill’s division.

Gill Nicol: Before I begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land on which we are meeting and I pay my respects to the elders past and present and any elders from other communities who may be here today. We’re here about Art Bar and Art Bar and how it fits into the MCA and what it risk means from a number of different perspectives. A bit about the MCA; we just celebrated being 25 years old so in many years we’re still quite young. We have a collection of mainly living Australian artists and we also show temporary exhibitions of international contemporary art.

Our purpose is to connect a diverse public with the work of living artists and our vision is to take a leadership role in shaping an Australia that values contemporary art and artists. We exist because contemporary art matters. It stimulates the imagination, engages our senses and has the power to transform lives. Artists address complex ideas, they challenge us to think and see the world differently, to inform, shape and re-shape our outlook on society and as we’ve heard over the last few days perhaps in 2017 we need our artists like we’ve never needed them before. The museum sits on Sydney harbor, I’m sure many of you know it but for our international visitors who haven’t being there yet, it sits on the most beautiful spot on the edge of Sydney harbor with the Sydney opera house opposite it. It started life in 1991 in what was the customs house and has steadily increased visitors year by year so that by 2008 it was obvious we needed to expand. In 2012 we opened a new wing that enables us to have an entire floor to show works from the MCA collection along with extra gallery space plus a national centre for creative learning which is a Godsend, a seminar room, a lecture theatre, just more space and a great café because we all need a great café on level four with amazing views of said harbor bridge and the opera house.

In 2016 we welcomed just of 1.2 million visitors so visitors for us currently are not really a problem, they might be in the future but we’re alright at the moment. One of our values is that artists are central to all our activities and another is making challenging and complex work accessible, so Art Bar responds and embodies both those values. Art Bar began life just after we opened the new wing and brings the museum [live] after hours. It’s a monthly sell out, artist led museum experience bringing one off installations, performances, exhibitions, talks and workshops and music together. You can see behind me this rolling program of some of the really interesting incredible things that happen. It’s curated by artists, it transforms the MCA into a piece of performance art. It takes place on the last Friday of the month apart from December from 7pm to 11pm and our exhibitions also stay open.

Aileen works hard to manage the whole thing and identifies artists each year to be involved. It’s asking them to become curators in our attempt to tip what the notion of what a museum is on its head and completely flip the idea of what it means to experience contemporary art by letting artists take over the Museum. Art Bar is for anyone over 18 looking to have an unusual, exciting, fun time whilst experiencing challenging provocative art works. For example we’ve seen Parkour by young people in the galleries, a panel discussion on what constitutes aboriginal art today, an alternative musician, fortune telling by Rennie Codgers, Bad Santa by Richard Bell, coffee tasting and sword swallowing and many more things.

It means a great deal to the artists too that are asked to curate, so Kate Scardifield said on a quote, “The great thing about being asked to curate an Art Bar is that I’ve being able to step back from my usual role as an artist making and exhibiting my own work. Instead I’ve had the opportunity to present such an incredible and diverse program of creative thinkers and makers, artists as well as performers, designers, audio engineers, musicians, chefs and dancers.” Artist Hoosain Samy said, “It’s an opportunity to curate a program of artists and works that I like in a temporal format which is quite unique and in some instances to try something new.” To put on such a program for just one night is challenging and I wanted to make sure there was a nice correlation between the works and the spaces as it is a real challenge for many of the artists but also an amazing opportunity.

So who comes? We see a different audience each month depending on who the artist is, sometimes people dress up like for Chinese New Year or Halloween and sometimes it’s more relaxed. All sorts of ages, all sorts of tastes, who knows who comes. We went through a period where lots of men in suits came along and maybe it became a dating scene for a while, we usually have about two thirds women don’t we, coming along. It’s usually sold out which means 700 people have bought tickets. What does it mean for the organization to host Art Bar? So the risks from a leadership point of view have being around what to relax into and what to let go of. Is it art or just one big party? What to control and what to manage. We have learned to manage social media differently ensuring that the images we choose to highlight and send out across our social media platforms convey the sometimes satirical nature of the event alongside staying true to the artists intention and their curatorial concept. Perhaps an artist might be looking at politics, might be looking at sex, some of the images that get sent out we have to manage that quite carefully because without the context of actual Art Bar images can be read in a very particular way, particularly on social media, so in fact there’s always a risk involving contemporary art and artists. We want to actively celebrate and endorse a challenging art works within our institution but at the same time making sure that we are taking care of our staff, as Gerald said right at the beginning at [Monar], you know it’s an absolute priority to take care of staff, but also the building and of course the artworks inside it.

Art Bar is one big success story and the benefits far out way the risks? I’ll just finish my bit with some figures; so in 2016 we had those 11 Art Bars, 15 guest artist curators and over 165 artists and performers and 8345 people came along and enjoy it and see contemporary art through a different lens and long may it continue. Over to Aileen.

Aileen Robalino : Hi guys. Hi, I have been working on Art Bar for just over two years now and I’m going to give you some insight into what it means to manage this event. Risk as it pertains to Art Bar can cover physical risk, risk to the building, to our art works, to our professional reputation and to the emotional and physical wellbeing of staff, artists and our audience. Art Bar, as Jill mentioned, is an over 18’s events so when approaching potential artist curators I encourage them to push boundaries, to challenge the status quo, yes it is about fun and engagement but it can and should take their practice somewhere else, a step into another direction.

As part of Art Bar the MCA gives curatorial control to an artist who then invites other artists to be part of the night and with this control we’re really handing over a large amount of responsibility to an outside stakeholder to drive the content for such a large program. Working closely with the artist curator and ensuring our contract with the artist is airtight is imperative to mitigating the risks within this relationship. I’m just going to go through some of the different Art Bars that we’ve had and some of the different types of risks. You will see some of the other slides that Jill has already used but I’ll give you some background about them.

I’m going to talk about the risk of the building, the safety of the people inside the building, but also the risk of potentially breaking a law. In June of 2016 artist [Tara Gill] invited artist Mark Brown to perform a work that included flying a tethered drone inside the MCA. This required much work on my part, along with Mark, to ensure that not only would the physical risks be taken into account, such as ensuring that the drone would not damage the building or hurt anybody, but also to ensure that I followed the legalities of what flying a drone inside a public building meant. This amount of research made for a really massive risk assessment, and remember I do this every month. This work was performed at the foot of our main stairwell and at our front doors, they were locked as you can see, to ensure that nobody walked through the drones path.

Our artist originally wanted the drone to fly inside the galleries where all of our art is located but in this case the risk outweighed the artists original concept of performing the work. While this work required much more research and risk assessment duties than usual the outcome was not only were we able to fulfill the vision of our artists Mark Brown and Dara Gill but the MCA was able to position ourselves as an institution not afraid to incorporate a potentially very risky work and to confirm our commitment to challenging not only the artist and our visitors but also the directors of the museum.

Here we have a bodily risk being illustrated in March of 2015 when we had a group of parkour performers called Team Nine Lives to perform within our building both inside the galleries themselves but also in the foyer spaces and the exterior forecourt of the MCA. This work was part of an Art Bar curated by Karen [Treys] and had a focus of inviting performers and artists who were blurring the line between being an artist and a performer. As you can see this was a really visually spectacular piece although my heart was in my mouth every time they did a flip or jumped off one another. I am first aid trained so that actually didn’t bring me any sort of, you know, kind of comfortability but I needed to make sure I was. With this performance it was really important to provide support for the artist and to not compromise their work but to ensure their and the artists safety. By taking into account the level of our insurance, their insurance, their experience and our ability to provide a safe space in regards to crowd control and ensuring our staff are trained in first aid, like me, we were able to allow these performers the freedom to respond to our buildings architecture with an acceptable level of risk and danger that is integral to their performances.

You can see here the audience was quite close to the performance and the performers were quite close to the work. Here we have sideshow performer Skye Gillman performing his knife throwing performance as part of our July 2016 Art Bar and again providing a somewhat unexpected experience for our Art Bar audience. As part of his performance Skye Gillman throws knives into his target and then invites an audience member to sit in a chair behind the target and they put their headphones on which plays the sound of the knives hitting the target. This may seem quite risky and dangerous but in fact it was a work that explored the notions of safety and trust and when the participant sat down on the chair they were told that Skye would stop throwing the knives but they couldn’t see him stop throwing the knives yet the sound of the knives would continue. As part of this work visitors would watch other audience members sitting down and the knives stopping, they were also told that no knives would be thrown so there was a verbal warning and as you can see were placed mats to protect the very precious concrete floor.

Here, this is one of my favorite images, it’s part of the same Art Bar as previously mentioned, we had some really incredible Ukrainian dancers but two of these dancers were under the age of 18 and still are so this throws up another risk, that of the legality and safety of an under-aged performer. This risk I managed by providing a separate green room away from any alcohol, an MCA staff member was assigned to the performers to move with them throughout the event and that the under-aged performers left the building as soon as their performance was done and there was also a signed guardian permission slip and a guardian with them throughout the whole night.

Exploring the idea of risk I think it’s important to speak about the risk of creating a safe space for art works that may not be physically risky but that their content could offend and could potentially be a trigger for some people. In October of 2014 [Nicholas] performed a work titled, “And that’s why there’s a porn GIF of me on the internet.” This work pictured here comprised of [Nicholas] audio describing an X-rated pornographic scene that he himself was the main actor in while the audience was wearing blindfold, except you can see someone in the second row didn’t follow instructions. This performative lecture explored notions of pornography [impressionist] from [Nicholas’s] personal experience. To ensure the safety of our audience the content was flagged via a hard copy program that’s handed out to everyone when they arrive, a sign at the entrance to the theatre and a verbal reminder from our staff and finally the artist gave a final mention of the content of the work at the beginning of his performative lecture.

As well as flagging the content with our audience it’s also in my role to ensure that the staff who were working this event are aware of what the work contains and that they feel comfortable not working in this space if need be. I wanted to finish up on an example of a space that at first glance may seem to be the safest thing in the world, the Cat Café is part of the Pippen Pop Art Bar in July of 2014. Working with the Cat Protection Society this Cat Café took place inside a studio space at the MCA and there were multiple rules

Aileen Robalino and Gill Nicol spoke shared the story of artists taking over their museum at MuseumNext Australia in February 2017.

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