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Film: How can a museum build communities of trust?

This presentation was made by Kalewa Correa, Curator of Hawaiai & Pacific, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and Adriel Luis, Curator of Digital & Emerging Media Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center at MuseumNext Melbourne in February 2017.

Kalewa Correa: Today we’re going to be talking about our culture labs that we do, and the risk of working with community and building communities of trust. I’d like to give a big mahalo nui and aloha to Ka Lahui or Kulin, the people that are here originally in Australia … I’d like to also mahalo Museum Next and the folks that have been really great, and I’d also like to say mahalo [yoko] for you folks showing up to our talk.

So, I guess what we’re going to do here is, we’re going to set it up to give you guys a little bit of background of what we’re doing, we’re going to go ahead and play some videos of our culture lab, so we can kind of imbue it into you and actually have you see what we’ve done, and then we’re going to go into talking about culture labs, and then looking at building communities of trust. So, if you wouldn’t mind going ahead and starting the video, we decided not to go with a PowerPoint, so we’re definitely taking a risk here today, seeing as how our transitions might work out for this, but here we go, we’re going to check this out.

Cool. No, no. Thank you. So, besides trying to substantially cut down the amount of time that we have to talk, we also want to give you some time to digest your sandwiches, and also to give you a sense of the breadth of the artist that we’ve worked with in just the course of the last year. So, before [unintelligible 00:07:08] goes and talks a little bit about the culture labs and what we’re planning to do with it, I just wanted to introduce who we are as the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Centre … so some of you may be aware that the Smithsonian in the US, we just opened a national museum of African American history and culture, and so we were founded in the 1990s, sort of like the Asian version, right?

And so, for the last almost 20 years, we’ve operated sort of like Pinocchio, one day wishing that we will become a real museum, and in the meantime, we’re doing really kind of standard programming, especially around lunar New Year, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, whenever one of the museums needed a lion dance, they knew who to call, right? And over the course of the last 20 years, fortunately, the Smithsonian has evolved to a point where we don’t need to knock on the doors of other museums to be like, hey, you haven’t featured an Asian artist in the last 10 years, right, and so that’s been amazing. So two years ago, we were able to kind of think about how we want to restructure our organisation, and one of the things that we realised was the fact that we don’t have a brick and mortar museum, in this day and age, because of the ways that storytelling has shifted out of becoming exclusively in physical form, we have an opportunity to be nimble and bold and risqué in ways that a lot of brick-and-mortar museums are unable to … and so that’s really allowed us to think about … if we were founded in the 1990s to be a centre that addresses the under-represented … at the time, that was Asian Pacific Americans … how can we re-shift who we are so that we’re continuing with that goal now that there’s a higher representation of Asian Pacific Americans at the Smithsonian? And so that’s allowed us to think about ideas of intersectionality, so the intersection of race and sexuality and gender and other ways of identifying … as well as thinking about local artists, thinking about artists that identify with diaspora, and a range of other kind of angles that [our kind of buffet] of national museums in the US didn’t really have any defined museums to address. So, yeah, that said, I’ll pass on to

Adriel Luis: So, this is what happens when we co-curate together, we also present together, and it’s this idea of building trust among … each other, among the artists that we work with, and more so, not only that, it’s the trust that you have within your community itself. So really, the idea behind the culture labs is looking at what the community needs, and what … they’re coming to us saying, this is what we’d like to see, and basically, what we’re doing, as curators, I’d like to think of it more as un-curating, because most of the time, what we’re doing is, we’re just acting as facilitators and pass-throughs. So, what we’re doing is, we’re taking these ideas from the community and finding artists that work for these ideas, and most of these ideas are coming up from basically, like Adriel, myself, our other co-curator, Laurence, and staff members working together going, hey, what is it that we’d like to be able to see from these ideas that are coming out of our communities?

And so, what you’re seeing back here, going with a non-PowerPoint presentation is, this is a representation of the art, the artist and the communities … and so when we talk about this idea of building communities of trust, there is real risk in that, from the traditional sense. So, Smithsonian typically in the past doesn’t like to do anything that is controversial, they don’t like to bring up subjects or deal with things that are hard on society, and so what we’re doing is, we’re saying, well, you know, we’re throwing that out the door and we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to do what people want to hear about. And so, our first culture lab, Cross Lines, looked at this concept of intersectionality, and how people mix; and then our second culture lab, that we did in New York, what it did was, it looked at imagined futures through the eyes of people whose stories are usually not told.

So, most of the stuff that we see on TV is apocalyptic, robotic, stuff like that; what we did is, we challenged our artists to … really, the only guidelines we gave them is, what does your future look like 100 or 1000 years from now? And it just so happened that when we did do this culture lab, it was like two days after the elections in the United States, so what we were finding was, we had one thing in mind, which was serving as what does your future look like, and what ended up happening was, we ended up having a whole different group of people coming in, looking at our culture lab as a place of refuge. You can jump in here any time you want, buddy.

So, what we were doing with this is, when we’re … we’re doing these … building these communities of trust, what we’re doing is, we’re actually incubating artists. So, because we’re very transitory and very temporary as curators within this process, what we’re doing is essentially just connecting people and hoping that these connections [and] this family connection that happens, what it’s going to do is, it’s going to create a network that survives long past us.

Kalewa Correa: Cool. So, a lot of what we’ve been thinking about is, when we’re addressing marginalised communities, how do we make this approach not just by topics, right? In the US, a lot of times when it comes to representation, it’s like, oh, well, black people aren’t coming to our museum, so let’s just do a portrait exhibition about black people, and then they’ll come, right? And it doesn’t necessarily tend to work that way, especially if the framing of the museum, and how it collects and how it exhibits, is still from a very empire-building sort of perspective. And so, a lot of what we’ve been thinking about and travelling, especially in the global south, examining has been … especially in places where museums and cultural institutions and that has developed … where do people get their art and their culture, organically? And given that we live in a place where we … as our centre is often trying to outreach to immigrant communities, refugee communities, folks who are a bit more fluid with their identities … how can we create kind of a space where not only do they see themselves on the walls, but they also see themselves in the people who are around them, and who are attending.

And so, this idea of a culture lab is actually an alternative model to an exhibition that we’re thinking about, where really the end-point of this is the community organising aspect, so bringing artists together to create and present artwork as prompts for conversations that we hear the public wanting to have. And a lot of that kind of conversation and listening happens online … when I first joined the organisation, because I have the word ‘digital’ in my title, they automatically gave me the Twitter account, and so I was like … you know, I had a direct line to the public, which really greatly informed the way that I think our curatorial office has been thinking about how we can respond really quickly to these things. And so the idea of a culture lab is sort of … we take elements of a traditional exhibition; we’re showing work, we have a level of gloss to it, we’re presenting them in the kind of art and label frame that’s familiar to museums, but at the same time, the environment that we’re building around it, the kinds of neighbourhoods that we work with, the community-based arts that we work with, are really more informed by the kinds of flea-markets and swap-meets and art pop-ups and things that we often see in the global south, and in more urban areas of the US.

Adriel Luis: Yeah, so I guess riffing off that, what he’s saying is, essentially, we’re just bringing people together in a way that creates and sparks conversation, so I think if anything, at the end of the day, what we’re probably curating more than anything is experience, and our events happen very quickly, so both of the culture labs that we’ve done feature about 40-plus artists, and we have six months to plan and we have a week to execute. And in that week, we have two days of set-up, two days of show, one day of take-down, and it’s basically all hands on deck. We hold a convening prior to these things, in order for artists’ work to inform other artists’ work. So that’s really a key thing about our culture lab, is this idea of having people meet and break bread and eat together and just share experience, and what we’ve seen with that is when we have people get together in a room and share their ideas … especially … we saw it with Crossed Lines, we saw it with Control Alt … when they’re sharing their ideas, the art even evolves, over just that convening.

So people come in with a preconceived idea, and then what ends up happening is, they have a completely different idea of what they want to do at the end of it. And so, it’s something that is very fluid, we give full rein and licence to the artist, with … which is kind of risky in itself … not really … other than the main topic and the main subject, we kind of let people go nuts with what they want to do along the route, and stuff like that, but really, what we’ve found is that by creating this community, this family, we see great things come out of it, even especially when we’re doing the installations themselves, what we’re seeing is that people will go to other people and help them, it’s no longer a situation of people trying to outdo each other or people trying to compete with each other, you’re creating a family of artists, scholars, cultural practitioners that basically want to work together, want each other to succeed, and what we’re seeing from this is that artists are working with each other long after we’re gone; they’re doing exhibitions with each other, they’re doing connections with each other, they’re promoting each other’s work, and that kind of was the idea behind it.

Kalewa Correa: Yeah, and one more thing that I would add on, so I would say that the two main elements when it comes to working with artists is, what [unintelligible 00:17:51] was talking about this idea of building community, so the artists are finding themselves not just in a group show, but actually the formation of an art collective, where they can create, riff off of each other, provide resources for each other. The other big thing that kind of stepped outside of the normal template of the Smithsonian was that we really looked … we really made a priority out of equitable pay to the artists. We used a non-profit organisation based in the US called Wage, and it’s like an acronym, WAGE, and they basically provide a wage calculator suggesting, based on your annual spending budget, how much to pay artists, and so we used that independent organisation as a transparent platform for artists to come up with their quotes for us, and we found that to be especially helpful, because with the culture labs, we were working with a range of very established artists, all the way to emerging artists who have never worked with galleries or museums before, and so we really see this as an opportunity to use the curation process as a vehicle for fostering professional understandings of how to operate as an artist, especially … which has been especially helpful for the local artists that we’re working with. And with the culture labs, we’re also popping up in different cities throughout the US, and making sure that at least a third to a half of the artists that we’re working with are based in the local area, and can speak to the stories of the space.

And when it comes to the public, one of the things that we’ve been thinking about is, as sort of this non-permanent museum, how can we create a lasting impact that empowers the communities that we in some ways parachute into and then bounce out of immediately? And so, working with … working as bridge-builders between organisations that either don’t know each other or they have some kind of tension that needs some kind of mediator has been a place where we’ve really excelled. The last two labs that we’ve done have been in Washington DC and New York City, and as an example, some of the work that you’re seeing right now is from this New York pop-up. We popped up inside of a Chinese-American-owned business that had been open for about 45 years, and closed down because of the rent hike, and so we thought it would be an incredible space to do an exhibition talking about uncertain futures of ourselves, of our neighbourhoods, of our nation, and so we actually worked with the business that was kicked out of the building, created a little time-capsule in there, and used that as a platform, as a prompt for all the artists to kind of riff off of.

And so there, we’re paying [homage] to the genealogy of the space; we’re also creating a sort of environment where, whether you’re a tourist or a local, you’re really coming in and finding something new. [I would say] the other kind of big leap that we’ve taken as the Smithsonian is, in the US, we’re kind of known as a more conservative institution, because we’re government, like [unintelligible 00:20:39] said, we don’t take on advocacy for particular legislation … which can be very difficult when you’re working with community-based artists … and so I think one of the ways that we’ve been able to really play with this idea is the fact that all of the artworks are really asking the audience a question. It’s something where the artists are present during the culture labs, and so the audience can interface with them, debate, exchange … a lot of the works are actually created on site, and are influenced by the ways that the communities and the visitors come in and talk to the artists, and so there, even if they’re talking about something that is very visceral, like a refugee crisis, or transgender restrooms, things like that, it’s not something where we have this museum as an authority voice telling people what to think. Instead, we’re really curating a group of thinkers who are thinking in really diverse and complicated ways, and also kind of figuring things out by themselves, so that the visitors are coming in and contributing to that conversation.

Adriel Luis: Yeah, and I guess, going along that line to thinking about the idea of incubation of artists, and the way that we approach these younger artists and stuff, what we’ve been looking at is ways that we can help them develop themselves, how to navigate the system, like especially within the context of the Smithsonian and the Federal Government, we’ve been looking at ways of holding labs and seminars, basically online, of how we can help them to get into the system so that it becomes more easy. Because what we found is, when you’re an unincorporated young artist trying to get your work out there, trying to get known and stuff, and get your stuff shown within other Smithsonians besides [APAC], what we’re finding is that it’s very difficult, it’s a very difficult process, so what we’re trying to do along the way, too, is mentor them to be good businesspeople, and not just be artists along the way. I mean, you have to be able to run yourself through the system if you want to continue to not just get paid equitably, but also have opportunity in the future, and so what we’re doing now is, we’re looking at running a series of workshops in order to facilitate that type of presence, that we can help them to be ready when opportunity arises to be able to show in other Smithsonians.

Kalewa Correa: Yeah. So, I guess a big question would be, what … we have this funky little organisation the Smithsonian, we’re doing these [block-party] type of things, what does that mean for the museum world at large? And so the first two labs that we popped up, one of the things that we wanted to demonstrate was a level of success that’s on par with sort of traditional analytics, and so, over the course of the first weekend that we did our DC pop-up, it was a two-day long programme, we had 12,000 people show up, which matched the numbers of the American History Museum and the Natural History Museum on the Smithsonian’s biggest weekend, and that really spoke to the fact that we could talk about topics like intersectionality, which a lot of people in the museum were kind of trying to tell us was too abstract or complicated for the public to understand.

And so, to actually put it out there and see the numbers of people who were coming to engage, I think was a great show of proof in trusting the community that they knew what to talk about. And one of the ways that we argued it was that, you know, at the Smithsonian, we have an Air and Space museum, which literally creates family-friendly events around rocket science, and so if you can explain rocket science, then you can probably explain why … the way that I’m treated in the world could be based on my race and my gender, at the same time, right? And so, one of the things that we’re really thinking about now is, after we do our third culture lab, in Hawaii, this year, we’ll have three case studies that we can then catalogue, along with a handbook that we’ll throw up on GitHub, as well as have as a printed version.

We really believe that the culture lab model is this kind of potent, open-source-ready platform, and we’re interested in seeing what happens when larger museums, which have shown interest in showing culture labs of their own, as well as smaller organisations, start taking to it. And one of the things that we’re really adamant about before we release this into the world is developing this manifesto. We’ve found that with a lot of the programmes that we’ve been inspired by, like the Brooklyn Museum’s [first Saturday] party, things like that, we found other museums tend to emulate the cool factor of things, because they like seeing young millennials of colour showing up at their museums. But besides … we didn’t want it to just be museums calling them culture labs, and the only difference is that they have some speakers on in the background. And so these kind of … I would even call them [commandments] … of representation of local artists, of community development, of equitable pay, are things that we’re looking to sow into the DNA of a culture lab, so that if you want to call it a culture lab, there are these sort of elements that you have to abide by.

Adriel Luis: Yeah, and back with that, looking at the genealogy of things, looking at who we represent, it’s a very purposeful process when we do pick things, I mean, in the beginning, I say we’re kind of … maybe it seems like we just take a topic and release it on the world, but the actual research and the ideas that go behind who we’re going to bring in and how we’re going to do it as far as … making sure that we’re incorporating Kupuna elders into what we do, making sure that we have representation from all these different sectors of community, and really asking them to push the boundaries on what they see and what they feel within the culture lab, I think is important, but as Adriel said, this is something that … we want to give out and have other people, if they want to do it, take advantage of it, and we’re just going to go ahead and GitHub it at some point, but …

Kalewa Correa: Yeah, the idea is really for the culture lab to be modular, or I guess the word of the conference is ‘bespoke’. And so the idea … so for example, in Washington DC, the capital of the US, on Memorial Day weekend, we looked at an expanded idea of American identity, which can be really vast. In New York City, the weekend after the election, and we talked about an imagined future, and so we’re talking about really broad topics, that do relate to the local communities, but at the same time can be sort of applied universally. And so we’re interested in seeing how other cities, other countries and communities take on the bare-bones model of a culture lab, and then apply it to the themes of their artists [and] the conversations that are had around them.

So, yeah, that’s –

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