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Film: The Museum As Cultural Commons

Sarah Schultz, Independent Curator and Public Engagement Consultant delivered this presentation at MuseumNext Indianapolis asking what a museum would look like if it behaved as an open platform, sharing her experience of Open Field at Walker Art Center.

Sarah: Thank you so much, and just so you know, every grey hair I have, I got from Scott. So, thank you so much, and I’d like to welcome you all here today, and it’s just fabulous to be in Indianapolis. This is my first time here, and it’s just been … This is a great conference, and I’m so thrilled that I was able to be with all of you today.

So, I am here today to talk about a project that we worked on at the Walker Art Center for a period of four years called Open Field, and I was actually going to begin with a very charming story about some lawnmowers and a field, and some bells, and experimental art. But instead, one of the things that really struck me, having attended a few conferences of late, that these events themselves function like a commons, these kind of temporary utopias that we are creating, that emerge from our sense of common purpose, through the sharing and contributing of what we know, and the remaking and imagining of what we don’t know.

One of the things I’ve learned in this work of what I call common-ing, is that being vulnerable and present really amplifies what’s possible. So, I noticed on all our lanyards, it has our name, and that it has our affiliation by our job title, and the institution that we’re coming from, and I actually thought that to begin today, it would be good if we just take a moment and pause, and actually really show up and be present with one another, and be differently affiliated. So, could you all, as we go on this journey of inclusion, let’s get a little more human, and a little more present, and a little more real, so if you could just take 30 seconds, turn to your neighbour, shake their hand, say only your first name, something that you like to do when you’re not at work, thinking about work or obsessing about social media, and then tell them how much you look forward to hearing what they have to say this weekend. So, hi, I’m Sarah. When I’m not at work, I love to garden, and I’m really excited to get to know you over the course of the next few days. Begin.

Okay, thank you so much. You are going to be … You can already tell how amplified everything will become, and what an inclusive and friendly group you are, but you’re beginning to eat into my time, so now I’m going to move us along.

So, here we are together, and I’m going to talk briefly in the time that I have left, about a brief journey that this contemporary art centre, the Walker Art Centre went on, a journey that I took with many people in the room, as Scott said, Katie Hill, Maria Mortati, to name a few, a journey that this contemporary art centre went on to try to be a more responsive and relevant museum, in what my colleague Steve Dietz has best describe as the social interactive, participatory, DIY network connected telematic geo-located computational attention economy age.

So, why build a project around the idea of the commons? Well, we had an opportunity. The Walker had a 4.5 acre green space that was simply underutilised, and it presented a tremendous opportunity to literally and figuratively work outside the walls of the museum, and try something radically different. Rather than bringing the inside of the museum to the outside, we decided to try to create a whole new set of rules.

An open field was, indeed, an experiment, so it was not an audience development plan, and we drew on a very large world of ideas, everything from museum practice, participatory culture, really looking at socially engaged art practice. The commons was very seductive, because it was both suggestive and vague enough to embrace a plurality of ideas, activities, associations. Think the environment, Town Square, the internet, open source, sheep in a field. And, most of all, a spirt of inclusivity, cooperation, exchange and collaboration. Quite simply, in practice, it really was about considering the different ways to share resources, and create something together.

If you’re going to create an inclusive place, you’d better include people in the process, and so we did. We invited 30 architects, artists and designers to help us think about the space we were going to create, what steps we needed in order to create this social space – as you can see, all roads lead to one thing – and really plotting the potential interactions between all of the actors and players on the field. This really was artists that we invited in, the public that we invited in, and ourselves as the institution.

So, build a place, we did. We went from something that was sort of vacant, like this, to creating a green space full of amenities. But, we weren’t naïve enough to think it’s just a built it, and they would come. We knew we needed strategies of engagement that would nurture a place that would function as open, and would empower, guide, welcome, nurture and model participation as a way of giving people agency and a sense of ownership. We call these tools, rules, greeting, meeting and [seeding], and they looked like tools for empowering people, so we had a tool-shed that was full of all kinds of things you could use to activate your visit to the field, a website where people could not only get information, but share what they were going to do with one another; signage that people could use and turn it into their own on the field, and as you can see, we had a death metal drawing club. I think that is a guitar.

We had rules that actually, we spent a lot of time crafting, that actually even more than sets of rules of what you could or couldn’t do, actually in the end became a kind of value proposition for the project, and really fell under the three categories of protect the spirit, protect the space, protect the people. So, why are we asking you to do what you do here? And still, people took the rules, and turned them into their own.

The greeting was very important. We didn’t wear lanyards on the field; we welcomed everybody. We didn’t always serve them beautiful guacamole, but we did come up and greet them, and try to bring them into the space. That even included the ways we thought about communicating with them, so really trying to move away from the kind of formality, and the ways of communicating the institution were familiar with, in our museums.

Meeting was very important – not everybody likes to participate; not everyone likes to actually bring something or make something. Some people just like to join in, and having these opportunities for social interaction, casual social interaction were really important.

Lastly, seeding. We were changing the rules for everybody, and nobody really knew how to activate the space, so we really tried to bring in people who could model the kind of participation that we wanted to see, or we were hoping to get. We even had one of our editor’s daughters bring their violin group to the field and practice. This really … One of the participants actually coined a great phrase, that this was really about seeding it, and then ceding it, letting it go.

What really made Open Field what it was, was really this idea of radical inclusion, and relinquishing curatorial authority, which became the most important characteristic of the project. Here’s what people did. Here’s an example of the 300 projects that people did, when we relinquished that curatorial authority. They had knitting classes; they had massive yoga days; they brought their plein air painting to the field; we had bullwhipping lessons with someone in a Chuck Close t-shirt; we had live action role-play that included the staff; we wrote love letters and sent them to random strangers in the phone book; we held concerts in our parking garage; we went gondola riding under the spoon ridge and cherry, although that truly is something you’re not supposed to do; we had a group of artists rebuild our collection with the public on the field with chainsaws, and we taught children how to break into cars.

Sometimes we didn’t succeed, or our efforts felt like they were a little flat, but sometimes we succeeded well beyond our imagination, as in when Katie Hill had the idea to have a cat festival on the field, and Katie and Scott worked together to somehow raise the bar from the 100 people I thought would show up, to 10,000 people.

If somewhere, somehow, you don’t already know about the internet cat video festival, I don’t know where you have been living for the last four years. I’m not going to go into this project, because it’s its own presentation, but suffice to say that this has had a very long tail, to the point where we actually have written a book about why we can’t stop watching cat videos. So, maybe that’s your cautionary tale about the commons.

So, there’s something quite magical and transformative about responding to the call of sure, sorry sure, and why not? It creates a serendipity of so many small moments, and the willingness of so many people to come, and show up and just try anything. And, while there are many lessons learned, there are a few persistent ideas I carry with me that I thought would be relevant to this conversation on museums and inclusion.

The first is practice in public. Open Field recalibrated my understanding of the social potential of the museum, particularly as it relates to the civic sphere. The former mayor of Missoula, Montana, Daniel Kemmis writes, ‘no real public life is possible except among people who are engaged in the project of inhabiting a place’. We used to say it’s not what happens on Open Field that counts; it’s what happens between people that counts. We could clearly use better ways to articulate and value this between, this kind of stuff that happens in relational, experiential and ephemeral work.

Whether we think it’s about building social capital, a new kind of social work, or a kind of messy authenticity, we need places to practice test different codes of behaviour, so that we can successfully live together. These might look like the discursive space of a school, projects that enable complexity, practices of revelry in play, or the notion of a workshop where we build something together. Museums are ideal places to incubate this kind of public practice, if for no other reason than they keep us from being isolated from one another.

We need to really think about building enough diversity to cope with the diversity of the world. By this, I think we can take a cue from ecology – if you want a healthy culture in an organisation, we can’t plant a monoculture. We need to be able to get out of our comfort zones, which in Minnesota is going outside in the winter, and we need to discover what’s out in the world, and find ways to bring that back into our institutions. We need to be open to a range of different content, engagement possibilities, people and practices, which for the Walker meant something like being a space where we could host a community organised exhibition about Muslims in Minnesota, to a place where cat fans could come and show up in the same museum.

Lastly, I think we need to question inclusion. I think it’s safe, it’s probably safe to assume that we’re all here today because we believe that museums have the capacity and the responsibility to make the world a better place, but the participants of Open Field taught me, we can always be a little more conscious, and a little more conscientious around our intentions and motivations. I have a right to know what kind of experiment I’m asked to being part of, one participant said to me early on, and it got me thinking about what rights people actually do have to their cultural institutions, and what claims they have over culture. It seems very worthwhile today to think about not just who are we trying to include, or how will we include them, but rather, to ask ourselves what exactly are we including them in?

I think that we do run … Sometimes I worry that we do run a little bit of a danger of trying to graft these 21st century audiences onto organisational practices that perhaps might be a little outdated, and perhaps might be a little inequitable. But, I do like to believe that the museum that we are trying to include people in, this Next Museum, this inclusive museum, is not the one we already know; it’s not the one we already work in. It will be a journey into the unknown, and it will be the museum that we build together.

Thank you.

Sarah Schultz delivered this presentation at MuseumNext Indianapolis in 2016. MuseumNext is an international conference series on the future of museums.

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