PRINT Summer 2010

Ann Philbin

LOS ANGELES PRESENTS its own set of problems and obstacles when it comes to museums. This city’s vast geography means that people can be isolated and thus often seek connection and social engagement as part of their cultural experiences. This has made being very event driven part of our DNA at the Hammer Museum. Our robust slate of free public programs (250 or so a year) defines us as a kind of town hall or gathering space, where not only art but a larger realm of ideas—literature, music, science, government, business, politics, and current events—is considered. Our audience values us deeply for the social sphere we have created, as well as for our exhibitions and events.

Of course, looking more broadly across our culture today, we can see that such a desire for connection is, for better or worse, part of a larger trend. People want storytelling and demand active engagement. They crave their own reflections in everything they see and do. (Why is it, for instance, that people prefer to watch amateurs and celebrities dance instead of people who actually know how to dance? It’s not that the Dancing with the Stars audience is our target, necessarily, but we must recognize the profound effect of culture’s increasing democratization on our institutions.) Young people in particular seek experience, not passive observation, and they want their culture delivered specifically to them. (A recent event designed by our student advisory committee was titled “It’s All Been Done Before but Not by Me.”) Since our museum is affiliated with UCLA, we have an intense focus on college students and young adults, but to brainstorm these issues we have enlisted our favorite problem solvers—artists.

A few years ago, the Hammer founded an “Artist Council.” Its rotating membership has consisted of artists from around the globe and many figures who are also affiliated with local universities. They are very engaged with the museum, and my curators and I respond by listening to their advice and acting on their suggestions of ways to be a better, more relevant, and forward-thinking institution. One of the issues they have been addressing recently is the resurgence of performance and the increasing importance of social practice among artists working today. The council is helping us develop ways to accommodate such work in a traditional museum atmosphere.

We see many intersections between the reemergence of this kind of work and the fact that museum visitors want a more participatory and active experience. This explains the importance and success of initiatives like New York’s Performa biennial and the attention garnered by the Marina Abramović exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tino Sehgal project at the Solomon R. Guggenheim. The weaving of these historical summations and contemporary manifestations of performance and social practice into exhibition programs is a key task for thriving institutions devoted to the art of our time.

To this end, the Hammer has recently hired a curator of public engagement. This position is based in the curatorial department but also oversees visitors’ services. By collapsing these two disparate departments, we are hoping for a radical approach to visitors’ services through artistic practice. The Hammer recently had the great fortune of being awarded a large grant from the James Irvine Foundation’s Arts Innovation Fund to underwrite this initiative, and—following the grant’s mandate to use the museum as a laboratory to explore new models for the field at large—the Hammer will over the next few years endeavor to create a kind of interactive museum, with an artist-driven visitor engagement and education program that encourages daily contact among visitors, artists, and museum staff and activates the spaces, exhibitions, and website in imaginative ways. Each year, the curator of public engagement will invite an artist to partner with the museum to further develop and implement the program.

The first of the invitees is Machine Project, a loose association of LA-based artists that is run by Mark Allen. With his team, Allen has been charged with energizing gallery and nongallery spaces with tabla performances, subtle “actions,” and larger happenings. Our visitors have an opportunity to interact directly with artists, musicians, and writers and to participate in all manner of unexpected activities. Music is a big theme. There are micro concerts for two in our coat-check room and an electric guitarist whom visitors can “check out” (like an audio guide), who then provides a personalized sound track through headphones as visitors view the exhibitions. This past May, 160 people spent the night at the museum in a “Dream-In” that was held in conjunction with our exhibition devoted to Jung’s Red Book. Allen’s approach is very much about creating an air of whimsy and magic—and, yes, fun—throughout our spaces. We have seen that thanks to our encouraging a relaxed and participatory atmosphere and undermining the corporate nature of our building, people move differently through the galleries and exhibitions—lingering and engaging more deeply with the art.

Finally, we have been thinking a lot about storytelling and its role in the interpretation of our exhibitions. Our recent show “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield” was curated by Robert Gober. As an artist, Gober took a very different approach to this endeavor than a professional curator might have—both in the exhibition’s didactics and in its structure. He allowed for a highly personalized reading of Burchfield’s life—defining the arc of the painter’s career through an intimate reveal of the emotional states that drove him—from his solo exhibition at MoMA in 1930, through his success and fame and his subsequent depression, to his rediscovery of inspiration at the end of his life. As with character development in a film, visitors really cared what happened to Burchfield. The exhibition did not tell you what to think about the work but rather offered a glimpse of the artist as a fellow human being searching for truth and meaning. We are learning something that Ira Glass and This American Life figured out a long time ago: People will connect to even the most inaccessible things if they are offered a way in. It’s our job to provide such doors, and—if done well—it’s the opposite of “dumbing down.”