in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
Crowd Sourcing or Crowd Pleasing? Recent Community-Curated Exhibitions Along the East Coast
Crowd sourcing has become trendy within the humanities as a means of opening academic projects to the public. In the museum world, community-curated exhibitions have offered a response to this movement, and a number of these exhibitions have recently occurred along the east coast. These special exhibitions grant the community increased access to museum collections and invite sustained conversations between the public and museum staff. They complicate curatorial authority and the spatial hierarchy accorded by privileged access to storage facilities, even though in most cases the public chooses artworks for these exhibitions from a digitized archive. In fact, allowing the community to use digital media to effectively call up works of art from storage to the exhibition space mirrors trends in the way that we (the public) relate to works of art, that is, through digital means. Platforms like Artsy, for example, allow the user to amass a personal, albeit digital, art collection culled from images of fine art physically held by collections around the world. The community-curated projects I discuss below unfold in various combinations of the digital and physical realms. Each offers its own take on the evolving relationship between the museum and public.
The exhibition “Public Property” at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which was on view from June 17-August 19, 2012, gave an enormous amount of control to the public. The exhibition-planning team invited the public to vote on the title, theme, and checklist for the upcoming show beginning in December 2011. The exhibition not only served as a way of increasing community engagement with the museum, but also deliberately resonated with contemporary world politics. In the press release for “Public Property” the director of the Walters, Gary Vikan, explains the possible political dimensions of community curation: “At a time of increasing concern about equity and democracy within society, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Arab Spring, I’ve been thinking more about the role of museums not only to act as expert but also to encourage civic participation in our exhibition process.” With executive boards, curators, and elaborate staff configurations, the planning and mounting of exhibitions is apt to feel removed, and even mysterious to the public. The prevalence of guards in the museum environment, though present for good reason, often has the effect of distancing museum-goers from the physical and material presence of the art on display. As Vikan notes, community curation is an important way for museums to rectify any unintentionally distancing of the public by engaging them through offering unprecedented authority over the art on display.
“Public Properties” not only responded to contemporary political culture, but it also called to mind another form of “flipping the institution” that took place in Baltimore ten years earlier. At the invitation of the Contemporary, Baltimore, artist Fred Wilson undertook a project at the Maryland Historical Society culminating in the 1992 exhibition “Mining the Museum.” Wilson’s exhibition offered an institutional and cultural critique of the oppression of Native and African Americans throughout the history of Maryland and showed that these prejudices have carried into the contemporary construction of the history and visual legacy of the state. Wilson’s project was more politically charged than many of the recent community-curated exhibitions, but it is an important predecessor and suggests the potential of community curation to address substantial themes under the right kind of curatorial guidance.
Presently, there are a number of opportunities to see community-curated exhibitions throughout the east coast. “GO: a community-curated open studio project” remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum in the Mezzanine Gallery, 2nd floor until the end of this week (December 1, 2012-Febrary 24, 2013). The concept for the exhibition elaborates on the tradition of publicly juried art competitions and open studio visits. The public nominated ten Brooklyn-based artists from a group of 1,708 during two days of studio visits and the curators of the Brooklyn Museum then chose five of these artists to represent in the exhibition.
The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston South Carolina is currently preparing for a community-curated exhibition called “People’s Choice: A Community-Curated Exhibition,” set to take place from May 3-September 15, 2013. The Gibbes Museum took a modified approach to community curation by asking public figures from the Charleston community to choose five favorite works of art owned by the Gibbes collection. You can be part of the exhibition planning by visiting the People’s Choice web page and voting during the month of March on the works of art to be included in the exhibition from this pre-selected subset.
The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia offers an interesting case study for the viability of community-curated exhibitions in academic settings. According to its mission statement, the museum serves as an “academic resource for Spelman College students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumnae,” as well as the community at large. What better way to learn from a collection of art than to be charged with personally selecting an object to display publicly? To these ends, the museum invited fifty students, alumnae, faculty, and members of the museum to chose works of art for the current exhibition “Multiple choice: Perspectives on the Spelman Art Collection,” which opened earlier this month and will be on view until May 18, 2013. It is worth noting that the demographic asked to participate corresponds with the target communities mentioned in the mission statement of the museum. The works of art are displayed alongside the personal reactions of the individual who chose the object, which thereby reasserts the involvement of the community at every turn.
Surely there are critics of community-curation. Some viewers may seek the authority of the museum and the choices made by knowledgeable and experienced curators. Visitors to museums with high entrance rates or membership fees may expect expertly curated exhibitions. Perhaps this is why a number of the museums mentioned above strike a balance between total community control and curatorial management. Finally, museums using community curation might be criticized for staging shows aimed at raising admissions numbers, but this argument could be used in the case of any show with popular appeal. I for one am excited about this trend, and am hopeful that community curation can produce innovative and thought-provoking exhibitions.
How do you feel about community-curated exhibitions? Do you know of any community-curated exhibitions scheduled to appear in east coast museums? If so, leave them in the comments.