Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Facing My Fears with the Work in Progress Exhibition

This is a picture of the largest temporary exhibition gallery in the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Our next exhibition is opening in here in two days. And no, we are not about to embark on a Herculean 48-hour blitz to fill it with exhibits. This is pretty much what it will look like when we open on Friday.

Needless to say, this is a scary thing. And even scarier? We planned it this way.

This winter, my museum is trying an experiment called Work in Progress. We're turning over the whole museum to projects that invite visitors to connect with the behind-the-scenes in the making of art and historical research. Our goal with the project is two-fold:
  1. To help visitors engage with the creative process as well as the end result. Research shows there is a lot of interest in how art gets made, and we don't often dive into that in museums.
  2. To create an installation that changes. I've always been interested in the "perpetual beta" approach, and this project embodies that. We're also curious to see if an evolving project draws people to come back again and again to see how it grows over time. 
I feel great about both of these goals, and I feel even better about the amazing artists, innovators, and historians we're working with to make it happen. That said, this project has really challenged me to question my own expectations and assumptions about how an exhibition "should" look and function.

There are three big worries on my mind:
  1. What will visitors think when they walk into an empty gallery? Will they think we are conning them, or that we're lazy, or that the museum has stopped showing anything interesting? Is this a project that is highly appealing in documentation but confusing or unappealing in real time?
  2. How do we plan for spaces that will evolve over time? One gallery is opening half-full, with the expectation that additional work with be added over time--but we have no idea of what that work will be or how much space it will take up. It's surprisingly hard to design a space that looks decent from day 1 but can accommodate growth over time.  
  3. How do we facilitate visitor experiences in these spaces? What different kinds of tools do our volunteer gallery host and visitor services staff need to help visitors engage and enjoy the process of art- and history-making as opposed to its results?
It's been really good for me to slam up against some of these concerns--especially the first one. It makes me more sympathetic to anyone who is nervous about taking a risk or making a big change. I've known about this project for months, I advocated for it to happen, and I'm still scared. I had to laugh at myself when I got freaked out in a meeting with an artist last week, waving my hands around the gallery saying, "we can't just have NOTHING in here when we open!" Fortunately, he smiled and reminded me, "of course we can."

Of course we can. It's a good feeling to lean into the things that scare you. I feel lucky to be able to do it.

I'm curious what you think about this particular project--ways you think we should be documenting or sharing this work, and ways you think we might communicate with visitors about it. I'm also curious what risks you've taken that you had to confront head-on like a bad morning in the bathroom mirror. Thanks in advance for sharing your comments!

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