You’re probably very familiar with the trends of “participatory culture” and DIY-ism by now: even the White House recently staged a maker faire to promote hands-on creative experimentation. The DIY ethos thrives in many corners of our community: it is amazing how many of SJMA’s next-gen staffers have taken up needlework (often learned from YouTube instead of a grandmother). Inspired by my officemate Danyelle’s Ravelry.com postings, even I dug out my knitting needles after decades of disuse. SJMA’s DIY activities at Summer Sundays, Third Thursdays, and Community Days can be standing-room only. Booze and Brushes and Art 101 quickly sell out. It seems that many of us have a pent-up desire to connect with the creative process and with basic, very tactile acts of productivity. Amidst our overwhelmingly techno world, we’ve rediscovered personal magic in the original digital realm.
Art, craft, technology, and science live comfortably and co-dependently together under the umbrella of maker-culture mentality. If only we embraced the same intellectual agility and cross-fertilization in our schools! It unleashes the unexpected, with a sort of social contagion. In turn, this penchant for participation has shifted traditional approaches to culture-going and museums as well: audiences often want to interact rather than just respond. They expect to riff off what they see; to volley with content; and to claim a role as commentators, even if breezily in passing or via the abbreviated language of social media. As in society at large, institutional authority has become porous, indeed suspect.
SJMA has long offered unusual and sometimes overtly playful opportunities for visitor engagement, from collecting recipe stories during Around the Table: food, creativity, community (available here) to commissioning Evil Mad Science’s interactive touch screen to illustrate mathematician John Conway’s theory of the Game of Life for Leo Villareal. Yet, the Museum privileges the expertise of practicing artists and the context of art history, a.k.a. knowledge. As a staff, we discuss and debate how we can best create new and surprising platforms for public interaction that provide a stage for both education and participatory culture. There is a critical space between amateur enthusiasm and professional practice: ideally, it is a space that makes us all more open to interpretation.
It’s this call-and-response approach that led to the format for this fall’s showcase exhibition of the permanent collection, Momentum: an experiment in the unexpected, an R & D project for SJMA’s forty-fifth-anniversary season that pushes the Museum’s usual boundaries of propriety. Although we have frequently asked artists and community members to participate in exhibitions by providing quotes on content or crafting hands-on activity stations for visitors, this time we decided to bring out-of-house perspectives front and center and onto the main stage of the exhibition itself. We invited a team of creative professionals from around the Bay Area—including an industrial designer, a calligrapher, a standup comedian, and a yarn bomber—to disrupt and, we hope, wildly animate the exhibition with their hands-on, personal responses to the artworks on view, in whatever medium, format, and scale they chose. Familiar objects that SJMA’s visitors have come to know and love over the years will trigger the makings of these creative minds. This hybrid exhibition promises to be newly open-ended, liberated from habits of pristine display, and impossible to predict. The multidisciplinary artists’ perspectives on the artworks, and in turn visitors’ responses to their responses, contribute to the content of this exhibition in equal measure. Call it participatory culture or cultural participation: either way the chain reaction will, we expect, have energy in and of its own. I hope you’ll join in the process and run with SJMA’s invitation to always “see what you think.”
Oshman Executive Director
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