ADAM LERNER I call myself the “Chief Animator”; I gave myself this title when I took the job as Director of The Museum of Contemporary Art at Denver, because beforehand I was the Director the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar, that I created myself. This was an alternative art space only designed to be experimental and a completely creative entity.
It was out of that need that I decided to call myself the Chief Animator. A curator takes care of objects traditionally, and I thought that as an animator, I was bringing these objects to life for people, and, by extension bringing life to a space.
I found at MCA it’s valuable to have some other thing out of which - whatever creative activity you’re doing - emerges. And for me, that’s not the Museum of Contemporary Art, that’s another department we’ve created within the museum called the Department of Fabrications that could for example, produce completely insane publications.
I should also say that these are not formalized departments, we’ve given ourselves the scope to make things up as we go.
WAITER Buffalo Cauliflower?
WAITER Oh, you didn't order it?
WAITER Yeah, sure.
ADAM LERNER And could we share the --
ALLISON AGSTEN I haven't stopped yet.
CANDICE HOPKINS It’s really, very simple. The one piece we’re working on at the moment, is a work by an artist named Marie Watt, where we’ve made a nationwide request for blanket donations and in return the artist is trading an artwork for blankets. She asked stories about each of the blankets, and then they’re going to be installed right outside the cafeteria, which is, the only space in the museum where you can enter the museum without paying, but you’re not allowed to go to any other spot. So that’s a way people could share what they helped collaboratively create.
ROB BLACKSON And do you hope, at some point, for the synchronicity of these departments? Where the museum can be the Department of Fabrications and the curatorial department?
ADAM LERNER No.
ROB BLACKSON You don't?
ADAM LERNER I think it’s really important to actually make synchronicitious, but part of the synchronicity is that they exist at the same time. I think, what’s really important - is that the museum has --
ROB BLACKSON -- schizophrenia? --
ADAM LERNER -- these entities within it that exist completely, as a, creative artistic entity and then also, as a neutral museum space for artists to be creative entities. So you can switch back and forth. And we don’t do it rigorously, like, “oh, that’s the Department of Fabrications doing that.” We just do the things we want to do.
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Do you drop the work into different categories?
ADAM LERNER Sometimes we do. But we don’t often put the outcomes into categories. That term, Department of Fabrications, becomes an example of that side of us that wants to be creative, almost like an alternative space.
ROB BLACKSON Elizabeth, since you’ve recently moved from curatorial assistant at the Hammer Museum, to assistant director of Machine Project, can you tell us about that switch? Does it take a different energy or is it actually very similar?
ELIZABETH CLINE No, it is completely different. Mark Allen worked with the Board to develop this really clear path for the first year. So I’ve been working my way through different areas of Machine like management, budgeting, grant writing - all of these different areas of the business. And now that I’ve been there since October, it’s big picture stuff such as, strategization that I am focusing on, and not working curatorially as much at all.
I think, what makes Machine so interesting, is the mix of things that happen, all of the different voices, and how information continuously flows in and out; it’s very horizontal. It was tough to get around it for a while because there are so many voices. So many artists have contributed to make Machine what it is, I think getting over that, I feel like now, I really have a good handle on it.
ROB BLACKSON Allison, would you talk to us about the switch between your publicity role at LACMA to your work curatorially with the Public Engagement Program at the Hammer Museum.
ALLISON AGSTEN Shortly after I came to LACMA, Michael Govan took over. He and I were in sync, and so my role was not really a traditional communications department role. I worked on a lot of entrepreneurial projects, mostly digital, that were related to accessibility. So I was thinking about a lot of the same things I’m thinking about at the Hammer, but more specifically I was generating new projects for which there really wasn’t a precedent in our institution, or others, from scratch. And that is where there is the most natural transference of knowledge.
ROB BLACKSON There is an obvious triangulation between you, Mark, and Elizabeth that began back at LACMA with the Field Guide. Did you initiate that Allison?
ALLISON AGSTEN No, I think that was Charlotte Cotton.
MARK ALLEN What I think Allison is talking about when she mentioned developing projects for which there isn’t a precedent was primarily Machine’s role in the first year of that Hammer residency, where we iterated through a lot of different projects and different ways of working, with the Museum.
ROB BLACKSON Yes there were so many examples of the way Machine and the Hammer worked together and I was curious because in the book accompanying and documenting the work, Allison you said at the beginning in an interview with Mark that what you actually applied for in the grant and what Machine Project ended up doing were two different things. What did you intend by writing the grant and what did you get as a result of the grant?
Now these two things are totally separate entities. Visitor Services is no longer run by me, it’s run by the Events Department. And should Mark and Elizabeth come back, to ever do a project, I think the environment is quite different. The projects, most of them, there is some degree of exchange between the visitor and the guest artist but there isn’t this specific focus on visitor services and this whole bit about the emphasis for the artist to address these services is no longer a focus.
CANDICE HOPKINS So when you’re saying that it’s gone, are visitors sad about that or is it just because it was hard to sustain that level of the proposition?
I think that there probably is a little bit of wistfulness and sadness that this big idea didn’t turn out to be the panacea for our museum and other museums. But there is also a satisfaction that we’re still trying new things and that the projects have been largely successful...
CANDICE HOPKINS Was that the idea, that it would be a model you were willing to share with other museums?
ALLISON AGSTEN It was most specifically about many of the issues that the Hammer had, for example, we didn’t have a front desk - you walked into the lobby and there was this empty desk and you had to find your ticket. So it’s really about the Hammer, but I think that the Hammer always liked the idea of being able to crack something open and then share it with everybody else. And we’re still sharing it with everybody else, but it just didn’t turn out as what was imagined.
ROB BLACKSON Rob: And I think each of the institutions that are represented here, on a lot of levels, are trying to come to grips with these challenges and are drawn to this conversation because you are coming up with custom built solutions made specifically for each of your institutions your own audiences and for the artists.
Along those lines, could you each share what you have learned independently to curatorially address audience and artists’ needs within public programming?
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Thank you.
CANDICE HOPKINS Steak and French fries.
ROB BLACKSON That looks great.
ADAM LERNER Buffalo Cauliflower...
ELIZABETH CLINE Okay!
CANDICE HOPKINS I'm super excited about this dish here.
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Wait, can I also get a hot tea?
WAITER The hot green tea? Didn't I bring it?
MARK ALLEN You brought her one, you brought her mine - I didn't order it...
MARK ALLEN No.
MARK ALLEN Could I get another hot tea?
MARK ALLEN Hot tea all around.
ADAM LERNER Could we a - maybe a buffalo cauliflower to share for the table? Could we try that guys?
ADAM LERNER I feel really like, just so excited about the possibility of trying Buffalo cauliflower - like it’s like the world’s greatest invention possibly.
ROB BLACKSON It looks pretty good.
CANDICE HOPKINS Are you a vegetarian?
ADAM LERNER No, but I like the idea of Buffalo sauce, but I don’t really like chicken wings, and so that seemed like a great carrier.
ELIZABETH CLINE Are you guys on pinterest?
ROB BLACKSON No.
ELIZABETH CLINE Anybody? Well, let me tell you that Buffalo cauliflower is blowing up on Pinterest so to have it in real life -- (check it out!)
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Wow!
ELIZABETH CLINE I'm thrilled.
ALLISON AGSTEN So you haven't had it yet?
ADAM LERNER Wait no longer.
ELIZABETH CLINE Uh, I can report it's good.
ROB BLACKSON You can talk to your experience and it will go on the web site soon.
ELIZABETH CLINE There you go.
ROB BLACKSON But, I wanted to ask you guys individually what have you done to try to enable this idea of public engagement or visitor engagement - for each of your audiences, based on whether it’s your architecture or your signage or - and all those different nuts and bolts ways that you try to make this focus apparent?
But we are just like, “Yeah, that sounds great, let’s do that.” And when we feel that feeling, we have a certain confidence that our visitors will feel that same way.
ROB BLACKSON So it works like a contagion?
ADAM LERNER Yeah, But it’s not about like, “Well what will our visitors want?
Like, oh, that’s what they’ll want.”
JOSEPH DEL PESCO So that’s one model for programming. And in terms of communicating that, how do you make them aware that you’re having this awesome event that you’re so excited about? Is that a separate opportunity for each event? Do you think, so it’s tailgating, so we’re going to have to make license plates, or we’re going to have to do this or that? How do you go from the room where you were sitting in front of your team to the public side?
ADAM LERNER We’re not very good at communicating. We have an email list and a social networking program. But we’re not really that amazing. So we choose the thing that is the easiest event concept to grasp. I remember when I was reviewing the options for what we were going to do this Saturday, it was this really long list that included all these other jokes, like a free coffee, which I thought was kind of funny but I thought what is the story that people are going to tell? People are going to say, “Oh, MCA Denver is having this art tailgating. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds cool.” And so we make sure that what we do is something that you can think of in a short sentence - so that people can tell their friends and the buzz kind of gets out.
And that’s because I believe that the stories that people tell about what we do are as important as the things we do.
JOSEPH DEL PESCO When I was at Artists Space, we had the idea that we wanted to do programming, that was not tied to being in the space. And we wanted to do something else with our web site so it wasn’t just promoting or talking about things that you know, you had to come see them. It was trying to think about new media as a space for extending programming.
For example, you know on DVD’s where you have a director giving commentary over it? We invited artists to pick any video on YouTube and to record audio talking about it as it was happening. We overlaid this audio and put it back up on YouTube. And it was just us thinking about what could be done, as a creative space out in the world and these social networks, which are getting a lot of energy.
ADAM LERNER That's like a Beavis and Butthead concept.
ROB BLACKSON Yeah, or Mystery Science 3000.
JOSEPH DEL PESCO But it was the idea of having artists being critical agents talking about culture, not just producing it in the straight way it was perceived. We never really got out of the experimental phase with it because we weren’t sure why we were doing it.
More recently at Kadist, we’ve been aggressively generating energy in the social media landscape. We’ve hired a part-time staff member to work on social media. He’s posting two things every day on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Importantly, he is not just following our artists who are in the collection or with whom we’ve done programs. He is creating relationships online rather than just promoting our stuff.
The next level of this relationship is folding those two together in a sense. Last week we did an experiment with the artist, Anthony Discenza. He did a daylong takeover of our Twitter feed. I think other people have done this, and it made perfect sense. We work with the landscape of things we were already doing and used the energy we had already built alongside with the audiences that are there, and which are growing. These collaborations land somewhere between marketing and creative.
ROB BLACKSON I think it was interesting that Adam said, “We don’t really start with the visitor, what we start with is ourselves and our own interests, and out of that that we hope that it will gain traction with a larger audience.”
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Somebody … the Buffalo cauliflower?
MARK ALLEN Yeah, right here...
ALLISON AGSTEN It doesn’t have to be a success in the terms of drawing tens of thousands of visitors to still be considered valuable. So I don’t really feel under a particular pressure to program to visitors in that way which --
MARK ALLEN Yeah, because you’re articulating the curatorial strategy isn’t about what do the visitors want, it’s about what we want. And of course, that’s really strong - that’s always a strong strategy in life if folks find the stuff they’re excited about, other people will be excited about it as well.
But I think there’s a question in here about how do you convey the psychic dynamic of your organization to the visitor? And is that what constitutes public engagement? People read that from how you use language in your emails or the kinds of propositions that the organization does, suggests some kind of relationship between the audience – their interests and the organization.
ALLISON AGSTEN This is what my job was when I was doing Visitor Services, was to tackle a lot of that, like, “Where do we need signs? Is there a better way to say this? Should we have some volunteers here helping people out?” That sort of thing.
ROB BLACKSON You're talking about voice, right?
MARK ALLEN I’m talking about voice. So that you can make invisible decisions which definitely help your audience. Like, oh, we need signage. There should be somebody here greeting people.
WAITER Are we doing okay with you guys?
MARK ALLEN Good, thank you. I’m interested in that question, How do you construct the voice of the institution? And that was when we were at the Hammer; something I was really interested in disrupting because I felt like the singular institutional voice is maybe not always the best way to communicate to people on a human scale. This is something that’s been revealed as a really important strategy for, social media. That the best social media - the organizations that are best at social media allow the people doing their social media to articulate their own subjectivity in the way they communicate. So that you have a sense like, I’m not having a conversation with a giant organization because, in fact, that’s impossible, but that you are having some kind of communication with a subjectivity that’s inside of that organization.
ALLISON AGSTEN For me, that’s why I love that I have this job, because I felt that there was something hopefully in institutions and we were all getting really close with what we were doing with social media which I was really involved with. We were creating this incredible veneer, something warm and welcoming that when you came to the museum, was actually the exact same museum. So I was interested in this thing that you do, that you have some freedom to do virtually, that reflects the actuality.
CANDICE HOPKINS My examples might seem more straightforward because often I was working tangentially from the institutions as either a guest curator or curatorial resident. And so I felt like what I was trying to do was disperse the resources that were available out of a particular organization and then hope that they would follow through with that dispersal.
So, when I was up at Banff, which is in a fairly remote area, the closest community, in fact, aside from Canmore is the Morley Indian Reserve. And what I was interested in initiating, as a part of that was I realized how much resource Banff had that weren’t available to the reserve. And so what we were doing was initiating workshops and bringing students into the campus where they could use the sound recording studio, and get access to high-speed Internet. Also teaching schools, open source schools, how to download the music that they really wanted to hear and things like that. But I think that as a result of this, they still work quite closely with Morley and it was very simple in a way that I think as soon as they knew that this institution was open to having people come and use their facilities, which tend to be a little under used, then that sort of channel remained in motion.
In a similar way, the National Gallery of Toronto, which is deeply traditional, I don’t think there’s any interest in being involved in some ways with regards to public engagement.
Part of what I see my role as, and what I’m working on at the moment, is making artists commissions that take place in more public areas. Where you don’t have to pay to see them, because the admission price in and of itself is quite high.
ALLISON AGSTEN I think that's such an important point to make, not to interject --
CANDICE HOPKINS -- but I think that is one of the first things that the museum could do to really change the way people think about it.
ALLISON AGSTEN Or the way in which they visit. So that they don’t pay. And that programming takes place in the free parts of the museum.
CANDICE HOPKINS So that it really is for everybody --
MARK ALLEN I've tried to push for that at the Hammer.
JOSEPH DEL PESCO I had a conversation with Charlotte Cotton who had done this project with LACMA during this curatorial workshop we did together and importantly - she had talked about how she really saw herself as a public servant. That the museum is this institution and that seems like kind of the similar position that you’re coming from.
How do you feel about what Adam is saying, which is, “Oh, we don’t care about what the audience wants, we do what we want and they’ll come along.” Whereas you’re saying, “Well we have this community who has needs and we can help them and they aren’t accessing resources so we’re going to change what we’re doing to match them.” You guys seem to have really opposite positions.
ADAM LERNER But totally different institutions.
CANDICE HOPKINS Yeah.
ADAM LERNER I mean she's working on behalf of the National Gallery of Canada.
CANDICE HOPKINS I really don’t have the agency to make more grand changes or even the kind of reassessment of the relationship, even just between the education departments and curatorial.
So, I see my role as trying to make that relationship - in the means that I have - more fluid.
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Right. So, let me put it back to you then. You don’t see yourself as a public servant?
ADAM LERNER I really think a lot about how can I best give the most to the city and the world even? And I actually, weirdly, have come to the conclusion; the more I can be like who I am – which is to say the guy who really enjoys. To just keep on turning - every time that somebody gets settled, turn it another half – like an eighth of an inch. And another eighth of an inch. It feels like the times I’ve been most successful at generating energy have been when I’ve been that guy. Just keep on turning things a little bit. And therefore, I really feel like I can do best for - my city, my community if I continue to do that.
And therefore, I don’t think of my visitors, as I’m hearing you talk, the visitor comes in as almost like evidence of how successfully that thing really turned in an interesting way. If it really feels fresh, what we’re doing, then it’s going to have this natural energy to it. And if it doesn’t, that’s the way it goes. But really we want visitors --
ROB BLACKSON -- but it comes in on the other side, as a - measure of how fresh it truly is.
CANDICE HOPKINS So you really see yourself of kind of tinkering, to find what that moment is?
ADAM LERNER Yeah, I’m working with this artist, and he said that what he used to do is whenever he would get a keyboard or a synthesizer, the first thing he would think about doing is how can I manipulate this? That’s exactly what I think about museums. We have this thing, like someone gave us like a keyboard, which is the museum, and there’s a whole range of things you can play on that keyboard and you just let different people play different things - different museums, you know, play different things on their keyboard. But what I really want to do is actually change the wiring to make it a little bit so that actually it’s doing something that’s different from what a keyboard that’s out of the box does?
ALLISON AGSTEN You're a museum hacker.
ADAM LERNER [Laughs...] I guess so. That’s what interests me. If you’re gonna judge us on the basis of audiences there are just different roles for different institutions. And I gotta say that if our total mission was about like reaching new audiences we then would be structured differently. I really sometimes feel like I care deeply about - about .001-percent of the population. Even more than our visitors - even fewer than the number who actually visit. I care deeply about the people who are really going to want to inspire to do really creative things in the city because we’re there.
ALLISON AGSTEN I think that there’s different definitions and very conventional definitions of what an audience is and what an audience isn’t, but what you’re trying to engage is the creative audience.
ADAM LERNER It’s a mix, because you have to have enough of the audience-audience to make it feel like the space is energized and the people there feel engaged with what you’re doing.
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Are followers important - like repeat visitors important?
ADAM LERNER That’s hugely important. But what also matter to me is a lot of people who don’t even show up, but who wanted to, who think that Denver is this awesome place because it’s got an MCA Denver in it doing what we’re doing and who want to then do their own thing, and keep an eye on what we’re doing and kind of feel a little bit competitive with what we’re doing and maybe topple us a little bit.
Therefore making the city a more interesting city. So that’s partly the way I really see the role of what we’re doing. But that would be a big luxury for a city to spend resources on just that. I think we need to also reach people who want other things out of a museum, which is to say, see current exhibitions of art because they feel like they want to keep in touch with what is happening in the field of art.
ROB BLACKSON This idea of museum hacker, is something that we’re each invested in different ways. And I want to make a slight distinction within the language because for me, it’s not as a museum hacker it’s as a gallery hacker. Because there’s a distinction to be made in working without a permanent collection. It’s because of that distinction that I’ve come up with the structure I’ve applied to Temple Contemporary, which tries to make issues of public urgency part of that hacker process, informing gallery audience development, and display. It’s through those elements that I’d be interested to continue the conversation in terms of what each of you do to make that distinction between the museum and the gallery space clear..
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Maybe I can start because where I work is a super weird model in the spectrum of things. It’s probably closer to an alternative space but it’s privately funded, all the money comes from a private foundation. And so we don’t spend any time fundraising at all, which is kind of a dream.
ALLISON AGSTEN Wow! And incredible!
JOSEPH DEL PESCO And we’re also like a museum in that we have a collection, which moves really quickly, there’s about 108 new works a year. We focus on Asia and Central and South America, mostly in San Francisco, and the West Coast to some extent. And then Paris has its own mandates once a year. So we have two offices, they’re small but give us two perspectives. We benefit a lot from the history, and reputation that Kadist in Paris has gained. They’ve done great work for about 10 years.
And when we started in San Francisco, we knew we didn’t want to set up an exhibition program because people had sort of lost faith in exhibition making in San Francisco. So when we set up, the foundation bought the bottom quarter of a building which was four storefronts in a row, one of which we rent out now to The THING Quarterly, a project by two artists in San Francisco that’s a subscription-based art service.
We have a gallery, an event space, and our office, which is big enough that we can use it for other things, like we’ve hosted bo shops there. The identity within this module logic is something with shifting identities.
The program was set up, and it gives us a frame on an event by event basis. So we did a Wednesday series - every Wednesday night we would do something for three months at a time, and people could get into the rhythm of it.
So, thinking about the last topic, we think extremely seriously about audiences at the highest level but not at all at the bottom level.
CANDICE HOPKINS What do you mean at the bottom level?
JOSEPH DEL PESCO Which means we don’t have a sign out front of Kadist. We’re thinking about constantly shifting and morphing. We structured our season like a TV show season, where you’d go for a period or a season and then it ends and you hope it comes back - you can’t wait till it comes back. We served cocktails for the first hour and then we have an event that’s an hour, but maybe it goes over. So it’s very bite-sized. We have a no PowerPoint rule. It’s always something else. Performances, readings, screenings, etc.
But there is this collection, which is really a resource for us, not a mandated thing that we have to use. We do pull from the collection. We’ll have something shipped over from Europe. For example, the Kippenberger event with his sister who’s in town, who just released a book about him and we’ll cook noodle auflauf, It is the picture of the noodles on the white plate that I like most Kippenberger’s favorite dish, and we’ll do all kinds of related events.
Our space doesn’t look like at all like a gallery, it’s a storefront and we have a big bar window, which has a door that closes so you can create more of a white wall space, but it’s intentionally not a white cube. There isn’t a clear set of expectations of how you’re supposed to behave when you walk in - which makes the space reconfigurable each time.
ROB BLACKSON Who develops the programming?
JOSEPH DEL PESCO I do.
CANDICE HOPKINS What’s the difference between what happens in the gallery space versus the event space? Did you said there are two separate spaces for those?
JOSEPH DEL PESCO There’s three. One event, which we’re calling the 24-hour exhibition will take place in all three: it’s a new thing, which might be getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, but I think very seriously about time and the expectations of an institution to change. On one hand we designed a logo type with Dexter Sinister that changes just a little bit every week. Which instead of the corporate brand of loyalty and reliability and consistency, we wanted something that is evolving and changing.
ADAM LERNER I love that.
CANDICE HOPKINS What’s interesting is - that a lot of institutions would be deeply anxious about that kind of idea of not having a consistent identity or a name and a space.
ROB BLACKSON Did you guys want to get dessert or should we head back to Machine?
MARK ALLEN Why don't we head back to Machine.
ALLISON AGSTEN Rob, maybe this is more towards the end, but I had a question for how you intend for these discussions to influence your work.
CANDICE HOPKINS Do you have specific ideas about how that's going to work?
ROB BLACKSON Yes- these trips so far to Eindhoven and London have been extremely influential. Seeing the way that invited guests were structuring the institution to allow for - some of the thoughts that Joseph was talking about in terms of time and the idea of institutional instability were really helpful and leaning towards very structural changes that may be possible for Temple Contemporary. As well, some of the conversations in London were important in terms of a more conceptual interest of language, for example how do you speak in terms of the idea of a space recognizing issues rather than reflecting them?
MARK ALLEN Can you articulate that a little more? The difference between those two models?
ROB BLACKSON A lot of institutions are showing their interest in audience engagement by reflecting issues that are going on in contemporary society rather than recognizing them. When you’re reflecting, it often leads to an us/them dynamic. And by recognition there is a chance for an institution to internalize and identify with issues to work through them in real time rather than, say, due to the mandate of an arbitrary exhibition calendar that determines the breadth and length of an organization’s commitment. There’s more of a chance for the institutions to get their hands dirty in the complexities of life.
ADAM LERNER Anyone want a box?
[ end conversation ]
Lunch began with
a conversation about the roles
we play at our respective institutions.
I kicked off the conversation.