A big thank you to our 2013 Summer/Fall intern, Emily Schmierer – we’re sad to see you go, but know you will be doing great things! During her time with our Public Art program, Emily managed the steady flood of public art calls on our online opportunities page and was instrumental in giving the upcoming Regional Trails System Art Master Plan its final form. She also took on a variety of other day to day tasks with grace and ease. Emily is currently pursuing her MA in Museology at the University of Washington. Her master’s thesis research surrounds collaborative exhibition development in museums and the nature of the resulting community relationships, especially as they pertain to permanent or long-term installations. After graduating in the spring, Emily hopes to pursue work in exhibition design/evaluation and audience research.
For those interested in our Public Art Administrative Internship, the program is currently on hiatus due to upcoming staffing changes.
When I first applied for this internship position, I hoped to learn the ins and outs of public art administration in our region. As an aspiring museologist (as in museum), I sought an opportunity to expand my conception of collection management, interpretation and dissemination of art practice outside the scope of museums. Public art and museums are closely related as they strive for community engagement with arts and culture, just in different settings. I indeed learned a great deal about the administrative processes, and gained a new perspective.
Public art sculptures animate cityscapes, and are the only truly universal presentation of intentionally constructed artwork, connecting people to places without class boundaries. From a giant red popsicle stick sculpture on a street corner, to a mural painted onto the a building only visible from the alleyway, or a big mobile sculpture hanging in a municipal building lobby, all political, economic, and social constructions fall away, and you are just experiencing the same giant popsicle sculpture as the person next to you. Museums wish they had this kind of reach, but physical and intellectual access is irrevocably complicated once you call your building a Museum.
Through my experiences in museums I have become enchanted by partnerships between organizations, and individuals and how they benefit the community. I had always seen museums as interesting places to learn informally and of your own volition, but they were for a long time just places where Academics talked about the Other. Now curators have begun to share their authority with community groups, and collaborate on the development of exhibitions, especially those that focused on cultural identities. Through collaborative exhibit development, messages no longer come solely out of the institution’s interests, but from the public they intend to serve. Community members now have an opportunity to dictate what is said about them in an authoritative voice. It is this kind of engagement that will save museums from an otherwise imminent demise.
Similarly, with Public Art, artists get a chance to contribute to the urban environment. Through creative place making, they get a chance to respond to their environment to produce a work that serves as a conversation between the people and the place. While this practice has existed in many varieties, such as unsanctioned art like graffiti, public art organizations give these artists an opportunity to make a living by facilitating these exchanges with places. It has been an exceptional opportunity to observe this process first hand through this internship.
Through research for my thesis, interning with 4Culture, and being a living, breathing member of the 21st century, I have succumbed to an important realization. We have arrived at a time in our society where maintaining public interest is increasingly looking like a competitive sport. People have more options for ways to spend their leisure time these days, which is in turn decreasing. Between the Internet and social media, people no longer have to experience a situation first hand to know about it, or have an opinion on it. The Internet offers an attractive alternative to authoritative sources for knowledge generation, like museum exhibits.
The only way to resonate with people is to engage them personally, give them a role in the process, or let them shape their experience. The ability to ‘like’ something on Facebook, or rate a meal you had on Yelp is a way of shaping the world around us. It gives us purpose. Likewise, an inorganic sculpture placed next to a trail or pathway begs for a human interaction, where the passerby is specifically solicited to respond to the object. The individual can accept the artwork as a special invitation to engage with it and the space it inhabits. This is not to say that natural elements or un-painted brick walls couldn’t solicit similar consideration, but I see public art as a summons to people, from people, to engage with place.
Civic engagement in arts and culture is just as fluid as culture itself. With ever-changing trends in technology, politics, and social norms, it is challenging to predict how these constructs will take shape in years to come. However, whether collaborative exhibits will outlive the postmodern criticism that birthed the very practice, or whether the current preoccupation with controlling our lives through various screens and profiles will be obsolete in the next five years, I am assured that the work 4Culture does in King County will maintain relevance for a long time.