Visual Arts

Henry Art Gallery
The Gene(sis) Project: A Laboratory for Arts-Based Civic Dialogue [PDF]
by Lynn E. Stern

In April 2002, on the heels of the Human Genome Project’s historic announcement about the completion of a human genome “rough draft,” Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery opened Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics. The exhibition brought together more than 50 recent and new artworks representing artists’ imaginings of the social, ethical, and economic ramifications of genetic and genome research. To spur dialogue about the provocative and potentially polarizing issues, the Henry, together with its community collaborators, devised and implemented a cross-disciplinary series of public programs in conjunction with its exhibition. This case study, written by Lynn Stern, explores how the project sought to harness the power of contemporary visual art to elucidate and provoke dialogue about new developments in the science of human genomics. It describes the Henry’s various dialogue methods and raises questions such as: What new innovations can be brought to conducting dialogue about art and, in this case, “controversial art”? How does art function as dialogue between artist and viewer? Does the viewer’s experience in grappling with the ideas evoked by a work of art constitute civic dialogue? And what do existing curatorial and education practices have to offer when designing opportunities for civic dialogue?

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MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana
Public Faces, Private Lives: Making Visible Silicon Valley's Hybrid Heritage [PDF]
by Lynn E. Stern 

In September 2002 MACLA—a San José-based Latino contemporary arts space—premiered Ties that Bind: Exploring the Role of Intermarriage Between Latinos and Asians in Silicon Valley. This exhibition was a photography-based installation of new work by artists Lissa Jones and Jennifer Ahn that reflected on the history of Asian-Latino intermarriage and contemporary perceptions of ethnicity in the San José area. Capitalizing on the groundswell of public interest in ethnic and racial hybridization trends borne out by Census 2000, the Ties that Bind exhibition and dialogues sought to engage a broad cross section of San José residents in civic dialogue about how Asian-Latino intermarriages in Silicon Valley are challenging the prevailing myths of ethnic identity. To propel the artistic process and spur dialogue around this timely and provocative civic issue, MACLA devised a “humanities-based” model of community intervention that integrated the ethnographic methodologies of oral history, archival research, and social science scholarship with the artistic development process. As part of that effort, MACLA collected and documented 45 case studies of Asian-Latino intermarriage and engaged 15 of those families to participate directly as oral history interviewees and subjects of the artist’s photographic process. 

This examination of the making of Ties that Bind offers insights into MACLA’s use of an ethnographic-based curatorial approach as a means of driving the project’s artistic development, and also reveals how the project team wrestled with ethical and aesthetic considerations in the process of rendering the participating families’ personal stories into art. It also chronicles challenges and insights gained along the way that prompted key changes in the design of the project, namely an increased role for the artists and a shift in the scope of the dialogue component. The project and case study also raise key questions about the nature of civic dialogue: Does civic dialogue necessarily need to be “public”? How does the intent to foster civic dialogue affect aesthetic choices? Finally, Ties that Bind also sheds light on MACLA’s own quest as a community-based arts group to embrace a long-term commitment to civic dialogue and to embed those practices in the organization.

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The Andy Warhol Museum
The Warhol: Museum as Artist: Creative, Dialogic & Civic Practice [PDF]
by Jessica Gogan

In her essay, “The Warhol: Museum as Artist: Creative, Dialogic and Civic Practice,” The Warhol Museum’s assistant director of education, Jessica Gogan, explores how museums can creatively operate in the cultural sphere as “civic engager.”  She does this through the lens of two projects: The Without Sanctuary Project and Andy Warhol’s Electric Chairs: Reflecting on Capital Punishment in America. The Without Sanctuary Project, conceived following two racially motivated killings in Pittsburgh, used historic photographic documentation of lynching throughout the U.S. as a springboard to address issues of race, bias, and bigotry. The exhibition was the core of a several-months project that galvanized energies and focused a collective attention on racial issues in a manner that was rare for Pittsburgh. A subsequent project, Andy Warhol’s Electric Chairs: Reflecting on Capital Punishment in America, featured Warhol’s series of iconic paintings of electric chairs as a focus for dialogue on the issue of capital punishment.

Gogan asserts a new role and practice for museums—the museum as artist—that involves experimenting with curatorial, educational, and presentation practices by using the museum’s social space as well as its traditional position as arbiter of taste to focus attention on civic issues. The essay details the many and varied dialogue opportunities, including facilitated daily dialogues, a video response booth, and school dialogues, assuring Without Sanctuary visitors a way to respond immediately to the highly charged images—as well as special events, and community-based art projects conducted by artist-educators.  The essay reveals the tensions and challenges of a largely white institution chosing this project and lessons learned while working with an advisory group to effectively involve the African American community. Regarding the Electric Chairs exhibition and dialogues, the essay examines the museum’s relationship to advocacy on civic issues and describes the challenges of creating a “multipartial” forum for dialogue on a highly polarized issue. 

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The Jewish Museum
Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art Case Study: The Jewish Museum, New York City [PDF]
by Jeanne Pearlman

In 2002, the Jewish Museum in New York City mounted the exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art. The controversial exhibition featured artworks by 13 young artists, each two and three generations removed from the events of WWII, who used images of Nazi perpetrators to provoke viewer exploration of the culture of victimhood and also as a means of  identifying the distinguishing characteristics of evil. Through the art works, extensive interpretive materials, and a program of facilitated dialogues, the Jewish Museum offered a springboard for discussion about complicity and complacency toward evil in today’s society. The museum partnered with the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Facing History and Ourselves, and other organizations to design dialogue opportunities—both in and outside the museum—that connected deeply with the Jewish community as well as with a broad public of all faiths and cultural backgrounds.

This case study examines what happened when the museum ventured into “taboo” subjects and how the use of provocative artwork may reframe the subject of the Holocaust for discussion about manifestations of evil today. The case study analyzes the public reception and intense controversy prompted by the media before the exhibition even opened and reflects on the effects of the media on public discourse.

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