In Partnership with SOC(i)AL: Art + People, a series of discussions around LA about Socially Engaged Art, September to November 2012. Instigated by Anne Bray of Freewaves.org
For the next in my series of interviews with artists and organizers as part of the SOCiAL: Art + People initiative, I sat down with Asuka Hisa, director of education at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and LA-based artist Olga Koumoundouros to discuss their collaboration on a recent Wall Works project titled CART -- What Do We Need to Get By and How Do We Get There. This discussion is just one of three pairings between artists and curators for the Getty Museum's upcoming panel Do We Need Artists in Art Museums? on November 14th at 7pm. Other pairings include Mark Allen of Machine Project and Elizabeth Cline, formerly of the Hammer Museum; and Bob Sain, creator of LACMA Lab and Christoph Korner of GRAFT Architects.
Sue Bell Yank: Asuka - tell me a little bit about the origins of the Wall Works program, and specifically how it works with all the different constituents; in classrooms with students, with museum visitors and the public, and with artists.
How we got the Wall in Wall Works: The previous administrators at SMMoA had somehow secured an agreement with the local shopping mall to do projects in various nooks -- food court, community room, an empty space adjacent to storefronts. When the museum was in-between its old space (the Frank Gehry-designed Edgemar Complex on Main St. in Santa Monica) and the new space (a Narduli/Grinstein architects + Minardos Group restoration of a warehouse in Bergamot Station), the curator at the time organized an art presence at the mall with various projects. An intern would hang up the results of workshops on a vacant wall tucked at the end of a long line of shops. Eventually, these mall art projects ceased when the museum opened and began its exhibition programs at Bergamot Station.
When I took over as Director of Education in 2000, I was interested in still using that wall to create original projects. The fact that it was in a pretty uninspiring shopping mall did not deter me; it challenged me to bring something surprising into a space otherwise dominated by consumerism. I didn't mind the idea of showcasing work but rather than an average hanging of work, I wanted to create original, site-specific projects for that wall.
A small education department: Fourteen years ago, when I first came to SMMoA, it had a small staff; 4 full-time employees, 2 part-time employees, and others on a temp basis. When I was named Director of Education, it increased the full-time staff by 1. Each of us did everything in our "department" and whatever else to help the general needs of the museum. As a newbie to the field of Museum Education, I started by organizing what was typical: workshops, lectures, and tours. It was great but a little too standard for my tastes. In addition to my liberal arts undergraduate degree, my studio fine art post-graduate work had me believe that the best way to learn about art was to make it and learn from artists directly. Because of this artist background, I was much more into hands-on, experiential learning. Today, they call it "public engagement." I had to think of a way to reach more people and innovate. The only possibility of accomplishing anything bigger was through partnership.
Before I became a museum educator, I taught art in the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District through an independent art program designed by artist Lynn Robb. I knew that school districts had little to no visual art programs. Lynn's curriculum balanced between traditional and contemporary art, which I admired very much. This experience with a school district showed me what it is like inside the classroom and what teachers are dealing with to conduct class.
The Wall Works idea: At SMMoA, I organized some professional development events at the museum for teachers. I wanted to get teachers to know that SMMoA was not an inaccessible contemporary art space but a place to visit and use to learn with their students. In my conversations with teachers, I learned what to do and what not to do and what they really needed in order to "buy into" anything. A few things were clear: they had no funds and no time for art. I noticed, however, that teachers did use films to educate students. Why not produce an art lesson film with a hands-on project? A video is fine but the teachers still did not have a motivator to do the project. That's when I knew it had to be a bigger idea. I pulled from past examples of large-scale collaboration from the AIDS Memorial Quilt1, to work by conceptual French artist Gilles Mahé2, to Hands Across America3, and came up with the model for Wall Works. There would be a video lesson plan featuring an artist; supplies in an art kit; and everyone's part would be an essential piece of a bigger whole: a public art project.
An expanded education department: I like to say that I am a department of ONE but in truth, I have an unlimited department because I extend into the world at-large. For Wall Works, I already had the partnership of the Santa Monica Place Mall to use their wall. Other partnerships I needed were with schools and with artists.
When I was conceiving Wall Works, I kept remembering what the classroom environment was like and how a teacher could incorporate art in the day. I knew that in order to persuade teachers to embrace a new program in art, it needed to be easy, flexible, and provide the resources needed to complete the projects. With little to no resources, no time, no money, teachers would be averse to a program that added to their load. Since I had taught some in some teachers' classrooms, I did have a relationship with teachers in Santa Monica and a small network with which to "test market" the Wall Works concept. Finally, I wanted to work with established Los Angeles artists whom students, teachers, and parents might seek to know more about since they live and work in their city. Through the museum, I got to know Alison Saar. Alison had a show called Traveling Light, Topsy Turvy, Compton Nocturne, and Tree Souls (1999) at the time. Alison has a daughter the same age as mine. They would play together at the museum and often see each other at openings around town and save each other from art world boredom. Alison became a friend and my first Wall Works artist.
Alison Saar is a great artist and though she may have been willing to speak to young students, I couldn't expect that of artists to go in front of classrooms and repeat a lesson over and over. I was interested in video production and thought this would be a perfect chance to try it out. It would enable us to travel to the artist's studio rather than have the artist in the classroom. A video could be seen by many classrooms and the artist would only have to perform the lesson once. Through my work at SMMoA, I also met Harry Gamboa, Jr., also a great artist. We became friends as I organized programs for a show called East of the River: Chicano Art Collectors Anonymous. I needed a videographer and editor of the Wall Works video. I managed to convince Harry to be my videographer/editor for Alison's video. For Wall Works, the innovation came through the use of video. Back then, things were not digital; videos were still in Beta and VHS formats.
Sue Bell Yank: How do you reach so many kids (one thousand per year) with only one staff person?
Asuka Hisa: The video makes reaching many people possible. Today, with the digital format and our growing online presence, video is how so many people consume information, discover things, and share inspiration. I'm glad that we explored the video element early.
A small school district helped me build a network and relationship of trust with teachers over time. Wall Works' growth among teachers was through teacher recommendation, word of mouth, and publicity about the scope of the project. When we issue a call for participation, sadly, we now have to turn classrooms away. We do have a policy that if you have done a Wall Works project, you must wait out a session before doing it again. This allows more classrooms to be able to participate.
The district provides a way of communicating to the teachers through a district-wide email announcement. It goes very fast. They also have a way to insert information into all of the teacher's mailboxes (with permission from the Superintendent's office).
My reach has evolved over time. This is the benefit of being with one institution for so long: you get to witness growth and depth of programs.
The program is also announced on our website. It's open to other schools and homeschools outside of the SMMUSD. Our priority is our home district (Santa Monica/Malibu) but I have involved classrooms as far as Orange County, Pasadena, Santa Ana, and the San Fernando Valley. The beauty of the project's design is that it can go to Africa as long as the project is returned by the deadline. When artists John Outterbridge and Michael C. McMillen were part of an exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris about Los Angeles artists, we considered translating the Wall Works videos that featured these artists into French (which I could do) so that students in Paris could potentially create the projects. It was fun to imagine it.
Sue Bell Yank: For both of you, why do you feel artists are a necessary component in this outreach program, and how do you see their role?
Asuka Hisa: I want to feature active and esteemed artists who are living and working in Los Angeles to allow for students, teachers, and their families to get to know the cultural richness of contemporary art in their city. Beyond just knowing the artists, I also want participants to know that they worked with the artist to realize the project.
Wall Works addresses paradigms in museum practice in a way that is unique. A part of the community learns about art, makes art, meets an artist, and views the work of the artist, and their own work. We have Wall Works projects with artists who have their work exhibited in SMMoA's main galleries; Martin Kersels, Elias Simé, Kim Schoenstadt. This, in my mind, creates an even deeper connection with the work in SMMoA's galleries. It doesn't really demystify the artist and their work; it creates wonderment and another kind of engagement. Finally, it turns the participants into artists themselves for the time of the project so there is some self-awareness offered in the mix.
Olga Koumoundouros: Artists have their source material ready at hand. This is something they are invested in already and can approach the project from the place of immersion, share their process and enthusiasm. From that place they are already engaging multiple modalities of understanding which is a great place to approach multiple modalities of learning. It totally makes sense as a starting point in conversation on the way to finding an appropriate springboard for the youth's project.
Sue Bell Yank: Olga, what did you feel your role was as an artist in this program, as opposed to the role of the classroom teacher or museum educator?
Olga Koumoundouros: As the classroom teacher or museum educator there is an external curriculum or curatorial program that is the focus. In those cases I am creating themes that make connections and point to other artworks. But in the case of Wallworks I am digging into my own practice. On one hand it is easier in that it is self determined, but that also makes it a bit challenging. What about my practice is worthy to share with young people with bourgeoning minds.... with relatively new relationships to art.
Sue Bell Yank: What did you initially envision for this project and how did it develop over time?
Olga Koumoundouros: I really wanted to work with Ox-Cart Man. It is a great story by Donald Hall published in the 1970's I believe. I did want the kids to look at this poetic text about simplified steps of economic self-sufficiency and see how far we are from that today. I wanted the question of where did he get his original land and ox from in the first place? Were all people able to be land owners in this way in America in the 1800's? In the end, the conversation with the artists was contemplative of their own lives and did produce effective reflection on the subject of distribution of wealth in their community.
Sue Bell Yank: What challenges did you encounter?
Asuka Hisa: The challenges are always in balancing new ideas and fun with rigor with all of the projects. We want these projects to be significant. I run with the goal to be "accessible and extraordinary." I want to challenge the teachers and students with contemporary art and design ideas but I also need to be aware of everyone's level of understanding in art. One of the reasons I champion art education with a contemporary art focus is because the issues, themes, and concepts are current and exciting. When I started teaching in the public school system, they all kept using Monet's Water Lillies and Van Gogh's Starry Night over and over. They were safe. I wanted to be little riskier.
With Olga's project, we found a way to challenge students to think about their personal and society's means of sustainability. We got kindergarteners to think this with the simple questions of What do you want? What do you need? What brings you joy? What is excess? (they learned the vocabulary word "EXCESS"). Sometimes the most powerful thought processes are triggered with simple questions.
Olga Koumoundouros: How can we make magnets affordable? Talking in front of the camera? I don't know. It seemed to go very well in the end. Maybe letting go of my own ideas for a very immersive art installation. My immediate response when confronted with idiosyncratic space is to try to make it engaging. What I was initially thinking of would have overshadowed the other artists work. It was key to pull back and I did. And I greatly enjoyed what the artists produced and their engagement with it at the opening.
Perhaps the only lingering challenge, is wanting more conversation with the young artists themselves somehow. I don't really know how to do that logistically though.
Sue Bell Yank: How do you balance interactivity with aesthetic and conceptual rigor?
Asuka Hisa: One of my inspirations is a project by the late conceptual artist Gilles Mahé (1943-1999). I learned of his work while I was an art student in France. He had a project called Nous Cherchons Des Gens Qui Aiment Dessiner (N.C.D.G.Q.A.D), which translates as We Are Looking for Some People Who Like to Draw. It was a mail-order art class and they would send out an instruction like "draw a pair of shoes" and you would mail in your drawing. One day, after a long while, you would receive an envelope that had a large poster of everyone's drawings of shoes and your original one would be returned with a grade and comment in the back. The poster of everyone's shoes was delightful -- some very average drawings and some quite original ones. The unusual thing that I love was that I learned of this project through a fashion catalog for the French brand A.P.C. Later, after Mahé's death, there was a retrospective of his work at the Musée d'Art Contemporain, Marseille in 2004. I got to see my work and the work of others in the posters on display from the N.C.D.G.Q.A.D. project. I thought that was great. Obviously, it left an impression to be interpreted later in Wall Works.
The Wall Works projects have a built-in art direction. There is just enough of a balance of art direction, concept, and open-endedness for the student to create a very good result. It takes a lot of preparation, discussion, and design ahead of time to get to this point. It is thoroughly thought out beforehand and yet, there is always a wonderful element of surprise for everyone involved, especially the artist. We do ask that the artist not only let go of control of the art making but find a way to create an intention in that letting go and understand that letting go is an essential component to this collaboration. No one will argue to the fact that a child's imagination and uninhibited approaches to art are magical and, unfortunately, something we tend to replace with more trained and self-conscious practices. Still, the Wall Works project provides subtle direction to achieve the goal of a remarkable art installation without compromising that magic created by the young student's hand.
Olga Koumoundouros: Through lots of dialog between me and Asuka. That back and forth between us was a meaningful key in the process. Overall, the conversation was generative, enjoyable and rich.
Sue Bell Yank: There is a very accessible, yet urgent and critical message about social inequity embedded in this project (i.e. what do we need to get by, what is the meaning of excess) that speaks to our current economic situation. How does this relate to your other work, specifically the foreclosed house project?
Olga Koumoundouros: In my own practice where I think about class mobility and human sustenance, shelter is one that comes up large. I am often looking at the role of the single family home in the rhetoric of the American Dream and what people strive for. Not all nations have this as such a cultural mandate. Now with my project A Notorious Possession where I took possession of an abandoned house as it was facing foreclosure in my own neighborhood of Glassell Park, I look further at the slippery economics and the multiple players involved in achieving that cultural mandate.
Sue Bell Yank: How has the political and social justice bent of Olga's project informed the program as a whole moving forward?
Asuka Hisa: Wall Works projects allow me to work closely with artists to address many levels of what it is to be an art museum educator. Museum educators are bridge-makers for the community to gain access to culture but it also goes the other direction; the museum and artists also need to reach the community.
Wall Works projects touch different themes and concepts with each project. It depends on the artist. The current Wall Works project with artist/designer Karen Kimmel called Art of Exchange simply has students explore abstraction through the use of stencils. It's a beautiful installation where there are hundreds of examples of colorful abstraction displayed in a vibrant cascade. Color, pattern, abstraction, and design are a lot of what Karen's work is all about. For Olga, you'll see work that tackles such hard topics as class, economic inequity, and socio-political circumstances through sculpture and installation. Her work is relevant to us in a different way. What completely blew me away was the way Olga brought in the example of a Caldecott-award-winning children's book, Ox-cart Man (written by Donald Hall in 1979), to tell a story and then create a project where students could venture into a critique of that story. Amazing. She didn't diminish the beauty of the story told in the book--one of an 18th century self-sustaining farming family, but she was able to bring questions to the classroom for the participant to compare this story to their own situation, their own family, through the simple four question format to produce four drawings per student. The results were great and the installation was visually arresting. We also painted the walls with magnetic paint underneath the colored paint and put magnets on the drawings so visitors to the exhibition could interact with the work and move drawings around based on their own opinions.
Olga's project was an excellent example of how to bring some real-world topics to young minds. With the reality of economic disparity, unemployment, and struggle very present in our day-to-day, I found Olga's collaboration a way to tackle it in art education. We are already talking about a sequel! Olga's current work explores the ideology around the "single-family home" and what it takes to maintain it. Don't you think kids need to think about this stuff? Rather than be "sheltered" from the realities, let's talk about shelter! It's a way for students, teachers, and families to stop and, with a means of expression for the participant, think about what is going on in the world.
1The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, often abbreviated to AIDS Memorial Quilt, is an enormous quilt made as a memorial to and celebration of the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Weighing an estimated 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world as of 2010. (from Wikipedia)
2The work of Gilles Mahé (1943-1999) moves through entrepreneurship as a means of autonomy, independent production, dissemination and development of his artistic activities. His various artistic performances, shops, artistic economic structures, more or less effective depending on the project, were signature Gilles Mahé projects that created a simulacrum of market effectiveness with a dose of collaboration and humor.
3Hands Across America was a benefit event and publicity campaign staged on Sunday May 25, 1986 in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the continental United States. Many participants donated ten dollars to reserve their place in line; the proceeds were donated to local charities to fight hunger and homelessness and help those in poverty. (from Wikipedia)
Asuka Hisa is the director of education and public programs at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA) and has been developing unique public engagement programs for SMMoA since 1998. Prior to SMMoA, she taught art to youth in France and to students of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Over the years, she has created a number of acclaimed programs: Wall Works, Cause for Creativity, Park Studio, and ARTransmissions. Wall Works received the 2012 Excellence in Museum Education award jointly presented to SMMoA by the Office of the California State Superintendent and the California Association of Museums. She collaborates with SMMoA's curatorial staff and director Elsa Longhauser to produce exhibition programs and the multi-disciplinary series titled A Collection of Ideas. She is a native of Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Barnard College and her National Diploma of Art from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France. As an artist, she has exhibited in Europe and in Los Angeles and considers her programs at SMMoA as a form of artistic and social public practice. In 2003, she received the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture. She was Board President of the Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC) from 2009-2011. From 2007-2011, she served on the Arts Commission of the City of Santa Monica. Currently, she serves on a the steering committee of the California Association of Museums' Statewide Collaborative Learning Networks project funded by the Institute of Library and Museum Services. She is a board member of Automata; an organization devoted to the creation of puppetry, experimental theater, and film.
Olga Koumoundouros graduated with an MFA from the California Institute for the Arts in 2001. Her work has been shown at Stefan Adamski Gallery, Aachen, Germany, at Occidental College, Los Angeles., at the Banff Centre - Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Canada; at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena; at the Studio Museum of Harlem, New York; at LAX-Art, Los Angeles, Glassell School of Art, Houston, at the Suburban, Chicago; and at the Schindler House, Los Angeles. Her work was included in "Thing" at the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Olga Koumoundouros' provocative practice actively engages ideas of labor, class and human sustenance that shake the very core of the American Dream. The artist's dexterity and commitment to materiality is her tour de force. Working with industrial materials--plywood, corrugated fiberglass, plaster and tar, among others--Koumoundouros' sculptural objects and installations resonate with brute, elegant force, exploring the many social, economic and political ideologies that shape our relationship to both past and present.