For this next interview in the SOCiAL: Art + People series, I sat down with theorist and curator Bill Kelley, Jr. and Director of Public Events for the Queens Museum of Art Prerana Reddy to speak about Queens as a vanguard for the integration of socially-engaged art into a museum context, and as a case study for the changing role of the museum in civic life. The specific conditions of Queens have resonance with Los Angeles, and Prerana and Bill will further explore these concerns on Saturday, November 3rd in a free public program as part of Bill's curatorial residency at 18th Street Arts Center.
Sue Bell Yank: So Bill, what was the impetus behind inviting Prerana [Reddy] to this event, and for hosting an event like this?
Bill Kelley, Jr.: I learned about Prerana's work and the work of the Queens Museum of Art not here, not in the States and LA, but from my contacts in South America, that there was this woman from the Queens Museum roaming around the Andes, talking to these various communities in Cuenca and Quito [cities in Ecuador] and all these places. "You should get to know her, Bill, you should know her, why don't you know who she is?" So when I went to New York a few years ago, I called her up. She picked me up and we went to the Queens Museum and met with the director, Tom Finkelpearl, and she showed me around Corona Plaza and talked to me about some of the projects. In some ways it reminded me about the migratory experience at some level with friends or contacts in Los Angeles, and this was a great model for discussing what the relationship was with museums and these types of immigrant communities. As someone who works blurring the line between theory and curatorial work, it prompted certain questions about curatorial practice, about the roles of museums, the roles of theory and discourse and all of these things. So when the opportunity came for Prerana to come to LA during my residency at 18th Street [Arts Center], I was really happy that she could come.
Sue Bell Yank: Prerana, maybe you can give us a little bit of an overview of some of the projects you are working on that Bill is interested in.
Prerana Reddy: Sure, and to pick up on why I was roaming the Andes...Queens Museum is pretty far out from Manhattan, far away from the center of the city. We realized that what we couldn't do, nor should we do, is replicate a contemporary art museum model, or modern art museum model of what was happening in Manhattan. We didn't have the same type of resources, we didn't have the same type of visitor, and we didn't have the same type of collection. So we went to the drawing board and said, "What can we do better than those museums?" or "What are we primed better to do?" and if our users--and we like to use the word "user" more than "visitor"--are mostly going to be people from the neighborhood around where we are, then how does that impact how we do business? How we curate, how we do programming, what we think the role of a museum is, and we happen to live in a neighborhood, Corona, that is highly, highly new immigrant, and is probably about 70% Latino. Not necessarily from any one particular place, there have been lots of waves of immigration. Probably 30-40 years ago you would have seen a lot of Dominicans, Columbians, and since the 80s more Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants. So you have this kind of mosaic of people who might be united by being from Latin America, but at the same time are quite distinctive. Because the community is so transnational I felt that in order to understand the art and cultural context of our local community, I had to go back to Latin America and have that experience myself. I was lucky enough to know some Ecuadorian artists who had gotten government grants to work with Ecuadorian immigrants in my community and knew some of those people, and ended up hiring those people to be my guides. I had no agenda, I didn't have any meetings lined up, but I had that curiosity. It did help me, when I came back, to be able to say, "I've been there. I know this landscape or I know something about the politics, something about the history of migration." Something about the familiarity that changed fundamentally my relationship, I didn't have to rely on my staff people who were from there. It says something to the community about the fact that the institution does care deeply, or that people from the institution do care deeply about their daily lives and not just audience development or getting people in through the door.
That to me was really basis of it, for us to really listen and experience things that may not be at the center of art world controversies or trends, but are the center of our community's needs and desires in a contemporary context. A lot of people told us that this place (Corona Plaza) which was a gateway to their community, was a symbol of city neglect in terms of sanitation and maintenance, in terms of safety issues, in terms of architectural preservation. This is how people enter the community and it's not welcoming, it's confusing, and it's frankly embarrassing.
So it was a long process that just started with programming and artists' projects that were kind of investigatory, that looked at local economies and experiences within the neighborhoods, like a project exploring barber shops and beauty salons, to other projects that looked at street vending. This gave us a certain amount of information, and allowed people to change their ideas of what art is, from something that's in a gallery to something that can be performative, could be something that blends into their own neighborhood and not even be perceived as art. So that was the first wave of projects, called Corona Plaza, Center of Everywhere, and those happened for six months, four projects each year, from 2007-2008. Then we sort of went back to the drawing board and listened to the artists, and asked community members what they thought. They said, these were good starting points, but where do we go from here, where do we take that information that came out of the projects about laws and relationships between vendors and police. Does that artist have a chance to keep working on it, to take it out of the research phase to something that intentionally changes the situation in some way, or puts that situation in a new light, or addresses and engages people who have some power in changing that? So what we came up with was something called Corona Studio, under a broader rubric of not quite residencies, but maybe some kind of commission, in a way. But not a commission in the sense that we give people money and let them go off and do whatever they want. It's really a collaboration with the entire museum staff, all programming departments, curatorial, community engagement, public programs, and education. We are all part of it on these projects. They can be variable in how long they take. And I'll tell you that at the beginning we can't do much more than support a project for six months to a year. But if that project shows promise and the artist wants to work on it longer, we will reassess resources, try and figure out a way to continue it in some way, shape or form. It's kind of based on good faith, on the relationship that's been built between museum staff, our local community, and the artists themselves.
So Tania Bruguera's project was based on the idea that she wanted to create a transnational immigrant rights movement, which of course is a very big project, but one that we felt we could help launch. Corona would be a great place for her to learn about a lot of these issues, as well as connect with our network of community activists, ethically-based community organizations, elected officials, kind of get her feet wet as a means to enter into politics. Or enter into a world that normally social service provision organizations or advocacy organizations are in, and think about adding--not to duplicate the things that they do, but how can we support the things that they do? Think about cultural elements that could be incorporated that actually challenge the way things are done normally in those institutions? What resulted was actually an off-site space that functioned as a local community center, where people could get information and services and meet with local organizations. They are responsible for creating their own content, they share skills, they request things that we try and locate. Other artists who have interest working with immigrant communities plug into this as a base. So it's really beyond just Tania, in terms of her overarching project, it's really a space of operation for a lot of different things. It really becomes something bigger than Tania's project, though Tania's project is still there, as a scaffold.
Sue Bell Yank: What is the Queens Museum's role currently in this off-site space, or is it functioning fairly autonomously at this point?
Prerana Reddy: The first year, the Queens Museum and Creative Time actually put in a significant amount of money to start the project, including Tania having a project budget, paying for the space itself, the rental and the utilities, hiring a project manager, there was money for promotion and three events that we developed, three public events outside of running the local center. And that was a pretty significant investment, a big chunk of money as well as a big chunk of staff time. Between three organizations: Tania and her staff, Creative Time and Queens Museum, we had weekly meetings to develop the project and the different elements and troubleshoot as we went along. And we spent a lot of outside of that. We were kind of co-producers. There were things that Creative Time was really good at in terms of event production, and there were things that the Queens Museum was really good at, in terms of connecting the project to an existing network that we had of local community members and organizations, and introducing Tania to a lot of elected officials and activists, and helping her gain skills and knowledge in the subject matter. So they were really complementary things. And after that, basically Creative Time supported the project a little bit more, like three months, after the first year, and Queens Museum now pays for the rental of the space and the utilities, but we don't give her an artist stipend or a budget. We still co-program the space, there are Queens Museum classes, our New New Yorkers' program, there are community meetings that come out of our community organizing work that we use that space for. And we still troubleshoot.
Sue Bell Yank: And turning back to you Bill, to synthesize this information and insight that Prerana has given us, and to pull it back a little bit, there are lots of museums now that are playing around with projects that are somewhat politically-engaged or socially-engaged, in various ways, and probably with a lot of different intentions too--in terms of audience development, or the engagement of visitors who already come to the museum, versus, I'm hearing a lot of talk about "usefulness," museum as something useful and as a connector. I think those are really interesting roles. I'm wondering, from your perspective, what do you take away from the Queens Museum model, looking at the field more broadly.
Bill Kelley, Jr.: On one hand, it reminds me of other types of organizations, especially in Latin America, because that's the area I work in most often. For example, the Museo de Antioquia, the main museum in Medellín [Colombia] that's been working around many social issues, not only local immigration, but also displacement from violence from the various different conflicts that have happened in Colombia over the past 20, 30 years. When you're dealing with that type of intense social conflict, you can really quickly see the effect that a museum like Museo de Antioquia has when it decides that it needs to think about its programming holistically in relationship to Medellín and its communities. So it's a balance of well-research historical projects, interesting curatorial models within the larger art world circuit, but it's equally weighted with supporting local initiatives, NGOs or other projects that are dealing with memory recuperation, reintegration projects with people trying to find their way back into the civic conversation in Medellín. Either because they've been displaced or they're reintegrating themselves back from other conflicts, either the narco-trafficking violence or different paramilitary groups, any of the social conflicts in the region. So when you have that type of balance, it changes the conversation with which you have a discussion about that museum. It changes the discourse, it changes the frame, just by adding a bit of balance to it. And one of the things that Queens and LA have in common, obviously other than being major metropolitan areas, is the immigration issue. I think that those are the case studies and the projects where the Queens Museum is taking a strong sense of leadership in thinking about how these particular issues can be addressed from a museum perspective. On a theoretical level it's very exciting because here in the States, we don't really think about immigration in art, as an art concern. So if we can start thinking about other conditions that affect or shape the migratory experience, apart from the affective and subjective, if you can think about what are some of those other conditions, I think that's an interesting challenge for the theoretical field to find its bearings and get beyond some of its apprehensions, to get into the trenches of a larger, trans-disciplinary conversation that involves legislation, that involves human rights issues, that bring to bear all of the methodologies that Prerana is putting into practice in her programs. I think there's a challenge there and that's what makes it really exciting. In terms of the museum, and what the model of the museum can be, in the history of LA I think we're used to having independent projects fill that role of political advocacy. Whether its Freewaves or Chaos Network or it's Self-Help Graphics or SPARC or whatever. Those kinds of organizations in the 60s, 70s, 80s, kind of filled the holes, filled the gaps institutionally, and filled a lot of cultural gaps. They addressed particular advocacy issues that needed to be addressed. And for the most part, I feel like we've left our ability to think about those practices with the independent spaces, instead of thinking about how they can be institutionalized within the museum.
Sue Bell Yank: And Prerana, in terms of what Bill said, with your connections to community organizations with individual activists and that sort of thing, in Queens do the types of independent organizations that Bill was describing exist, or is Queens Museum filling a little bit of that role or providing that platform?
Prerana Reddy: Well, I think there are lots of artist-run spaces that do interesting work and at times do address some allied concerns. The difference is scale. I mean, not that we're a huge museum, but there's something about when the museum does it, the team that could be put forth, or the level of resources that could be put forth. It's a little bit larger. Not to say that something that Flux Factory in Long Island City does couldn't get a lot of people or attention, but we might be able to get more, and we might be able to stick with something longer, and help that thing find legs when its foundering. I think that projects that are independently done have a particular timeline, which isn't to say that there aren't 20-year-long projects, but that's pretty rare. You can come in when people are excited about something and there's an opportune moment, but then how does it continue? The museum as an anchor institution in a location allows us to think about how we continue to support that project beyond an exhibition timeframe or a commission timeframe. For us, it was really about re-imagining the museum as part of the local ecology.
Bill Kelley, Jr.: I was part of a group meeting of different people here in LA recently, and an artist whom I really respect made a comment about how he was happy that there wasn't a heavy, institutional presence or art world presence in the kind of community-driven projects he was working on, and in some ways that let him be free to do whatever he wanted. And in some ways, I agreed, but on the other hand, isn't that also the problem? Isn't it part of the problem that there is this inability to reimagine what institutions and the art world could contribute to very political, on-the-ground, creative, community-organizing kind of work?
Sue Bell Yank: What's the balance between the institution driving the goals versus the community versus the artist driving it? When you're dealing with these very complex and layered projects that may have serious consequences within the community in different ways, positively or maybe not so much, how do you balance all of those things?
Bill Kelley, Jr.: I think that one of the things that I've noticed in the case studies I've been researching, just to talk about Queens and Medellín, which are the two examples I've cited, there has always been a very strong curatorial directive to take on these issues and drive the projects in that way. I've yet to see it be curatorially driven elsewhere. There always seems to be a question of leadership there.
Prerana Reddy: I agree with you! This kind of work has risks, negative consequences in the community, negative PR consequences, you're wading into political territory. It doesn't fit into a box, and it doesn't fit into these cycles of shows, exhibition cycles, grant-funding cycles. It means commitment beyond the professional for it to really work. This has to be your way of looking at life, so it's bigger than a curatorial project. Where does one go for validation? The curatorial world looks at other curators and art critics as the arbiter of whether in the end things have worked or not worked. The value of this type of work is quite different and maybe perhaps more dispersed. There's a value to the participant, to the community at large, to the artist and their process, to the museum and what they learn about how to partner with that artist, there's a value to what kind of press we get, the value of how we, as an institution doing this work, can influence other artists or institutions to think of this type of practice. So there are a lot of different kinds of values, but they don't exist in one place. You don't know when you're done with it, or when it's successful. That's a hard thing to ask from your staff, unless you assemble a team of people to go on that ride with you. For us, this version of the Queens Museum started with Tom Finkelpearl. My department wouldn't exist without Tom Finkelpearl. You build it over time, over years. My department was one person, and now it's four people, none with art history backgrounds. That has a major impact on the institution. Tom couldn't do this alone, but he had to create an environment where people who wanted to do this work were supported and had a certain amount of autonomy. The curators had to be convinced that this wasn't bad art, and the educators had to be convinced that the educational goals were being met. At first there was a little bit of panic, you can see the things that aren't working right away, so your first instinct is to kill it, quickly. But it's an iterative process, it's experimental, no project is going to fully function the way you imagine it. Those things have to be okay.
Prerana Reddy, director of public events, organizes screenings, talks, festivals, and performances for the Queens Museum of Art, a third of which are developed in collaboration with diverse local community organizations and cultural producers. Additionally, she oversees the museum's community engagement and public art initiatives which combine arts and culture with social development goals in nearby neighborhoods predominately comprised of new immigrants, including programs that address language access, healthcare, public space advocacy, and the mortgage crisis. She also coordinatesCorona Studio, a series of long-term socially-engaged artist residencies in the neighborhood where the Museum is located. Currently she is working with the Queens College Fine Art Department to develop a new Critical Social Practice concentration for their MFA program.
Bill Kelley, Jr. is an educator, independent curator and theorist based in Los Angeles. He graduated with a Master's in 19th Century Colonial Art Studies from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (UNM) in 2001. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in Contemporary Art, Theory and Criticism at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) with a focus on collaborative and collective art practices in the Americas. He is the former Director and current Editorial Adviser of the online bilingual journal LatinArt.com. Bill is currently co-editing an anthology of public and dialogical art practices in the Americas with Grant Kester (2013) and is the 18th Street Curator in Residence for 2012-2013. He was most recently the co-curator of the 2011 Encuentro Internacional de Medellín (MDE11: Museo de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia 2011).