“How to Change” is a limited series for “Southland Sessions” exploring the most critical issues facing Southern California culture makers in this pivotal historical moment. Each column will explore a question posed to a range of artists and culture workers, and include recommendations to address these concerns from a practical, action-oriented perspective.
Using Public Spaces?
For the fifth installment of "How to Change," I asked, "How are artists sharing their work and building community under socially distanced conditions that have moved art activities outdoors?” While the volume of activity is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, the prolonged shutdown has seen many Southern California artists get creative about exhibiting their work in outdoor spaces. I spoke to a few who have organized shows and events this fall that are ongoing or can still be viewed online.
Alessandra Moctezuma is Director of the Mesa College Art Gallery and faculty in Museum Studies at San Diego Mesa College. This fall, she was challenged to come up with a viable final project for her students in the Museum Studies emphasis. Mesa College is a community college that seeks to create pathways to professional access for its students by offering a skills-building curriculum such as the hands-on first-semester practicum that Moctezuma teaches. She laments how, in spring 2020, “we had to shut our college gallery completely. We were just about to open an exhibition when the shutdown occurred, featuring four women artists,” including two based in Ensenada and Tijuana, Mexico. “It was ceramics and painting and sculpture. It was a really nice collaboration between artists in Mexico and artists here in San Diego. That was pretty sad that we had to just shut down completely.” Online programming on Instagram, virtual gallery tours, and a website were strategies that she used to keep attention on the exhibition remotely. “I explored some of that for my museum studies class," she explains. "I was thinking, I can't really do an exhibition in the gallery, and I'm not really so convinced about doing a virtual exhibit." Access for low-income students, who might not have broadband WiFi or computers with powerful processors, was also a concern. “[Virtual exhibits] are hard to navigate and, if you're on a laptop, it's really difficult. As a user, it is not so great.” The alternative of creating a website for the artworks, while more accessible, didn’t spark excitement. For Moctezuma, a curator and artist who got her start painting murals with Judy Baca at SPARC in Venice, and later went on to work for the MTA in Los Angeles as a project manager for public art projects, an outdoor site seemed an obvious solution.
Getting permission to turn the Mesa College parking lot into an art exhibition for a night was another matter. “I needed to go through a series of steps to get them to approve this because it involves people coming onto campus, traffic, police,” Moctezuma describes. “But the college, in the summer, did a drive-in graduation. And we've also been doing a monthly food distribution for our students who are food insecure, every month. And we also have WiFi access in the parking lots so students can park their car and utilize the college's WiFi for their classes if they need to.” She leveraged these precedents to persuade the administration to give permission for the exhibit. “They even gave me permission to have a few of the students come on campus, wearing masks, just outdoors, to help hang the exhibition.” Learning to install the artworks, write about them, and promote the exhibition are crucial elements of the hands-on curriculum. With 90% of the students based locally, the class was excited to work on a project that would allow them to collectively assemble on campus again, safely.
“Mesa College Drive-In: An Outdoor Art Exhibition" opened on November 13, 2020, with a drive-in reception that included a receiving line to greet attendees, as well as an audio tour explaining each artwork in detail. The works were printed on vinyl banners that the students affixed to a fence lining the parking lot’s perimeter. San Diego audiences can visit the exhibit in their cars until December 9. Says Moctezuma, “I wanted to orchestrate that event almost as a performance, a happening. What we did is we created a whole circuit for the cars to come through.” The event brought approximately 160 cars through on the exhibition’s opening day. For the students who were not physically present, including one in Texas and one in Berlin, “I actually narrated a Facebook live stream explaining what we were doing,” Moctezuma reports. “We also had a video of a panning shot of all their banners. So they could see it that way.” Though Mesa College primarily caters to San Diego students, its unique approach to curating in an undergraduate curriculum gives the program a broader reach.
Click right and left to see art from the Mesa College Drive-In exhibition: