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The Artist and the Museum: Another Way

Tue Nov 14th, 2006

Clíodhna Shaffery selected, at random, three artists from the Artists’ Panel: Patricia McKenna, Beth O’Halloran and Cliona Harmey and interviewed them about their experience. She also considered written feedback from many of the other artists on the Panel. In doing so she gives voice to the subjective experience of the respective artists.

Things and thoughts advance or grow out from the middle, and that’s where you have to get to work, that’s where everything unfolds.

The art museum is a site of cultural domination.  It reflects the privileged and established systems of power.  It defines legitimate culture and legitimate cultural discourse – the turning of bourgeois domestic-culture and specialized artistic culture into public culture.  Its autonomy, accused of being subordinated by the world of money, private sponsorship and patronage, privileges a certain aesthetic taste as well as promoting a market-driven agenda for the more experiential (entertainment/information) over the academic (deeper knowledge).  

The art museum heeds expectations for broader access, placed on it by current governmental objectives for a more socially inclusive programmes. The museum’s duty to collect, archive, classify, arrange, conserve and display expands its focal-range to accommodate ‘access and audience development’ – encouraging greater numbers to ‘voluntarily’ enter and be stimulated by actively inducing its public into the ‘habits’ of viewing art, within a, supposedly, neutral viewing environment. Broader access is achieved through systematic programmes of outreach and education.  Here artists are engaged in often limited and sometimes frustrating roles as ‘facilitators’, enabling the museum to become another kind of resource – a service provider for less privileged or more vulnerable audiences.  A rigid hierarchical system prevails that reinforces a separation between the art museum’s various functions (departments) and which limits potential for more creative overlaps.  

The zoning of museum spaces into:

  1. central spaces – galleries – for showing, presenting and framing artworks – products of  the star-artist, appropriated by the global art-circuit, whose works are supplemented by catalogues, captions, critical texts, talks and tours;
  2. workshop spaces or set-aside rooms, marginalised, less visible for peripheral inter-activity;
  3. ‘behind the scene’ operational spaces, where the ‘real’ work is carried out – curatorial research, administration offices, storerooms, conservation laboratories, etc.,

is a physical manifestation of this intent.  What gets lost within such a vertical and defining structure is the possibility for the artist – as creator, activist and thinker – to play a more central and critical role at the core of the museum’s work.

Patricia McKenna (artist and member of IMMA’s Artists’ Panel 2005 – 2006), suggests that within such ‘clearly laid boundaries, the role of the artist gets limited and there is a real need to look at how artists can negotiate within the mainstream museum.’  McKenna’s proposal is simply to position artists at the centre of the museum and to enable them to work outwards from here.  This would support a more authentic interaction, infiltration even, and ‘enable artists to feed into the Museum’s systems, shaping an outcome in interacting with the public who are all part of that exchange and dialogue.’  She suggests roles for the artist that move beyond the showcasing of artworks or limit active engagement within a community-focused agenda of “artist-as-carer” or “artist-as–nurturer”, where the betterment agenda – that civilising and emancipating process which sometimes reeks of patronising undertones which provide participants with that vocabulary (of learned art appreciation).  

Here the elusive concept of community is differentiated from the museum’s general (and more passive) audiences.  It focuses participatory programmes on an ‘authentic’ marginalised or ‘authentic’ poor, the museum’s outreach programme rarely casting its net to summon the great majority of a disinterested middle class, and so the ‘inauthentic’ suburbanite or office worker remains happily beyond its threshold.  What is proposed by McKenna is the opening up of all museum spaces, allowing artists to make a contribution from within.  To establish the basis for a creative working relationship between artists and museum staff and its departments – collections, curatorial, display, archival, research, and educational/outreach.  The outcomes, which could be many and varied, might present fresh ways of rethinking the contemporary art institution’s engagement with its audience and the contribution which a range of artistic practices can make in opening up other spaces for creative work, exchange, dialogue and connection.

Such a proposal does not intend to displace the museum’s fundamental modus operandi but releases potential for a more horizontal arrangement that might unhinge often frozen compartmentalizing of current systems.  Beth O’Halloran (artist and member of IMMA’s Artists’ Panel 2005 – 2006) suggests that Charles Esche’s re-configuration of the Rooseum in Sweden provides an interesting model for consideration, where Rooseum has been conceived as a more active space than merely a vessel for containing art.  Rooseum marks the shift from ‘the spectacle of the exhibition… to a mix of community centre, club, academy and showroom… and is considered less as a place of education and more a space for discourse.’ As such, it is attracting the more specifically engaged audience, losing out though to the general viewer.

According to O’Halloran, Esche’s approach is made possible by an enduring optimism of our times – the anything-is-possible; the influence of relational aesthetics – where the artwork is considered in terms of the interhuman relations it produces and represents, and where there is evidence of a radical splitting of artwork into tangible and intangible values.  Such a model mirrors the society we find ourselves in – where the fluid capitalist system marks a shift from manufacture (goods) to services provision. The emphasis on useful effect of commodity or labour, ensures that ideas, solutions, services are valued as much, if not more than things.  Esche’s Rooseum’s is located on the periphery – in rural Sweden. Its physical location positions it outside of the mainstream and frees it from existing rules and inherited codes of practice that perpetuate central and more established art institutions.  But it is within such peripheral testing grounds that other solutions emerge and Esche’s approach opens a dialogue that questions the kind of relationships artists have with the museum. His fluid institution presents another way of including artists’, placing a value not only on the work they make, but on their ‘use’- their intellect and imaginative capacities.

Clíona Harmey has been an active member of IMMA’s Artists’ Panel for almost ten years.  Her experiences have been largely positive, particularly in the earlier years, ‘when the Panel was smaller, when the artists met each other more often and had more regular contact with the general business of the museum the Panel was then better integrated into the Museum’s community.’  The artists, as embedded agents, were afforded a degree of physical contact and penetration into systems (and spaces).  The artist’s role initially included mediation, and there was (and continues to be) an overlap with invigilators (mediators) on gallery tours and other gallery-based activities.  Harmey’s artistic practice, although separate to the work she does in IMMA, has been indirectly influenced by it, and she has been involved in some genuinely rewarding experiences – such as an animation film she made with the students from Jobstown Centre, Tallaght.

Harmey, like O’Halloran and McKenna emphasis the benefits of being part of the Artists’ Panel – the experiences gained from being present in the museum; the discussions that might ensue about a particular artwork; the opportunities to go to talks, to ‘keep up to date’; the chance to earn a bit of money; the opportunities to be proactive – to suggest a project to the curatorial staff and, in spite of immediate constraints, the opportunity to be involved in some exceptional projects, such as the drawing series – Charcoal and Chocolate.  Nonetheless, the Artists’ Panel, established to provide specific services and to target specific audiences – both local and national – appears increasingly marginalised and separate to the rest of the Museum’s work.  Curtailed no doubt by legal and financial constraints, as well as by limited definitions of what an Artists’ Panel does, and the Museum’s prioritising of collections and the promotion of major exhibitions, this surely diminishes its potential scope and longer-term impact.  Put more plainly, O’Halloran wonders after she has finished a session with a group of visually-impaired students, if she will ever see them again, if they will ever pay a return visit.  

Clíona Harmey suggests that the new breed of ‘can-do’, (confident) artists, who pool their talents – instead of ‘suffering’ in isolation – might shake things up a bit.  If the proposal put forth by Patricia McKenna – to bring artists more into the mainstream of the museum – to grow things out from the middle – might be given some consideration, then perhaps we might witness the emergence of a more energetic, self-critical and speculative environment, where artists’ contributions are no longer confined to the show-casing of finished artwork or to how they can help others.  The possibility to rethink the Artists’ Panel in light of the bigger picture of the Museum’s work, might enable a richer experience for artists, staff, audiences and communities, which, in turn, can expand IMMA’s present brief into another kind of meeting place for artists and audiences, enabling it to grow from within, an active resource for creative ideas and other ways of thinking on art.

Based on conversations with artists Patricia McKenna, Beth O’Halloran and Clíona Harmey.

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Further Reading

Artists´ Panel

The Artist and the Institution

In his essay The Artist and the Institution, Mick Wilson, artist and writer, and currently Head of Research and Postgraduate Development in the National College of Art and Design, considers aspects of the ro...

by Mick Wilson / Tue Nov 14th, 2006
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Re-thinking the museum as a ‘way-station’

Christine Mackey, a practicing artist and a member of IMMA’s Artists’ Panel for the period 2005 – 2006 provides a unique ‘insider’ perspective on the role of the artist in a museum or gallery context. Drawin...

by Christine Mackey / Tue Nov 14th, 2006
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The Role of an Artist in a Museum or Gallery

The artist can have many roles in a museum or gallery. The focus of this series of articles for Artist's Panel 2005-6 is on those artists who are specifically concerned with the encounter between the art wor...

by Lisa Moran / Tue Nov 14th, 2006

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