What #isamuseum?, Sam Durant, Getty Artist Program, photo: Cathy Carpenter

What #isamuseum?, Sam Durant, Getty Artist Program, photo: Cathy Carpenter

Cathy Carpenter

Cathy Carpenter is an educator, arts administrator and producer. She has worked with museums, local arts agencies, and governmental entities throughout Los Angeles developing a spectrum of public programming including community outreach initiatives, artist mentor programs, public art programs and arts/economic development projects. Carpenter currently serves as Education Specialist, Artist-Based Programs for the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Sam Durant

*1961 in Seattle, Canada, lives and works in Los Angeles, CA, USA

Sam Durant is a multimedia artist whose works engage a variety of social, political, and cultural issues. Often referencing American history, his work explores the varying relationships between culture and politics, engaging subjects as diverse as the civil rights movement, southern rock music, and modernism. His work has been widely exhibited internationally and in the United States. He has had solo museum exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Dusseldorf, S.M.A.K., Ghent, Belgium and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Zealand. His work has been included in the Panamá, Sydney, Venice and Whitney Biennales. His work has been extensively written about including seven monographic catalogs and books. In 2006 he compiled and edited a comprehensive monograph of Black Panther artist Emory Douglas’ work. His recent curatorial credits include Eat the Market at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Black Panther: the Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the New Museum in New York. He has co-organized numerous group shows and artists benefits and is a co-founder of Transforma, a cultural rebuilding collective project that began in New Orleans. His work can be found in many public collections including The Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, Tate Modern in London, Project Row Houses in Houston and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Durant teaches art at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. The artist's website: www.samdurant.net

Sam Durant, What #isamuseum?, 2013 Getty Artists Project, photo: Sarah Waldorf, J. Paul Getty Museum

Sam Durant, What #isamuseum?, 2013 Getty Artists Project, photo: Sarah Waldorf, J. Paul Getty Museum

Sam Durant: »What #isamuseum?«

Five questions for Cathy Carpenter by Cynthia Krell

CYNTHIA KRELL: Could you describe briefly the process of the project?
CATHY CARPENTER: Each year the J. Paul Getty Museum undertakes a long-term collaboration with a contemporary artist as part of its »Getty Artists Program«. These artist-directed projects provide staff and visitors with unique learning experiences as well as introduce new strategies for engagement and inquiry. In 2013 artist Sam Durant was the program invitee and »What #isamuseum?« was the resulting project.

»What #isamuseum?« is a call-and-response project that invites public reflection on and response to expectations and preconceptions of what a museum is. Five deceptively simple questions initiate the engagement: Is a museum a school?, Is a museum political?, Is a museum truthful?, Is a museum fun?, and Is a museum for everyone? Museum visitors as well as an expanded global audience activate and re-shape the debate through the strategic use of various technologies and social media platforms resulting in a project that explores innovative models of collaboration and public engagement. This project connects to Durant's interest in developing works that create a discursive space, communicate with the audience, and that explore our common awareness of the ways in which the world we inhabit is constructed.

CK: What is your personal experience within the context of this project?
CC: Durant's interest in creating discursive spaces was not only evident in the final project but also in his working process. This is not surprising given the collaborative nature of his work with the »Transforma Projects« and others. Durant is very interested in the co-creative process—a process that stands in contrast to a more linear and hierarchical approach that can sometimes characterize work in larger institutions. Durant was also very interested in how educators work within the museum context, seeing the connectivity of art and pedagogy in his own practice. As the project manager, I found the co-creative nature of Durant's process and his commitment to education a particularly rewarding aspect of the project.

CK: What are your favourite »What #isamuseum?« answers?
CC: It is very difficult to choose because there were so many different types of responses. Here are a few that come to mind:

CK: Which discussions does the project encourage inside/outside the museum?
CC: The impetus for the project emerged from Durant’s curiosity about how and why we use our social institutions. You can see this line of inquiry threaded through his work. For »What #isamuseum?«, the institution of focus was well the museum. He wanted to stimulate thinking about the nature and functions of museums and to make the act of going to a museum a more conscious one.

During the planning phase, Durant brought in several quotes as a springboard for framing the project, including:

»The sophistication required to promote a particular interpretation of the world is potentially also available to question that interpretation and to offer other versions…. It was never easy for museums to preserve or regain a degree of maneuverability and intellectual integrity. It takes stealth, intelligence, determination—and some luck. But a democratic society demands nothing less than that.«
Hans Haacke, Museums, Managers of Consciousness

»Museums are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum.«
Robert Smithson, Some Void Thoughts on Museums

»...there’s a tendency to try to liven things up in the museums, and the whole idea of the museum seems to be tending toward a kind of specialized entertainment. It’s taking more and more of the aspects of a discotheque and less and less the aspects of art. So, I think the best thing you can say about museums is that they really are nullifying in terms of action, and I think that is one of their one of their major virtues.«
Robert Smithson in What is a Museum? A Dialogue Between Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson

»‘Life’ in the museum is like making love in the cemetery.«
Allan Kaprow in What is a Museum? A Dialogue Between Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson

»The Museum is a School, the Artist Learns to Communicate, the Public Learns to Make Connections«
Luis Camnitzer

As Durant asserts, »The questions have come out of my ongoing and longstanding research into the social function of museums and cultural institutions. In reading a range of material, from artists to sociologists, multiple understandings and definitions of museums have emerged. The questions in my project for the Getty are in direct reference to these differing and conflicting ideas.«

As an inquiry-based project, »What #isamuseum?« also generated internal discussions around the roles and responsibilities involved in asking public questions. What obligations and opportunities do we have to support, express, and engage not only the responses generated but also the very act of responding? Much of the web design and social media efforts grew out of those early discussions. For Durant, a self-described »late-adopter« of social media, the project proved to be an incubator for exploring various means of public engagement.

Publically, anyone who visited the Getty or could access a twitter account or an internet connection could join in the rather motley, organic conversation about museums. »Is a museum for everyone?« and »Is a museum a school?« were among the most popular questions from the project, generating a great deal of discussion around issues of accessibility and learning. 

The project inspired further dialogue through user-generated blogs, tweets, etc. as well as the Getty's first Google+ Art Talk which explores the functions of museums and artists' roles in museums.

See here:

CK: Why does the Getty Museum invite artists to realize projects in the educational context of a museum?
CP: As educators we have the opportunity to develop numerous programs within the museum context, but there is a danger of becoming singular in voice, perspective, and approach. These collaborations provide an opportunity for the artist and museum to try something new—to undertake projects that neither may have attempted in isolation—often resulting in new strategies for engagement and inquiry for the artist, institution, and visitor alike.