Shipping estimates can be soul crushing. I say this as an art curator.

For organizers of contemporary art shows at or for non-profits, the inevitable reality often is that this or that percentage of your total budget, or of that or this grant you received, must and will be spent on fine art couriers, insurance policies, and art packaging or handling costs in order to make your exhibition vision a reality. I venture to guess that nary a curator got into the business of organizing art shows to spend money that way, surely preferring instead to compensate an artist directly for their labor, to fund research, or to support the creation of new works by subsidizing studio fees and special fabrication needs.

With money, of course, comes power and responsibility. So, who wants to give what little of that we actually do get up and over to a fine art handler? Let alone FedEx or Uhaul for us scrappier types.

Coupled with the often prohibitive costs of organizing and mounting an exhibition are the changing priorities of many arts funders nationwide towards rewarding educational and community-engaged artist initiatives, youth arts enrichment, public art projects, or so-called “creative place-making” endeavors. These are important shifts in the funding landscape that emphasize the role artists can and do play in culture at large as agents of social change and inventors of new ways to organize.

Yet, curators, artists, and audiences alike still seem to yearn for exhibitions. They remain our primary medium of acknowledgement, contemplation, and celebration. As a result, the conventional wisdom of art exhibitions must and has changed. I believe, for the better.

All of this accumulated into a bold, time-based, experimental, and tone-setting institutional endeavor that resisted the static of the traditional survey exhibition by doing exactly what progressive curators and arts organizations should always be doing: following the artist’s lead.

Two recent exhibitions from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation’s grantee archive epitomize shifts in forward-thinking curatorial logic away from the past of passive object display and towards the future of interactive, or activating, experiences; Stephanie Smith’s 2012 exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art at the University of Chicago’s The Smart Museum of Art (a 2008 Tremaine grantee), and 2017’s Museum of Capitalism, a pop-up exhibition by artist group FICTILIS on the second floor of an abandoned building in the Jack London Improvement District of Oakland (a 2016 Tremaine grantee).

Historical in scope, Feast coupled artworks and ephemeral materials sourced from the 1930s to 2010s by a range of international artists and collectives who all explored the medium of the “artist-orchestrated meal” with an ambitious and inventive roster of participatory programs that extended artist experiments in culinary conceptualism to present-day publics, both locally and nationally.

An exhibition about other people eating could potentially be very boring, especially given the tendency of many museums to attempt an approximation of time-based art projects through basic documentation or displays of detritus. Yet, it is clear that Smith and The Smart Museum had the foresight to transform an audience’s experience and appreciation of such work from a “I wish I could have been there” sigh to a “I am here now doing this” rallying cry.

Motiroti, Potluck Chicago, Installation view of participatory artwork including map and photographic documentation, 2012, Commissioned by Columbia College, Chicago; Courtesy of the artists; Photo by Michael Tropea

While no institution is the same, it is often the case that public programming falls on the secondary shoulders of a museum’s education department and is not necessarily a demand placed on primary curators. However, as artistic mediums expand and change in unpredictable, interdisciplinary, and time-based ways (as evidenced by Feast), so too must the functions of institutional departments and individual personnel charged with the responsibility of chronicling such evolutions of form accurately.

Including daily on-site activations and projects in The Smart Museum’s lobby and café by sculptor Mella Jaarsma, interdisciplinary performance artist Ana Prvački, and Fluxus pioneer Alison Knowles, as well as public art and performance/salon/dinner projects by such heavy hitters as Michael Rakowitz, Theaster Gates, Tom Marioni, and Suzanne Lacy (to name but a few); it is clear that the organizing of Feast required enhanced and expanded curatorial functioning, beyond the actual exhibition-making, in order to do justice to its very subject-matter. All of this accumulated into a bold, time-based, experimental, and tone-setting institutional endeavor that resisted the static of the traditional survey exhibition by doing exactly what progressive curators and arts organizations should always be doing: following the artist’s lead.

Installation view, Theaster Gates, Soul Food Pavilion, Series of intimate dinners held at Dorchester Projects, 2012, Commissioned by the Smart Museum of Art; Courtesy the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago; Photo by Sara Pooley.

An artist-led project, the Museum of Capitalism was a “semi-fictional institution” by FICTILIS (Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau) that transformed both the language and conventions of traditional museological display into tools of anti-capitalist critique. Speculative, or perhaps aspirational, the Museum of Capitalism treated “the history, philosophy and legacy of capitalism” as a potential object of analysis, thereby transporting everyone who entered its doors into a fictitious post-capitalist future. It’s a brilliant and simple conceptual gesture that makes strategic use of the commonly held belief, perhaps a belief that all museums are founded upon, that by looking back we can better move forward.

Like Feast, the Museum of Capitalism included a range of international artists (as well as activists and everyday people) whose works range from more traditional forms of visual art (sculpture, installation, photography), to parodies of museum formats (dioramas, artifacts, didactics), and interactive or participatory artworks and programs that seemed to insist that resistance to the evils of capitalism is a daily practice as much as it is an exhibition goer’s thought-exercise. Indeed, many of the events held over the course of the exhibition’s two-month run took the form of workshops (a teach-in by the Sustainable Economies Law Center, a scavenger hunt by the developers of a web-app about global supply-chain infrastructure called Ubiquitous City) that could potentially transform audiences into activists.

“Come Run in Me,” Christy Chow. 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist.

One stand-out artwork by Christy Chow, Come Run in Me (2017), required that viewers run upon a treadmill as fast as a sweatshop laborer must work in order to activate an accompanying video. Failure is built-into the experience, and seems to be the guiding, aspirational and appropriate, if highly unusual, organizing philosophy for the Museum of Capitalism.

Object-filled but not object-oriented, both Feast and the Museum of Capitalism demonstrate the power of innovative, high-concept curatorial models to transform both institutions and audiences. It is increasingly obvious that audiences refuse to remain passive or silent, as perhaps best demonstrated by the rise of social media and its influence of institutional decision making. It will be to experimental and successful exhibitions like these that future curators can turn to when attempting to make change at institutions of their own.

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