Monday, July 26, 2010

Six Alternative (U.S.) Cultural Venues to Keep an Eye On

I've been spending time recently interviewing people who run unusual cultural and learning venues. Skill-sharing free schools. Community science workshops. Art spaces masquerading as laundromats and letterpresses. I'm fascinated by these places because of their ability to attract diverse audiences to idiosyncratic experiences, and I'm curious how they stay afloat.

From a museum perspective, I think there's a lot to learn from these venues' business models, approach to collecting and exhibiting work, and connection with their audiences. In the past, I've highlighted a few--like 826 Valencia and the Denver Community Museum--that I think have already influenced the way many traditional cultural organization do business. I haven't found a centralized resource that is presenting information about these institutions, so I'm going to start writing more about them.

In the next month, this blog will feature guest posts from a few of the people behind these innovative, quirky institutions, but in the meantime, here's a short list of six of my favorites to explore. This list is by no means exhaustive: please add your favorites (especially non-American ones) in the comments.
  1. Machine Project (Los Angeles, CA). One of my favorite places for a long time now. Machine Project is a non-profit storefront arts venue that hosts a dizzying array of eclectic classes, workshops, events, and occasional exhibits. It was started in 2003 and is run by Mark Allen and a collective of artists, many of whom have also been applying their talents by performing "interventions" at formal art institutions including LACMA, the Hammer Museum, and the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. What makes Machine special is its brand of humor and accessibility, combined with a real dedication to experimenting on the borders of art, science, and ideas. In other words, they're not pretentious. At AAM, Mark and his compatriot Emily Lacy enthralled a packed room with a five minute song about Machine's hijinks. You feel like you could be a part of something awesome there (check out their FAQ for copious examples of this).
  2. Waffle Shop (Pittsburgh, PA). Want some waffles with your art? The Waffle Shop is a cafe and live streaming TV channel that serves a diverse audience of late night club-goers and locals in an urban neighborhood. It's run by Jon Rubin, an artist and professor of social practice at Carnegie Mellon, and his students. It's a fascinating experiment in connecting with "nontraditional" arts audiences and encouraging strangers to dialogue about diverse topics in a performative environment. Both staff and visitors host TV programs in the space that range from interviews to game shows to salon chair ministries. The Waffle Shop team also run other projects out of the space, including the Conflict Kitchen--a take-out place that serves food from countries that the U.S. is in conflict with (currently, Iran).
  3. Chicago Underground Library (Chicago, IL). If you're looking for inspiration with a collections focus, the Underground Library is a compelling experimental space dedicated to archiving all media produced in Chicago. They have an open collections policy, and they see media artifacts as objects that connect people--to art, to history, to politics, and to each other. The library is run in the lobby of a theater company by a group of volunteers led by Nell Taylor. Nell and the Underground Librarians are passionate about helping people see the relationships between media artifacts and lived experience in the city, and they spend a lot of their time soliciting artworks and publications from unlikely corners to flesh out their collection and honor the diversity of content production around Chicago. Whether a teen zine about punk music or a university journal, the Underground Library will collect it, catalog it, and share it in ways designed to help people learn more about their city and each other.
  4. Elsewhere Collaborative (Greensboro, NC). Elsewhere is another collection-based project, but in this case, the collection is the basis for artwork rather than the other way around. In 2003, writer George Scheer inherited his grandmother's thrift store and decided to turn it into an artists' center and museum. Elsewhere engages artists in residence who reinterpret elements of the thrift store into new works, which are then shared with the public. Their projects are an inspiration for anyone interested in looking at new ways to reinterpret a collection (especially a weird and overflowing one) and in doing so, bring together a community of artists and locals.
  5. PieLab (Greensboro, AL). A newer kid on the block, PieLab is a community center and pie shop in rural Alabama, started by a group of designers who believe that design can improve the world one small community at a time. PieLab resembles other community development projects: it employs struggling teens, provides local entrepreneurs and organizations with space and support, and brings together diverse folks. But it is also a symbol of a movement for third places that combine commerce, design and community. There are sites like this popping up all over the country, and some of the same young, creative, civically-minded people who might typically work in museums or libraries are the ones in charge. The amount of press and support PieLab has received from the design, business, and non-profit industries is worth noting for any cultural institution interested in truly putting forward a "community first" proposition (or for any individual ready to start her own mission-driven cafe).
  6. Streb Labs (Brooklyn, NY). If you are looking for experiments in taking a formal, traditional art venue and reconceiving it as a community space that attracts a diverse audience, look no further than Streb Labs. In 2003 Elizabeth Streb, a very successful choreographer, moved into a huge warehouse space in Brooklyn on a busy street and threw the doors open to locals, 24/7. As Streb explains, "SLAM is an open-access venue that models a new kind of artist-driven community institution. The doors of SLAM are never closed. Performances at SLAM are not stiff, class-coded, regimented affairs; they are neighborhood happenings where the company's longtime fans from the high-art crowd mingle with the at-risk kids from the local public schools and their parents. At the heart of this machine is the driving force of art and action, and the belief that art can provide a service to a community such that voters, taxpayers, and consumers will consider it indispensable." Check out their site and if you're inspired, listen to this fabulous 20 minute interview with Elizabeth on The Artful Manager blog.

What non-traditional arts venues inspire you?
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