Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Temple Contemporary and the Puzzle of Sharing Powerful Processes

The first thing I noticed about Temple Contemporary were the chairs. Desk chairs and theater seats, sleek modsters and dilapidated stuffed things, a motley crew lined up on hooks around the room. They were charming, but puzzling. Looking closer, I saw that each seat had its own handwritten label, telling the story of the Philadelphia cultural institution from which it originated. The chairs were cast-off art, reclaimed as art, available for people to take off the hooks and use. They were there for artist talks. They were there for project brainstorming. They were there for chair races.

What kind of an art institution is this? That's what I found myself wondering again and again in the too-short hour I spent with the director of Temple Contemporary, Rob Blackson. Temple Contemporary makes strange objects and gorgeous documentation. It encourages process-driven performances and art projects. It is unfinished, unassuming, and whimsical, and at the same time, deadly serious. It takes the kind of risks that a university art gallery should take. It opens up new conversations about the work of art in our communities.

Temple Contemporary’s mission is to creatively re-imagine the social function of art through questions of local relevance and international significance. They live their mission, working in questions and projects rather than exhibitions and programs. Every other year, they convene TUPAC, a group of 35 outside advisors, including teens, college students, Temple University professors, artists, philanthropists, and community leaders. TUPAC advisors come together for one meeting, each bringing a question of local relevance and international significance--a question they don't know the answer to. The advisors share their questions, vote on the ones that they think have the most power, and set the direction of Temple Contemporary.

For example, right now, Temple Contemporary's offices are packed floor to ceiling with broken musical instruments from classrooms across the city of Philadelphia. One of TUPAC's current questions is about the state of art education. In Philadelphia, the budget for arts education has been slashed to pieces. The cuts were so deep that school music rooms are full of unplayable instruments. There's no money to fix them. And so, sparked by TUPAC's big question, Temple Contemporary decided to collect these silenced instruments - 1,500 in all - and commission a Symphony for a Broken Orchestra by a famous composer, David Lang. After the symphony premieres in 2017, Temple Contemporary will have all the instruments restored and will return them to their schools, new repair kits tucked inside the cases.

I left Temple Contemporary energized and inspired by their work. The work that Temple Contemporary is doing with their community is radical and impressive. Temple Contemporary is truly community-led. There is no formula. The community drives the question. The question drives the work. And the work takes the form or forms to which it is best suited. This makes Temple Contemporary excel at responsive, relevant projects. But it also makes their "front-end" experience incoherent. As a visitor, I'm not sure what I left with. My positive experience was 95% rooted in the tour that Rob Blackson gave me. Without him as my guide, all I had was fragments. A bunch of chairs hanging on the wall. Some students folding clothes. Empty pegboards. Half a car attached to the ceiling. Artsy journals. I saw slices of something interesting, but I had no idea how to piece them together.

I would never have learned about the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra if I hadn't been invited into the back office. I would never have known that TUPAC exists, who they are, or what they do. I wouldn't have drunk from the cup made from Pennsylvania oil field shale or read the book about the funeral they held for a row house. I would have walked in, puzzled at the white box's mysteries, and walked out.

This problem isn't unique to Temple Contemporary. It's a challenge in all process-driven work. Often the most powerful community work lives behind the scenes, in the brainstorming and prototyping and trying things out. The same is true of much artwork--the juice is often in the work's development, which dies a little bit when the work is "done." But that juice is fickle. It is powerful when you can experience it directly. It loses its flavor--or is completely imperceptible--when people don't understand what they are drinking.

How do we resolve this? The standard answer is to let the process stay behind the curtain and the product live onstage. Give people the exhibition but not the debates about content development. Give people the symphony but not the stacks of patient, injured cellos. This approach is straightforward. Leave the process to the collaborators and give the product to the audience. But there are two big problems with this approach:
  1. It's easy to get caught in the hamster wheel of delivering products to audiences. You start systematizing to deliver a program every week, an exhibition every quarter. You promise your audience quality and you hone your process to deliver it. You don't have time to convene the community. You don't have flexibility to imagine whether their questions are better answered with a symphony or a storybook. You don't have space to take the instruments. You can't open yourself fully to the possibilities. 
  2. It denies audiences the powerful opportunity to tap into the process. In most of these kinds of projects, the number of collaborators is finite. The collaborators themselves are often hand-selected or nominated. Visitors can't walk off the street with their own big question and join the scrum. While that's sensible, it's also limiting. How could Temple Contemporary (or any institution) invite each person who walks in the door into the biggest, meatiest work currently underway?
How can we invite people into the processes that drive our most powerful work?

I don't have the answers. I'm curious if you do--and what big questions this sparks for you.

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