Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guest Post: Weaving Community Collaborations into Permanent Installations at the Denver Art Museum

Earlier in 2013, I was amazed to visit one of the new “Studio” spaces at the Denver Art Museum. The DAM is one of several large art museums that is embracing making in a big way—first, through their event-based programming and open art studios tied to temporary exhibitions, and now, through a 1,200 square foot studio in which visitors can do art projects tied to the permanent collection. In this guest post, Stefania Van Dyke, Master Teacher for Textile Art and Special Projects, tells the story of how the co-creative development and visitor participation in the “Thread Studio” that accompanied their 2013 summer exhibition, Spun, changed her perspective on her own work.

The Denver Art Museum is no stranger to community collaborations, but we’ve been dipping in our toe a little more deeply when it comes to developing permanent participatory installations. This summer’s Museum-wide celebration of textiles, Spun, consists of fourteen exhibitions and “moments” (most temporary, some permanent). Part of our approach to community involvement in planning Spun had to do with necessity; we needed help to pull this off. More important to the Museum’s long-term goals, it was an opportunity to engage creative locals in conceptualizing, programming, and installing in a significant way. As an educator, I know that lessons learned and questions raised from this experience will substantively shift how I think about and act upon our relationship with our local creative community moving forward.

I came on staff in December as the Master Teacher for Textile Art and Special Projects with the immediate task of developing a permanent studioDAM’s term for an exploratory and interactive space—in conjunction with the reinstallation of our textile art collection (the main impetus for Spun). Once we had the basic components and goals for “Thread Studio,” my first instinct was to call upon friends on staff at other museums for feedback and insights. But my DAM colleagues encouraged me also to talk with community members who are intimately involved in the world of fiber and textiles. I soon discovered the enormity of that group: there are dozens of guilds in Colorado dedicated to quilting alone. Who are all of these people? What inspires them? Once we started the conversation, the outpouring of excitement was remarkable.

My colleague Djamila Ricciardi and I shared our concepts for the various components of the studio. Community artists gave their honest feedback, and we crafted a display based on these discussions and their contributions. More than 160 contributors, ranging from nationally known artists to hobbyist crafters, sent us samples, tools, and heirlooms that almost completely populated the 80 cubbies in our dense curio-cabinet-style display. Prompted by our simple questions (“Have you ever made a quilt out of particularly meaningful materials?”), they created pieces imbued with stories—like Amy Gibson, the mother of four who designed and made a quilt block out of parachute material her grandfather brought home from France after serving in World War II. Some community artists even helped install the space.

Visitors Going Rogue

We collaborated formally with community artists to design Thread Studio; once it opened, the participation expanded to museum visitors. Thread Studio contains two embroidery tables with designs printed on burlap and instructions for stitching, as well as a variety of looms on the wall on which visitors can weave with unconventional materials like jump ropes, vines, and bungee cords. Since the studio opened in May, visitors have left their marks there in the most awesome of ways. They’re tagging with yarn.

Now that we’re a few months in, we’re seeing visitors’ confidence and creativity grow. They’re not only contributing in unique ways to the pieces we’ve offered them formally, but they’re also going rogue. Someone expressed her (his? More men are participating than I anticipated) appreciation of the space by leaving a small hand-made lace heart on a chair. Another visitor yarn-bombed the tether on our remote control. Others are coming in to do spontaneous demos in the space. They’re gathering in groups:  in June, visitors stumbled upon members of the Rocky Mountain Lace Guild making both small talk and lace. And I recently got word of a spinning flash mob in the works, with dozens of spinners planning to pull out their wheels and spindles to show their stuff at the Museum.

Sustaining Collaborative Momentum

Now comes perhaps the biggest challenge: How can I, with help from my colleagues, sustain this organic enthusiasm and burst of creativity, as well as these relationships? Looking back at my team’s original goals for the Thread Studio, none of them mention it becoming an ongoing hub of community activity. I didn’t realize it when I started on this project last fall, but that idea has truly permeated everything we’ve done. Our primary goal was to inspire visitors’ own creativity—which we’re seeing in these traces they’re leaving behind and overhearing in visitors’ discussions in and around the space.

But what role does the initial community participation play for general visitors who may or may not care about textiles? Does it matter? Why is community involvement in a permanent installation important to us as museum professionals? What exactly about this space is inspiring visitors and how can we apply these lessons to other collection areas beyond textiles?

I’m spending the summer reflecting and trying to get a handle on these questions and their answers, trying to harness the momentum that we’re experiencing and to learn from it. DAM staff has been talking a lot lately about being seen as—or actually being—a contributing part of the local “creative ecosystem.” I recognize that we’ve started heading in that direction with Thread Studio and don’t want to lose it. As someone who has only ever worked on more traditional exhibitions of capital-A-art, this has been a challenging and unpredictable project. I did not enter this project thinking about the importance of co-creating a permanent space with our community, but now that I’ve seen it through this way, my work will never be the same.

Stefania will respond to your comments and questions here.
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