Fighting Words: A Public Debate on the Relationship Between Social Practice and Art Institutions
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Fighting Words: A Public Debate on the Relationship Between Social Practice and Art Institutions

Janaki Ranpura's project for the ongoing exhibit at the Katherine E. Nash Museum, thinking making living, on view through December 13.
Janaki Ranpura’s project at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery for thinking making living, on view through December 13.

It seems like everywhere you look today, artists are working collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in public and community settings and well outside the traditional context of the art museum. The desire by artists to directly engage the world, their diversity of approaches, and the collective and collaborative ways their work is made has spurred heated debates about the role of art in the world today.   Tangled in histories of activism, community organizing, and avant-garde aspirations to merge art and life, socially-engaged art practices challenge the very institutions that have traditionally educated, presented, and supported contemporary artists, namely the art school and the museum.

“Art Inside Out: Socially Engaged Art and Institutions” will be the focus of conversation between Roger Cummings, Natasha Pestich, Christina Schmid, Colleen Sheehy, and Sarah Schultz, as part of the exhibition, thinking making living, at the Nash Gallery. (Wednesday, December 10 at 6 pm).  Knowing such conversations are happening among friends and peers elsewhere, we invited Portland-based artist Ariana Jacob, to share some of the proceedings from this past summer’s rousing Assembly: A Social Practice Get-together that took place at the Portland Art Museum.

The following debate project was organized for the Assembly by Ariana Jacob, who invited the six members of the debate teams, as well as the gathered audience, to respond to the question: Does social practice belong in art museums?


This question was chosen not because there is a pressing need to resolve that matter one way or another, but as a prompt that could push to the surface the power dynamics of the overlapping and oppositional interests at play in this still forming field of art practice.

On the team advocating that social practice belongs IN museums: Phaedra Livingstone, professor of Museum Studies at the University of Oregon, Sheetal Prajapati from the Education Department at MoMA, and Harrell Fletcher, Director of the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University – the program that organized the Assembly event. On the team arguing for social practice to resist incorporation and remain OUTside of museums: Amy Harwood, co-founder of the outdoor artist residency Signal Fire, Deborah Fisher, executive director of A Blade of Grass, an organization focused on supporting socially engaged art, and Paul Ramirez Jonas, an artist who has worked within the field of social practice both inside and outside of museums.

The debate teams were invited to set the stage by having each member make a position statement, and the audience was invited to respond to these stances with their own comments and questions. These were followed by a period of dialogue, first between the debate team members and then opening up to a free flow between audience and panelists.

The IN-museum side pointed out that there has been a long history of parallel development towards public engagement practices within museum education departments that naturally correspond with social practice art. They acknowledged that there are real reasons why museums are perceived as elitist spaces but argued that this could be changed faster by artists and museum practitioners working together from inside the institution to make more inclusive institutional practices and to more fully live up to their ideals as a public space and a public good. The INside also pointed out that within the existing art economy museums are more compatible financial backers of social practice art than the existing commercial gallery world, where sale-ability is paramount.

The OUTside brought up strong concerns about the price of compromising the work by fitting it into museum sanctioned forms where it no longer has the wildness that gives it power. They astutely pointed out that museums are physically and financially structured around the collection and display of objects, and that unless that changes, social practice will always be at a disadvantage negotiating for recognition within those institutional structures. They also strategically made a call to refuse working with museums unless museums do more to present this work in the context of art discourse, as opposed to education and outreach, on the grounds that museums have more to gain from social practice work’s ability to generate their own audiences than these artists have to gain from getting access to the preestablished art audiences that come with a museum.

The atmosphere was intentionally rowdy. Time was kept by the electric guitar virtuoso, LKN, who drowned out speakers with screamingly beautiful heavy metal riffs regardless of whether they were well credentialed or unknown. For the first half of the debate people were not allowed to respond directly to each other and instead could only voice their own questions and statements, which accelerated the flow of ideas but heated up the room with frustration. Speakers, both on the stage and on the floor, were rewarded with shots of mezcal for sharing their thoughts. The rules of the debate were changed on the fly midway through to make more time for discussion between the audience and the debaters. For the most part each person was only called upon to speak once, allowing as many different voices to be heard as possible and making sure no-one dominated the floor. By the end, much of the audience had joined the debate, and yet the room was still filled with an urgency to articulate all the perspectives that had not been expressed.  As with a more traditional Oxford-style debates, the audience was asked to vote before and after the discussion to indicate how persuasive each side had been in making their case. While there was a slight movement from OUT towards IN throughout the course of the night, the final vote was a tie – a fitting end to the proceedings, resisting the charged desire to resolve the conflict, and instead re-emphasizing the importance of laying bare the different stakes at work in the field.

What follows are some key excerpts edited down from the live debate[1]:

Introduction by Ariana Jacob:

Think of this debate as a public conversation. Conversation as a form of practice is central to my interests as an artist. To many people, conversation implies an arena that is limited to politeness and agreement, when in fact, conflict is a crucial element of dialogue. Conflict points out what matters to us, where we draw our lines to take a stand. And conflict undeniably has energy. Disagreement illuminates the places where we can potentially think new thoughts. When we notice we are disagreeing with someone it reveals the edges of our own thinking, and even if we are not going to end up agreeing, there is a chance that we can get a different perspective on the echo chamber of our own established lines of reasoning. I wanted to bring a form of conflict into this forum on socially engaged art and see what would come forth from exposing and discussing some of our underlying fault lines. The relationship between socially engaged art and institutions is a complicated one. On the one hand social practice is born out of the impulse to take art out of sanctioned spaces and bring it into everyday life places and interpersonal forms. So it might be a form of backtracking to be finding ourselves back at the threshold of the museum. But on the other hand socially engaged artists have a lot to gain from being taken seriously in the discourse of art and museums have a lot to gain from the way that social practice shifts the relationship with audience towards participation and personal involvement.

The debate starts with the question: Does social practice belong in art museums? But then it moves out from there, as different stakes are brought forward in the conversation.

Opening Statements:

Phaedra Livingstone advocating for social practice to be IN museums:

I am here to assert that the art museum and social practice are perfectly compatible. Your very presence here in this space embodies my first assertion arguing for museums. I’d like to take a poll now. Who here feels that museums are elitist? (Most people raised their hands.) Now, who here feels that museums are a public good? (Again most people raise their hand and one audience member calls out, “they should be.”) Museums are complex institutions with many layers and I think it is fair to answer in the positive to both those questions.

There has long been an over-emphasis on the role of collections in the public understanding of museums. But as visitors, we actually experience the museum through programming, not through collections. We might experience collections in that programming, but it is programming we are experiencing. As we experience it, the art museum is a public space for programming with the goal of serving and developing civil society, and therefore is a prime venue for social practice. If you believe that museums are elitist or exclusive and you, as an artist, wish to change that, then the art museum is precisely where you need to do that work. The alternative is to create a new institution for showcasing art which will likewise face sociopolitical realities that will require management, and hence the dance of principled compromise. As a realist I want to improve the real world rather than invest in an imagined utopia that may actually be worse than what we’ve already got.

Amy Harwood arguing for social practice to stay OUT of museums:

My primary role in the arts community is as a totally devoted audience member. I’m not a committed maker or even a critic, but art is about the only thing these days that brings me back from spending time out in the wild. I have spent the most recent half of my life committed to environmental activism. I am unapologetic about this while maintaining some reservations about the history of my predecessors. One of the many debates in the environmental movement is about the utility of wilderness. As some of you may know this summer is the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act. This remains the strongest piece of legislation ever written in this soon forsaken nation. I recommend that you all read it someday. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of legislation, total poetry. It applies from the core of the earth to the atmosphere, which is so beautiful to think about. As I thought about this question of how socially engaged art interacts with museums and institutions I saw a corollary to wilderness: How do we ensure accessibility without debasement? What is compromised by this strategy? Does the construct of an institution undermine wildness? Ultimately, who is in charge? I think these questions, and questions of whether our institutions are just menageries of the rich and temples to cultural production are absolutely critical as my generation inherits the power of our predecessors. The art world is currently reflecting a community complicit with capitalist empire. I implore all artists who have the courage to be true interveners: to align themselves against that shit wherever it arises. Ultimately I can’t evaluate anything without resorting to my years of love affair with wild places, and just as I question the utility of wilderness areas to stave off the destruction of the natural world through a few hard to reach places, I would question the role of museums to represent the wild and free artistic expression of socially engaged art.

Sheetal Prajapati for IN:

When we think of art, we tend to think of art objects, but this is a mistake. The real art is the experience of making or encountering an object or an idea. When the work is separated from these experiences it is separated from life. These are the ideas from John Dewey’s Art & Experience and these ideas continue to serve as the core tenants of museum education practiced today, as they have been for decades. As I was thinking about the question of this debate, these thoughts from Dewey brought me to question the question itself. I think what we are actually debating is where does socially engaged art belong in art museums? Traditionally art has always belonged in collections and exhibitions, and essentially to curators, who steward, research, collect and display artworks. I want to argue that social practice art belongs in education departments. Museum education departments have been engaging in social practice for decades.  They have historically served as the most democratic and welcoming face of museums. Like artists who are drawn to social practice as their medium, in part because it is more free from the art market and other structural rigidities that exist in the “art world,” so educators have found museums to be the educative spaces that are largely free of the standards and practices of traditional educational institutions. There continues to be a range of valid and serious criticism of museums as elitist or closed spaces for larger publics, but most of the time these conversations ignore or omit the work of education departments. Our work is often invisible and commodified for the sake of funding exhibitions and other curatorial based practices. I would propose that like museum educators, social practice artists are thinking less about status and power, and more about openness, outreach, inclusion, facilitating action, inspiring creativity, and taking part in long term societal practice that develops culturally and socially active citizens.  One might even consider that social practice within the sphere of the art world may actually have been inspired by educative practice, but I suppose that is another debate.

Deborah Fisher for OUT:

I want to cut to the chase and talk about power and resources in a really direct way. How is value accrued around art? How is value accrued around social practice? What drives value in museums? I am an arts organization, and specifically I am A Blade of Grass, which is organized entirely around driving resources to social practice. So these are really, really important questions to me. And while is difficult to be on the side of the debate against museums as an arts organization, I think that museums are organized around objects in a way that is too important to ignore. It is ok for any of us to declare that art is about experience, or art is about creativity, but doing that disavows how museums actually run, and get their money, and become economically sustainable. They run because they work with collectors and their collections. They take care of those objects and everything is organized around those objects. Socially engaged art is interesting, and potentially revolutionary, because it is organized around a different value proposition. We value stuff in this society. Maybe social practice is a way to shift value in society towards relationships, experiences, and the sensation of interdependency. But how will we really be able to do that revolutionary work of valuing those experiences instead of the objects which can be sold so readily? I don’t think that museums are structured to be able to do this new work on an economic level. Theaster Gates does a really good job working around this structural problem: he sells a lot of art objects to fund other work that isn’t object based. But I think when you put these projects back into the museum, since the museum’s value is being driven so much around objects, the work winds up being documentation instead of the art, or the work itself gets distorted.

Harrell Fletcher for IN:

As an artist who has worked with lots of different institutions – and also outside of them – I came from a time period when there wasn’t a term social practice and there wasn’t a whole lot of understanding for this kind of work either.  So for me it has been really incredible to see the last ten years of development and how much things have changed.  When I see things like at the Hammer, where Allison Agsten is a public engagement curator that is a really interesting to me. I agree that yes, museums are not set up for social practice style work, or performance, or dance, or music, or any other of those kinds of things to take place in them normally, but they are incredible spaces, public spaces.  And it is great to realize that there is this sort of public real estate that for the most part isn’t being activated, it is just housing static objects – which is an important role, but I think it can do other things as well. It is an amazing thing to have institutions welcome in, as the Portland Art Museum has done with Shine A Light for the last five years, another way of using the space, and engaging with the public, making the museum relevant to people who it might not ordinarily be relevant to. My sense is that yes, social practice, however you decide to define it, does have a place in the museum – and it has a place in the grocery store, and in the park and the farmers market, the internet and in publications, and that this is a way of valuing that kind of work, and the more ways that exist the less necessary it is to feel like you have to follow  commercial route, which was what seemed like the only route when I was in graduate school, the only one that professors talked to me about for sure. Now sometimes I work with education departments, sometimes I work with curatorial, and sometimes I work completely outside of the institution. As an artist that is what I want.  I am a strong advocate for inclusion in all areas. Though it is difficult, and I have definitely experienced all sorts of challenges and adversity trying to work with institutions, including this one, but I think it is a worthwhile endeavor and one that will benefit both artists who work in this capacity and the institutions that do a variety of things, including now promoting social practice as well.

Paul Ramirez Jonas for OUT:

I come from a position where I am object maker who partakes of the sins of exhibitions, and I also make some things that now are labelled socially engaged art, so I’ve seen both sides and I am still trying to figure it out, but today I will say that I am vehemently opposed to presenting socially engaged art in art museums, specifically.  I think what I value in socially engaged art is its ability to convene audiences and make publics, it is about public making, as we are now assembled here, not in an exhibition. Each venue has a pre-made public, a ready-made public – in the theater, in the museum, in the movies. But we are in the business of trying to convene a public outside of these already prescribed formats. However museums do want to show socially engaged art – in science museums, in history museums in other museums, non-art museums. We are being asked to be part of a transaction: museums are offering us something and we artists are offering something in return. We are offering engagement, we are offering some ability to convene certain kinds of publics, and museums give us contexts. When I show in an art museum I want the benefit of the art museum, and that benefit is to put me in the context of art history. It is not a gallery, it is a museum, its job is to historicize and put my work in context. But museums of art don’t really know what to do with us. They know what to do with relics, performances, relics of performances, it is always shown in exhibition mode. They are not willing to reinvent the exhibition to accommodate this kind of work so there is no benefit to us if the work has to be violently transformed to fit that mode. When you see an exhibition of Fluxus it is not Fluxus, it is an exhibition of remnants of Fluxus. So what I would ask is, what do we have to gain if they can not put us in the context of art discourse and filter our access to the museum through the education department? For that reason I think we should refuse, until they can figure out how to give us a different mode of presentation that can accommodate this form of art.

Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

Excerpts from audience statements and the discussion that followed:

Mack McFarland: I’m really curious about the inside argument that museums should deal with social practice is through the education department. I’ve heard many artists and many museums workers describe the education department as the ghetto of the museum, based on budgetary hierarchies between the various departments and the amount of respect that education departments get. And while that evokes the issue of where most revolutions start… none the less, if we aren’t going to put this work into the place of curatorial, where the big dollars are, then I am a little hesitant to give my vote to the IN side.

Sarah Wolf-Newlands: I just want to say that the fight to be more inclusive is going on within the institutions, I’ve seen that at the Walker and I see it here at the Portland Art Museum. I think it happens on a daily basis within museum education departments.

Audience[2]: How Deborah framed the idea that museums are built around objects was really useful. To me this creates an entry point to the whole reason that this matters, because I believe in art that is the experience, is the intersection of power, is the thing happening and not a representation. The danger and the violence that institutionalizing or locating this work in more formal structures is that they insist upon creating representations.

Cameron Cartiere: My question is for Paul: So, if we resist and refuse to work with museums, how can we actually help with the change if we are not in there, in the conversation? While we could, eventually, hopefully, leave it to the museums to figure out, it will happen a hell of a lot faster if we are in there, doing it with them.

Sheetal: I think with every major avant garde and contemporary art movement in history, museums are always last to the party. We are the last ones to figure out how it fits into our collections and into our archives. I know this doesn’t sound fantastic, but I think this is the reality that we live in, which is that that museums are going to figure it out eventually, just like we did for everything else. I refuse to think that because it is ephemeral it can’t be collected. To me that is false, it can be collected: performance art is, video art is, digital art is – we are going to figure it out. This is the nature of the institution. I am not saying it is perfect, but it is inevitable.

Audience:  At what price are we going to figure out how to put all these kinds of art we are talking about tonight in a box?  I think that the real value – especially at this point of time in human history – of social practice art is its ability to interrupt.

Grace Hwang: I think I am in this unique position here, because I did work at the MoMA in the Education Department for about 7 years, and I did, I do, really identify with that work. I really saw the museum as this learning laboratory, a place of freedom outside the classroom.  I felt classrooms were not the places where I wanted to pursue teaching. But I also felt that I had limited agency as a contractual employee of the museum. I had a certain degree of freedom in what I could do, but it was really limiting. So, when I saw an e-flux ad go out for Shine A Light (a night of socially engaged art projects by students from the Portland State University Social Practice MFA program taking place within the Portland Art Museum), I felt both like this is what I already do as a museum educator, but then also like there was a curtain lifting and that maybe on the other side, as an artist, I would have more agency in creating these freeing spaces, which is the path I have now chosen.

Sheetal: I will say this: I am still figuring out how to share power. I work at an institution that holds a lot of power, yes. And my job is to try and figure out how to rework that structure, and find a space where artists are collaborating with us and not doing work in service of us.

Justice: One of the big things that museums do is establish authority and one of the things that social practice does is diffuse authority. So how can you possibly reconcile those two forces?

Tori Abernathy: I guess the issue that arises is to what extent the museum actually is a public place that is available to a lot of people. Like many people have brought up, obviously there are barriers to access that extend far beyond the price of the ticket. The value of the arts, especially the kind that many of us here practice, is its ability to intervene in people’s everyday spaces.

Paul: The museum should be a site of public engagement for artists in the context of art. I can go to the Met and have a martini while listening to a string quartet. The string quartet is engaging in public engagement – but not in the context of art. And we are artists, we do not want to be the string quartet while people drink martinis. We do not want to be part of the education department. We want the museum to show us in the context of art. The museum has to cooperate and do their part of the bargain. Getting in the collection is not so relevant, but the context of the discourse – we want discourse. We actually know how to present art outside of the discourse of art. But the museum only has one thing to offer us: it is that discourse, and if they do not give it to us…then we are out!

Amy: I would say, too, that with social practice art, one of its tenets is unpredictability, and that is something that makes me show up. I actually think that social practice involves some of the worst organizing that I have ever seen — as somebody who is a professional organizer, it is terrifying to see how bad people can be at organizing, because there are training programs and skills available for those things. But I show up anyway, because it is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith in unpredictable behavior. So, what I hear you all saying is: how do we control that in a way that doesn’t limit its wildness? And my point in making this metaphor is, like – no, don’t.  Just don’t control it. That lack of control is the whole point. That’s the thing that is the most exciting and gets people to actually show up.

Harrell: If we are going to function as artists, and the value system is through the art museum, but they only collect something once it is done, or once that artist is dead – it does not help people very much in their career and in their life now, like with paying the rent. We have to find systems in which social practice artists can be supported, so that this work can flourish and develop, which means there have to be these institutional support systems and probably skipping over the commercial realm that is normally the gatekeeper for art work.

Paul: My intention in advocating for refusal is rhetorical, but also more precise: I would hate for social practice work to have to be deformed by adapting itself to museum practices that are not adapting to them. Education departments are willing to adapt themselves, but curatorial departments are not, so the goal shouldn’t be to get into the museum at whatever price.

Audience: The museum has always been a site of historicity. and not necessarily of contemporary practice or art making. I am wondering if the museum could be a site for social practice, but not necessarily for collecting it, at least at this time. I don’t think that that is necessarily problematic. I think about artists like Sol Lewitt, who people often cite as being a grandfather of social practice: what happened with him was that new kinds of space were created so that his work could be properly exhibited. That has happened in so many instances that I am not sure if it is a question of whether this work belongs in art museums, but what role museums can play in raising our art forms to a level of needing to be preserved for future generations.

Deborah: The question becomes: what kinds of institutions can do the work of transforming something so ephemeral? Of extracting the value and sending it to the next place? What helps to really make something like that lastingly valuable?

Patricia Vazquez: A thought I have is about how institutions can become outdated, how they have life-span.  I just wonder at which stage in its life span the museum, as institution, is right now? Museums have been around for thousands of years, and I’m wondering if socially engaged art can change museums from the inside, or whether it is a better match for creating new institutions.

Cris Scorza: I want to bring the conversation back, maybe change the question: how does social practice interact in the art museum? Let’s remove the word “belong,” like someone said earlier. I think, yes, there are so many of us that are risk-takers, and we welcome you in! Yes, we stay behind in the process, but we are trying to catch up as quickly as we can. Yes, Lygia Clark didn’t have an exhibition until 50 years later, but we now want to walk the line together and start collecting this work and presenting it to our audiences. The museum’s resources, this auditorium that we are all sharing, is your auditorium. Our role as museums is civic engagement. These institutions belong to you – you ought to transform them.

Concluding statements:

Megan Grace Harned for OUT:

When we put this work into museums does that power stifle and suffocate it, and remove the obligation for museums to reflect on their role and power in society in terms of social justice?

Audience for IN:

If social practice doesn’t belong in museums, then that is awesome, because that probably means that it really does belong in museums, since that is when the most interesting stuff comes out: when you put something where it doesn’t belong.

Deborah for OUT:

It is really important if the goal of this work is transformation to ensure that we are never complicit in an existing power structure. So, the question is: how do you structure participation in these institutions in a way that is not complicit?

Harrell for IN:

I am just going to cite what we have just experienced here, tonight: Ariana’s social practice project, this debate, has happened within a museum. You guys can decide for yourself whether there was any value to it or not for it to be here.

[1] Thank you to Madelyn Freeman, Stephanie Parrish of the Portland Art Museum, Roya Amirsoleymani of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and the PSU Social Practice MFA Program for helping make this debate exist.

[2] My apologies to those people whose voices I did not recognize in the recording or whose names I do not know.

Ariana Jacob makes artwork that uses conversation as medium and as a subjective research method. Her work explores experiences of interdependence and disconnection, questions her own idealistic beliefs, and investigates how people make culture and culture makes people.  She received her MFA in Art & Social Practice from Portland State University. Her work has been included in the NW Biennial at the Tacoma Art Museum, Disjecta’s Portland 2012 Biennial, The Open Engagement Conference and the Discourse and Discord Symposium at the Walker Art Center.

Readers, where do you stand? Make your case in the comments.

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