Conversations on the Commons: An Introduction
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Conversations on the Commons: An Introduction

“What does it mean to be creative as conscious social activity—to create a commons, rather than individualizing creativity?” Josh McPhee

Open Field is a three-year, summerlong project of the Walker Art Center that adopts the commons as a philosophical and programmatic framework to imagine a new kind of public gathering space. Grounded in the belief that creative agency is a requirement for sustaining a vital public and civic sphere, it nurtures the free exchange of ideas, experimentation, and serendipitous interactions. Whether hosting a collective of artists building a schoolhouse, a pickling demonstration, or a raucous group of children rolling down a hill, Open Field attempts to break with a number of timeworn conventions about the role of museums, creativity, and public life. Specifically, the project challenges the notion of the museum as the primary author of artistic content and cultural experience. It also resists the idea that creativity is an individual pursuit belonging primarily to the artist and operating outside the realm of everyday life.

Taking place on the four-acre lawn adjacent to the Walker, it began with the seemingly simple question, “What would you do on an open field?” Over time, as the physical space of the field was inhabited and claimed by various constituents, it acquired a distinctive sense of place through acts of negotiation, interaction, and exchange, bringing meaning to its tagline: “Open Field is what we make together.”

In the spirit of inclusivity, Open Field invites everyone and anyone to bring their best creative self forward as producer or participant. Indeed, a key aspect of the project—one that places it both literally and figuratively outside the Walker’s institutional walls—is the invitation to the public to share their own creative interests with minimal mediation and modest support from the museum. These activities occurred alongside a series of curated residences by artists—mostly collectives—whose work pointedly addresses participation in the public sphere. Those events, in addition to the Walker’s educational programs and new social amenities such as picnic tables, food service, and a Tool Shed, evolved together to make Open Field what it is—an eclectic mash-up of activities and people.

What do we mean by “the commons?” Generally speaking, a commons is a resource shared by a group of people and a process by which the goods (materials or intellectual) are held and managed collectively. Why build a project around this idea? The commons as a concept was seductive because it is both suggestive and vague enough to embrace a plurality of activities, definitions, and outcomes that could lead to new practices and behaviors. For example, if we explored the definition of the commons as a shared resource, would the Walker understand its assets differently? How might we afford access to things such as our public and private spaces, collections, knowledge, staff time, or social and cultural capital? If we think of the commons as co-creation, how would our practices of collaboration differ, and with whom would we work? If a focus on the vernacular side of “common” encourages us to think about the museum as an everyday place, what should happen there? At the risk of sounding idealistic, Open Field is about building a more responsive and responsible museum that intentionally sets out to produce something of collective value with the public, rather than for them.

The interviews and essays in this book account for two years of projects, activities, and conversations that provide a snapshot of Open Field through the particular experiences of the artists and thinkers who participated. This publication was conceived of as a way to wrestle with the implications of the commons as a framework for rethinking artistic and institutional practice. The themes that emerged include teaching and learning as a collective endeavor; the value of utopian thinking to imagine a different world; how communities form around a place; the importance of embracing risk, failure, and speculation in public practice; and many ideas for ways that museums might transform themselves into shared places of production. Above all, the voices in this book speak to the human desire to make things together, rather than to create culture strictly as individuals.

What this catalogue does not fully account for are the experiences of members of the public who hosted programs or simply showed up to enjoy the offerings on a hot summer evening. A small fraction of the programs organized by visitors are illustrated in the images that populate this book, and a full listing appears in the final pages. One of the challenges of this process is documentation. As most artists are well aware, capturing images of ephemeral work is as important as creating it in the first place—so as the twenty-first-century saying goes, “If there isn’t a picture, it didn’t happen.” A great number of events were photographed by field staff and the public programmers who generated them, but others merely happened, relying on the alternative axiom, “You had to be there.”

Our essays in this publication, “My Common Education: Lessons from Open Field” and “When Bad Things Don’t Happen,” relay some anecdotes from the public contributions to the field, but this is not a full account of every game, conversation, or pop-up concert that happened on the lawn. Our effort to make sense of our own institutional practices took precedence over creating a full report of the project’s first two summers.

Open Field is the sum of its thousands of participants. It evolved from numerous formal and informal conversations between staff and local colleagues, including two community charettes with professionals from the fields of design, art, architecture, and cultural programming. We would like to acknowledge a group of people who devoted a tremendous amount of time, energy, and sweat to make the project happen. The Education and Community Programs staff includes Scott Stulen, Ashley Duffalo, Christina Alderman, Susannah Bielak, Abigail Anderson, and Courtney Gerber; two exceptional field coordinators, Sara Shaylie and Scott Artley; Drawing Club organizers Jehra Patrick, Marria Thompson, Katie Hill, and Kristina Mooney; and a dedicated cadre of interns: Juana Berrio Lesmes, Laura Robards Gantenbein, Nicole Mills-Novoa, Chloe Nelson, Kristina Lovass, Oakley Tapola, Nida Pellizzer, and Andrew Gramm. The project benefited greatly from the thinking of Steve Dietz, director of Northern, and Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson from Works Progress. It would have been impossible without the outstanding problem-solving and tactical insight of Walker colleagues Andrew Blauvelt, Robin Dowden, Ryan French, Ben Geffen, Cameron Zebrun, David Dick, Carolyn Dunne, Phillip Bahar, and Dean Otto. We owe much to John Lindell, Joey Heinen, Emma Rotilie, Jay Luniewski, Tony Dockendorf, Todd Gregory, and everyone in our security, visitor services, and operations staffs, who were on the ground and in the public with us every day. Mary Polta and Annie Schmidt helped make Open Field financially viable. Designers Andrea Hyde and Dante Carlos gave the project a distinctive feel, while Justin Heideman and Tyler Stephanich developed our user-friendly website. Adrienne Wiseman, Rachel Joyce, Kristina Fong, and Julie Caniglia worked tirelessly to communicate the project’s many parts to the public.

Thank you to Pamela Johnson and Kathleen McLean for their sharp eyes in editing this book. Thanks to Walker photographers Cameron Wittig and Gene Pittman for many of the images that fill these pages. Kudos to Alex DeArmond for his elegant design, and to Emmet Byrne, Dylan Cole, and Greg Beckel in the Walker Design Studio for steering a complex publication through to completion.

Open Field was sponsored by Target in summer 2010 and Optum in summers 2011 and 2012. We would like to acknowledge Walker trustees Shawn Gensch (Vice President, Brand Marketing, Target) and Dawn Owens (CEO, OptumHealth) for their advocacy and enthusiasm for this project.

Finally, we would like to thank Walker executive director Olga Viso and honorary trustee Angus Wurtele and his wife, Margaret, for their unwavering faith in and support for this experiment that has taken place in the museum’s backyard.

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