The buzz of the AAM Annual Meeting in Atlanta is upon us! The Incluseum is gearing up by participating in this Friday’s DivCom Google Hangout on Air that will dig into the future of AAM’s Diversity and Inclusion Policy. And what better time to spotlight emerging work happening in Atlanta at the High Museum of Art? We encourage you to reach out to the High’s Nina Pelaez, who stepped up to write this guest post about the new project, and visit the High if you are headed to Atlanta!
The news that the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) was to be held in Atlanta this year sparked a flurry of conversations at the High Museum about the conference theme: the social value of museums. Amid a great deal of planning, the staff wondered how we could take part in and help foster dialogue around this issue. Looking at our own programs, collections, and exhibitions, it was clear to us that we had great deal to show related to this topic, but we also began to wonder how we might tell people about it. How might we highlight, not only the amazing socially engaged artwork in our collections and exhibitions, but also the rich and multiple perspectives being exchanged around this work? How could we, as an institution dedicated to showing work by socially engaged artists, help to open up a space for social engagement and even change, to actually take place?
I developed the idea for High Art Connect with these questions in mind. I wanted to help the museum draw attention to the amazing stories, deep connections, and rich histories of the works of art on view, but also create a platform to highlight the writing, research, reactions, and experiences of both our staff and also of the Atlanta community. I hoped the project would create a place to invite exchange with our broader public about critical social issues such as race, gender, inequality, discrimination, environmental destruction, civil rights, social and political conflict that are raised by the museum’s collections and exhibitions. I also wanted to share the powerful interactions and discussions I knew were happening around these issues, while increasing institutional transparency. Could this project help the museum become more self-aware and even self-critical about issues of inequality, oppression, and inclusion? I see this project as a stepping-stone towards increased engagement, critical dialogue, and community empowerment at the High Museum, and translatable to cultural institutions in general.
A blog felt like the right tool to share rigorous interpretation of content and engage our public in conversation around a focused set of themes and concepts. At the same time, I hoped that High Art Connect would challenge visitors to push the definition of what “social engagement” could mean, and broaden their concept of what works of art might fall into that category. Part of the challenge of developing the project, however, stemmed from a lack of models: while there are whole hosts of amazing museum blogs out there, there aren’t as many blogs with themed collection and exhibition-based content. What would a museum blog focused around “social engagement” look like? Would it make sense? Would it be worthwhile? Another challenge, and something I am still working on, was how to get our public more involved. How could we create a space for visitors to come and share their meaningful experiences and reactions? How could this be a platform, not only for information, but also for inspiration and interaction?
Since launching the project just a few weeks ago, I have been overwhelmed by the amazing feedback, interest, and participation, both within the museum and beyond. There has not been as much public interaction and dialogue taking place as I had hoped which I attribute to 1) the limitations of Tumblr as an interactive platform and 2) the broader challenge of successfully fostering participation. However, people are reading and sharing these stories, and from what I can tell, people are excited.
One of the most rewarding parts of this project has been working with my colleagues, as well as a handful of other artists, scholars, and community members from outside of the museum, to develop content for the site. The majority of posts on High Art Connect come from members of the High Museum’s junior staff, and I have been amazed to see the breadth of perspectives, amazing quality of insight, and often, overwhelming excitement, that each of them have brought to their contributions. I have been proud to create a space that empowers that kind of sharing, particularly for younger voices within the museum. Even among the High Museum staff, there are a great deal of projects, experiences, and interests that don’t necessarily get shared due to busy schedules and an intensive amount of programming. Working on High Art Connect has promoted greater visibility of the engagement taking place at the museum; experienced by both museum staff and visitors. That said, there is a great deal more to be shared. There are many more stories to tell and I look forward to teasing those out and making them more accessible.
I believe strongly in the power of art to incite dialogues, and I also believe in the power of dialogue to incite change. My greatest hope is that High Art Connect might begin to take part in that process by giving visibility to the critical issues that we, as social institutions and civically-engaged publics, need to come together to change. Above all, I hope that this platform will help inspire both our museum, and other institutions, to continue to grapple with these issues and challenges. I also hope that the High Art Connect will continue to grow and improve with the feedback, responses, and connections that I anticipate will come.
Nina Pelaez is the 2014-15 Kress Museum Interpretation Fellow at the High Museum of Art. There, she developed High Art Connect, an interpretive blog focused on the intersections of art, social practice, and community engagement. She is passionate about fostering public engagement and promoting diversity within museums, and is particularly interested in the ways that theoretical models— particularly queer, feminist, and critical race theories—might help inform interpretive practice and engagement within cultural institutions. Her research interests include the exploration of trauma, memory, and the body in contemporary photography and public installation. She holds an M.A. from the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art and a B.A. in Art History and English Literature from Swarthmore College. Nina blogs at www.thedidactickatydid.wordpress.com and tweets @ninapelaez.