We are pleased to welcome Daniel Ronan a returning guest contributor back to the Incluseum blog! When Daniel proposed this exhibit review based on his experience of and research into the Fallen Fruit exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, we were happy that The Incluseum could be a platform to share a new case study about museum exhibit processes. As a project that seeks to build community and advance critical discourse in relation to inclusion in museums, we think case studies are key to the ways in which we learn to formulate next practices or new ways of being museums. Case studies can be ways to recognize the paradigms within which museums work, often shared across the field, and identify how shared paradigms must shift or transform to more fully express inclusion. On the other hand, the specificity of case studies also demonstrate how contextual the work of inclusion must be and how it will differ in it’s expression between cities and between institutions. Daniel’s review offers a close study of Fallen Fruit, but as with all case studies, there is much to be gleaned by all people seeking to understand how to move toward inclusion in their museum.
A VISIT TO THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM
Portland, my hometown, is known as the largest majority-white city in the nation. Like many cities across the country, Portland struggles to grapple with issues of institutional racism, and now, gentrification and displacement of communities of color. Working within this context, the Portland Art Museum, the seventh oldest art museum in the country and oldest in the Pacific Northwest, is challenged like any museum to engage audiences equitably even as the city faces changing demographics.
In this context, on New Year’s Day I headed to the Portland Art Museum in downtown Portland’s South Park Blocks to view Seeing Nature, landscapes from the collection of Paul G. Allen. On my way to the upstairs galleries, I faced a blockade of sculptures and human figures in the Museum’s entryway, a part of Paradise, an installation artwork by Fallen Fruit, an art collective formed by artists David Burns and Austin Young.
Burns and Young partner with organizations and institutions across the country, promoting nature’s symbol of abundance and culture’s metaphor for exchange: fruit. Through Paradise, I explore the process of Fallen Fruit’s installation at the Portland Art Museum and consider in retrospect the opportunities possible through this exhibit to work with outside artists and new audiences to bring important, currently unrepresented, interpretations of collections to PAM. In short, more inclusion will lead to better curatorial decision-making, and in the end, better art.
A SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA IDEA
Sitting down at a Los Angeles café, I chat with Austin Young, who tells me about the Paradise installation, it’s inspirations, and the collective’s similar thematic projects across the country which have opened up distinct avenues for public engagement through contemporary art installations. Young recalls the number of residential fruit trees overhanging public right of way in the duo’s Silver Lake neighborhood and how the trees struck the artists as an opportunity to consider fruit as a subject for dialogue.
Taking to taste buds, the two artists, along with artist Matias Viegener, mapped fruit trees in their neighborhood and organized the Public Fruit Jam, an event encouraging neighbors to collect under appreciated fruit from backyards and sidewalks and create fruit jam together. “It’s amazing what happened when we chose fruit, creating ways for people to connect,” he tells me, emboldened by ideas of positive activism and protest.
As Young explains, fruit is a non-polarizing topic, offering community members an easy entry point to recount memories and stories of fruit in their family histories and daily lives. Moreover, it can also be a starting ground for more complex conversations about the history of colonization and issues of class, race, and the environment. Working with Stephanie Parrish, the Associate Director of Education and Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, the two artists found kindred spirits at an institution working to further its understanding of its community and its collection.
FALLEN FRUIT’S PARADISE AND THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM
Using fruit as inspiration and the theme of “paradise” as Fallen Fruit’s lens, visiting artists Burns and Young used the Portland Art Museum permanent collection as their artistic resource, identifying and selecting objects across the Museum collection for use in their immersive art installation. Their material included objects representing a dialogue around the theme of “paradise,” featuring Native American masks, Works Progress Administration art, natural landscapes, and diverse figurative sculptures to create a salon-style exhibit enveloped by specially-designed, Victorian-inspired apple wallpaper, a Fallen Fruit trademark.
As Parrish describes, Paradise centered the Museum by bringing historical awareness to the institution’s collections that feature a majority of donated objects. Why are these objects at PAM? Who put them there? Who values them? were a few of the questions underlying the installation of Paradise. The negotiation between the artists and the curators highlighted the depth of interpretation possible within the Portland Art Museum’s collection, allowing Burns and Young to explore complex histories, cultural genocide, and environmental destruction through the creation of their work. In addition, Museum curators from Asian art to Native American art had an opportunity to ask how individual objects characterized their collections and the identity of their broader institution.
Parrish also credits the process behind Paradise as encouraging the “mashing up” of the Museum’s collections, showing how different objects could speak to one another, a feat she doesn’t think would have happened without the outside perspective Fallen Fruit brought to the otherwise traditional institution. This alternative and re-framed take on PAM’s collection is a great first step in understanding how to better engage audiences marginalized by more limiting classifications of art and art history as influenced by the exclusiveness and hegemony of Western traditions.
FALLEN FRUIT AND PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT
To extend their reach in the Portland community during the Paradise installation, Fallen Fruit collaborated on six special events with community partners as well as the Portland Art Museum. Together with Caldera, a non-profit dedicated to supporting arts and culture opportunities for “underserved youth”, Burns and Young secured a grant to create Urban Fruit Trails PDX, defined as “network[s] of walking trails, populated with fruit trees and planted, tended, and harvested by the public.” Building on their Los Angeles initiative, The Endless Orchard, the two artists planted a Public Fruit Park alongside community members at a local Portland school. The group also planted more trees in the community to increase fruit tree access.
In addition to the Urban Fruit Trails, the artists and Caldera, created a youth exhibit for a two-week stretch last fall called The Culture of We, featuring 100 works by Caldera students exploring themes of community, art, and nature.
Overall, the efforts Fallen Fruit brought to their various Portland-based projects successfully engaged the public, with a range of programming any museum should wish to replicate.
Burns and Young’s engagement with the Portland community paired well with PAM’s increased interest in engaging artists as a means to engage wider audiences. As Parrish explains, “every year we [are] engaging artists and activating artists in the museum,” stating the Museum is “committed to creating artist driven experiences, creating a space in the museum where authorship and space for authorship is played around a little bit.” It’s this sense of play that is starting to change how the Portland Art Museum views its own collections, a change that can open new ways of thinking of inclusion in museums.
A MORE INCLUSIVE WAY FORWARD FOR MUSEUMS AND ART
Paradise offers a great look at the internal issues and outside pressures around inclusiveness as they relate to museums. While the artists and Caldera partnered to create The Culture of We student exhibit, I struggle to understand why Caldera students and other traditionally underrepresented groups could not directly engage in the creation of museum-based art installations such as Paradise. I understand the nature of Fallen Fruit’s ongoing collaborative installations and also wish to challenge Burns and Young to bring more perspectives into their artistic process and ultimately, artworks.
Particularly when talking about “paradise,” the history of the Northwest, like the history of America’s manifest destiny, is tinged with the complex histories of colonialism, cultural genocide, and environmental destruction, all of which were themes in the Paradise installation. Nonetheless, the installation could have been richer if it had included a wider range of perspectives on these topics than those of two white and male artists from Los Angeles. Would other themes other than those presented been selected if the collaboration been otherwise configured? Would it have changed the ultimate dialogue around the “paradise” theme? What would be the difference?
In selecting objects for their installation, it should be noted that PAM curators did not allow Fallen Fruit access to many objects from the Native American and Asian art collections due to conservation issues, representing gaps in the artist’s’ ultimate vision and perhaps an opportunity for the PAM to consider reassessing its conservation policies. The wide-ranging objects present in the installation matched the wide-ranging opinions of Paradise visitors, which included both praise and outrage according to the artists. I’m sure there would have been different opinions had the artists achieved what they originally envisioned.
Similarly, in the same spirit as the playful Public Fruit Jam, I believe museums can mash together museum objects like fruit from neighborhood trees. Taking a cue from Fallen Fruit, the Portland Art Museum can likewise bring more people into the “jam making” of their curatorial process, increasing co-curation in their exhibitions. Coupled with a wider breadth of outside programming as Fallen Fruit successfully implemented during their time in Portland, the Museum can continue to experiment in how it engages with new audiences in exhibit themes. Together, more collaborative curation and programming can create even more dialogue and participation around museum exhibitions and, ultimately, create museum collections and institutions more responsive to and inclusive of diverse community identities and experiences.
I look forward to seeing how art installations such as Paradise continue to challenge the traditionally didactic and centralized nature of curation prevalent in today’s art museums. I also see more potential in Fallen Fruit’s art to be more directly inclusive of community perspectives and look forward to seeing more of the cooperative’s work. I applaud the Portland Art Museum’s willingness to welcome David Burns and Austin Young as another step forward in engaging more of Portland in museums and the arts. In the end, the jam is always sweeter with more people mashing the fruit.
Daniel Ronan works as the Manager of Public Engagement at the National Public Housing Museum. His interests include historic preservation, economic development, community resilience, and taking trains. His blog, Resilient Heritage, explores ways to diversify and broaden the historic preservation field.