East Bay museums changing ideas of how exhibits presented
By Lou Fancher
More than a trend and all about movement, museums are telling visitors to “get out,” then joining them when they do. Instead of offering art and artifacts to be passively looked at in a building, today’s exhibits stretch into surrounding communities, and everyday citizens are encouraged to curate.
Before dismissing initiatives that might be misconstrued as artificial attendance boosters at a science center and two major area museums — Chabot Space and Science Center, the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive and the Oakland Museum of California — consider this from Chabot’s executive director, Adam Tobin: “Especially in Oakland, we want to get rid of the word ‘outreach.’ Instead it’s, ‘How do we collaborate with the community?’ Relevance will apply from our coming in with something that’s not pre-baked.’ ”
If “outreach” isn’t favored at Chabot, “learning everywhere” is. Adult hike-and-sip excursions held at night in nearby old-growth coastal redwoods include films, observation of planets and adult beverages. The events “break the membrane of our walls,” said Tobin.
“The parklands mean visitors have a contemplative experience. You aren’t told to look this way or that; the environment is immersive, different every time and hasn’t been fabricated. We become facilitators of experiences, as opposed to builders and creators of them.”
ADVERTISINGChabot’s gentle daytime family hikes bring children into the equation, as do programs at local schools, libraries, tech centers, places of worship and within communities. Last year, 60 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workshops held at Boys and Girls Club of Oakland locations were tied to Family Science Day at Chabot.
This year, the program repeats with an essential addition: a field trip to a local college campus. Tobin says the opportunity for young people to see college students “who look like them” pursuing degrees in science — or simply to stand on campus and imagine attending college themselves — is huge.
“Because of the diverse needs of Oakland, during an inflection (turning point) time, with gentrification, how are we playing a role in education? We’re deeply connected to the city, the school district, community-based organizations. We have a unique opportunity to put together a science-based playbook to provide true equity learning to a city, something that could be used across the country. Why come to the science center? A sense of meaning has to be there.”
Or look for evidence in the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive’s (BAMPFA’s) robust programs. The museum regularly hosts free films on a jumbo outdoor screen and forms partnerships like an arts and literary festival planned this fall to celebrate the Surrealist art movement’s 100th anniversary, presented in collaboration with San Francisco’s renowned City Lights Books.
“It’s a great opportunity for BAMPFA to engage audiences both within and outside our own walls and on both ends of the Bay,” said Director Lawrence Rinder, who noted that contribution to the area’s “vibrant cultural ecology” will also include the museum’s popular free Art Lab hitting the road.
The lab’s first hands-on, imaginations-inspired pop-up event Aug. 27 at the South Berkeley Farmers Market will offer free art supplies to participants of all ages and guidance by a professional instructor. Similar to the “un-classroom” style Art Labs in the museum, Rinder predicts that, “Participants can and do express themselves creatively in whatever forms they choose.”
Kelly McKinley, the Oakland Museum of California’s (OMCA) deputy director, is excited about offsite activities planned in conjunction with this fall’s “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibit. The multisensory installation at the museum near the city’s Lake Merritt traces the Bay Area origins of the weeklong annual Burning Man event that attracts more than 70,000 people to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. To make the connection real and immediate to visitors, OMCA is producing a takeaway map to be used at a weekend open studio event.
“Burning Man artists are opening their studios so people can go and see where some of the artworks in our exhibition have been made,” says McKinley. “The mindset is inspiring people to think about art, creativity and history in the city, not just in the museum.”
A similar program related to an exhibit, “Black Power,” prompts visitors to take actions in the community.
“We want people to think about our current situation and how we want to live and work in the future. Buying sweet potato pie at It’s All Good Bakery supports African-American-owned business but also takes people to one of the most important sites of the Black Panthers. It’s where the first party office was. It’s letting people know their connection to important sites.”
Another example of active participation is an OMCA docent-led bike tour of Oakland’s Middle Harbor shoreline project Aug. 18 to bring to life the history behind “Pushing West: the Photography of Andrew J. Russell,” thus animating the exhibit that tells the story of competing railroad companies.
Uniquely, an added art — portable giving — begins in October during the Burning Man exhibit. A workshop space developed with Ace Monster Toys will operate like a giant gift-o-matic. Similar to machines at grocery stores that pump out tiny treasures in egg-shaped containers, visitors will craft small gifts, place each one in an egg and leave them behind for other visitors to select and take home.
“Just like at Burning Man, there’s expectation of giving with no means of return,” says McKinley. “It’s also the pleasure of getting something handmade.”
Importantly, the exhibit provides increased visibility and recognition for local Burning Man artists.
“In a city like Oakland, where it’s exceedingly difficult to stay here, the more things we do to highlight what they do, the better off the community. What artists bring to the world helps us see the world in new ways, understand perspectives that are not our own. In these times, we need that.”
Asked what she would do if not limited by funding or logistics, McKinley says, “I would make the museum free to everyone. There’d be practicing teaching artists in classrooms in every school in Oakland. Every young person who finishes high school and hasn’t had rich exposure and access to visual arts is less prepared for the world.”