How can a museum cultivate audiences for contemporary art, extend personal learning, and develop an innovative artistic program, all while maintaining the vision for a democratic public space that drives social engagement? As the Director of Public Programs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, I have long been interested in how institutions can work toward these goals by examining and advancing their own organizational behaviors. This spring, under the auspices of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, the Guggenheim embarked upon a unique journey that aimed to do just that. As part of a powerful series of museum exchanges with partner venues occasioned by the MAP project, I and my colleagues Kim Kanatani, Deputy Director; Gail Engelberg, Director of Education; and Sharon Vatsky, Director of School and Family Programs collaborated with the Asia Society Hong Kong Center (ASHKC) to create programs and public engagement for their presentation of the exhibition No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia.
I would like to trace the process of how collaborative learning was built between the education staff at the Guggenheim and the ASHKC, our first MAP venue partner. This experiment was rooted in a guided social exchange and the creation of a safe place for taking risks. My hope is that a picture emerges here of a nuanced yet purposeful weave of human relationships, created over a great distance, yet made intimate through close collaboration. Ideally, the case study I share will have relevance not only in the context of artistic programming and museum learning for the public, but also for professional development within museum practice.
Our museological exchange began in April 2013 when the Guggenheim invited ASHKC’s Winsome Tam, Head of Arts & Culture Programs, and Debbie Wong, Education Manager, to New York. Their weeklong visit took place during the Guggenheim’s presentation of No Country, which was scheduled to travel to Hong Kong later that year. The ASHKC’s mini professional residency in New York was built on an intensive schedule during which Tam and Wong observed artist workshops, family programs, school group visits, gallery tours, a scholarly symposium, and a special program for sight-impaired adults. A typical day began with our ASHKC colleagues attending either a school group visit or public museum tour, followed by a working lunch and an individual meeting with program managers, who discussed programs for teens, families, access, and film/performance programs.
Working sessions over meals provided a chance for immediate reflection and also casual monitoring of how the New York programs might be adapted for Hong Kong. A more formal cumulative group session was geared toward the tactical goal of planning for the same exhibition in a different city, with an adapted checklist, a smaller gallery space, and a relatively new and smaller staff (the ASHKC gallery having opened less than a year earlier). During this group session, the ASHKC staff took on the task of developing their own program priorities—an assignment that resulted in a clear program agenda for Hong Kong.
This schedule, built around professional mentoring through example, allowed for a friendly interpersonal dialogue that would later be carried out long distance through email, phone, and Skype. As Wong states, “Putting names to faces allowed us to expedite the planning because there was a base of trust, sharing, and collegiality.”
The Hong Kong-to-New York exchange was followed by a New York-to-Hong Kong counter-visit a month later to finalize specific programs and to better understand the local conditions of the ASHKC venue itself. After the productive “honeymoon” in New York, the realities of resourcing, scale, and audience development became the subject of discussions. These included presenting a budget, establishing protocols for documentation, and the sheer logistics of reaching out to several first-time audiences. An important moment of mutual learning is illustrated by a comment from Tam: “Things came together when the budget was presented. It gave us a framework to work within.” Hearing this feedback from ASHKC, we realized that abstract, lofty discussions about goals and growth needed to be grounded in the actual resources available to implement these desires. This proved the best way to provide clear direction while supporting the ASHKC’s spirit of exploration. In this way, the enhanced support provided by generous funders such as UBS allows the recipient venue to push their work into new horizons, while at the same time providing the Guggenheim with an opportunity to become a teaching institution that can sustain a cultural impact well beyond the mounting of a temporary exhibition.
It was clear from the outset in New York that the ASHKC team was excited by the opportunity to expand their practice. Our Hong Kong colleagues had a “top 10 wish list” for their presentation of No Country that included everything from artist residencies, to academic symposia, to new programs for families and educator trainings, plus a pilot program for blind adults. Our answer to these enthusiastic requests was an unqualified “yes.” Kim Kanatani comments, “We view with respectful awe the way our ASHKC colleagues ambitiously embraced and effectively delivered a relatively vast array and number of programs—including first-time efforts.”
The ASHKC educators expressed from the beginning that their highest priority for their programs was working with artists: they requested residencies with exhibition artists representing a range of media from sculpture, to painting, to performance. These weeklong residencies followed an existing template of program design across adult and youth audiences, with room for a special request by the artist or the venue. With three artists involved, several “first-time” programs were attempted—for example, working with community-based women’s groups (for artist Tayeba Lipi) and activating an outdoor theater space for performance.
Interestingly, however, these artist-related programs were not the most experimental of the entire exhibition series. In two other select programs, the ASHKC educators found surprising results that also changed their work moving ahead: an intensive schedule of weekend family workshops and a series of verbal-imaging site tours allowed the museum to create a new form of community engagement. As Wong puts it, “This was a chance to learn about the local audience we didn’t know: due to the number of family workshops (12 in all), we now know we have a Cantonese-speaking family audience. MAP [also] opened up a new chapter at ASHKC in terms of the visually impaired community. We plan to keep the access program.”
Before No Country opened at ASHKC, the museum’s docents and educators participated in workshops aimed at both learning about the exhibition and strategies for active social exchange around works of art. As one participant commented, “I thought I would just be passing on information about works of art and their history, but learned that tours can be very interactive. The experience of the viewers is the key.”
As the ASHKC staff gained these lessons for their future practice, the New York staff learned a great deal as well. For the first time, we could watch our process being choreographed abroad—an opportunity for self-reflection that we owe to ASHKC’s brave leap into the unknown. In an atmosphere of mutual respect between the two institutions’ colleagues, the ASHKC was empowered to trust their own instincts and use their local knowledge while the Guggenheim provided a sounding board and a safe environment for innovative thinking. It was incredibly rewarding to hear this expressed in the words of our collaborators—says Wong, “We deeply appreciated the freedom to adapt programs to our local audiences. Guggenheim staff listened and advised when needed, but allowed us to take risks, learn, and grow. We were respected and guided in the most positive way.”
While there were challenges throughout this process—among them, a shortened lead time, difficulties confirming symposium speakers, and uncertain visa issues—they pale in comparison with the achievements. The spirit of accomplishment was palpable in a statement by Tam: “I didn’t think we would deliver 10/10, but we did!”
In looking ahead to future cycles of the MAP initiative dedicated to regions within Latin America and the Middle East/North Africa, I will continue to ask this pressing question: how can practicing professionals best acquire new skills? The enthusiasm the Guggenheim and ASHKC educators shared as we journeyed together on a path of learning is a sign of tremendous potential. This opportunity to rehearse, repeat, and reflect upon our template of adult learning demonstrates a new phase of the Guggenheim’s global project—one built not only around important works of art and landmark architectural settings but also around the making of a public trust, as enacted through creative and empathetic staff.