Help Desk

Help Desk: Participatory Project

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I’m an artist working with a poor family on a participatory project at a local museum. They are Latino. The project is about their perceptions of art. Who might I talk to or where might I look for similar projects, or even guidance on working with this population? I’m not Latino or poor (or low-income, opinions vary widely on terminology).

Joav BarEl. Installation view of Center of the World, 2014 at Tempo Rubato Gallery, Tel Aviv.

Joav BarEl. Center of the World, 2014; installation view, Tempo Rubato Gallery, Tel Aviv.

The Thanksgiving holiday is just behind us, but I want to begin by stating my sincere appreciation for this question, because it supplied me with the opportunity to contact some of the most generous people in the Western Hemisphere. Given the events of the last few weeks, the following warm and thoughtful responses are especially welcome right now, and it’s the right time (is there ever a wrong time?) to be talking about socially aware art projects and communication between groups of people.

Because of his extensive practice and his knowledge of working within institutions, it seemed only right to reach out to Pablo Helguera first. This is his response:

“I think this artist would be best served by working with the education department of that museum—usually people in the education department are professionally trained to work with various groups of people, and regularly do outreach and other programs that involve them in a conversation about art. But first the artist perhaps needs to define the goals for this project, and exactly the kind of participation he/she is aspiring to get. Second, if the project is about [the family’s] perceptions of art, there are an infinite amount of programs that involve communities in that. The artist would need to determine why or how this is not an education program versus a socially engaged art project (i.e., Is the family going to learn something about the museum, or is this artist going to work with them to develop a new project?). Depending on what this artist is hoping to achieve, there are many successful programs at other museums that may be of interest, such as SFMOMA, Queens Museum, etc. Not being ‘Latino or poor,’ as this artist says, should not be a limitation if one is working as a professional in the field. It is more about the recognition of difference and how this is communicated that matters.”

Mr. Helguera was too shy to promote his own book, Education for Socially Engaged Art, but the other respondents mentioned it right away. Pittsburgh-based artist Edith Abeyta included it in her list of recommended materials: “There are many social-practice resources available online and in print. For general social practice and community arts guidance, I recommend Education for Socially Engaged Art by Pablo Helguera, and Beginner’s Guide to Community-Based Art by Keith Knight and Mat Schwarzman. Both books are quick reads. There is even a short how-to video primer for the Beginner’s Guide to Community Art.”

Abeyta also continued with some thought-provoking counsel: “It’s a bit difficult to formulate a response to this question, mainly because it implies one needs to be of the same economic, cultural, and ethnic background to connect to others. If the artist is working with one family and their perceptions, this seems to be the obvious place to start. Who are they? Spend time getting to know them. This family [that the artist is working with] is unique, and that is where I would focus my interaction. There is not one all-inclusive Latino population—is the family Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Cuban, or Puerto Rican? Are they immigrants? First generation or second? There is also not only one single approach to an art project that addresses low-income or working-class people. I believe the question is: How do I collaborate on an art project with people I think I have no common ground [with]?

“Having an interest in others and the ability to be social are important qualities to possess. Sometimes the basics get overlooked. Time is another crucial element. Getting to know people is generally a slow, gradual process, typically involving misunderstandings and frustrations, as well as camaraderie and good times.”

Jen Delos Reyes, the director and founder of Open Engagement, also stresses the need to return to some basic principles: “First, let me thank you for taking a moment to check your privilege. This is an important first step. Also key is the willingness you have displayed to engage in dialogue that could be challenging and uncomfortable. Through this you might end up needing to face assumptions and behaviors you didn’t realize were in operation.

“As an artist that has worked with museums over the years on realizing participatory and community-based projects, I will let you know that through taking on this work within that system, the institution should also be assessing their privilege and position, as well as their motives for either choosing to work in this way, or in other cases resisting working with or including certain communities. In most cases, this is not easy for them to do, but I believe it is important work.

“In your question you are looking for allies and resources. First, an ally: Former student Patricia Vaquez worked on a project with the Portland Art Museum titled Reinauguración, in which she worked with Latino immigrant workers who were landscapers at the museum for fifteen and seventeen years, respectively, but never went inside. For her project, she visited the museum with them and had conversations about art and their perceptions of the museum. She then had galleries in the museum dedicated to these workers for one night only, in the same way wealthy patrons or donors have things named after them. You can watch this Oregon Art Beat video about the Shine a Light project that Reinauguración was a part of.

“A great resource for you would be the ‘Footprints, Power, and Privilege’ assignment from the Art and Social Practice Workbook, written by Betty Marin, Mario Mesquita, and Alysha Shaw. It would be a great activity to do with your collaborators—including staff at the museum—to start the conversation. My final advice for you is [to cultivate] skills I believe are needed not only by all artists involved in socially engaged art, but for all of us engaged in the world: empathy and awareness.”

Last but not least, artist Janet Owen Driggs suggested that you make a point of reading Chapter 3 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere. It’s not a particularly long chapter, but there’s a nice summary of it here: “Dialogue hinges upon several things: One of them is love. Dialogue cannot occur without love for the world and for people. Love goes hand-in-hand with liberation. Love is an act of courage and not of fear.” Let’s remember those words in the coming weeks and years, whether we consider our projects to be “socially engaged” or not. Good luck!