Sam Durant's latest work is nothing but a big conversation. Invited by the Getty Artists Program to develop a project in collaboration with the museum's education department, the Los Angeles artist came up with "What #isamuseum?" It's a multifaceted online initiative that asks five simple but provocative questions: "Is a museum a school?" "Is a museum political?" "Is a museum truthful?" "Is a museum fun?" and "Is a museum for everyone?" Colorful signs posted throughout the Getty campus embed these questions in the museum's architecture. (They are even printed on café napkins.) The signs encourage visitors to submit their answers via a website, Twitter, or Facebook, using the hashtag #isamuseum. You don't need to visit the Getty to participate; through July, anyone with an Internet connection can join in a motley, wide-ranging conversation on the nature, function, and purpose of museums.
"You get these very personal, heartfelt responses," says Getty education specialist Cathy Carpenter, who worked with Durant on the project. "You get responses that are more academic, and then you get what I call the Mark Twain responses. They're very pithy and clever." Carpenter estimates that the website, which has been up since May 1, brings in about 50 comments a day. "It's a huge amount of responses, which has been great to see," says Durant. "I'm just amazed. I mean you can see these webs of connection."
While tweets, Facebook posts, and online comments sometimes feel like shots in the dark, the focused nature of Durant's questions has led to actual conversations. Theresa Knopf (@tieressie) was so inspired by her Twitter discussions with @steph_revelry, @chadsirois, and @KulturWelt that she wrote a blog post working through various positions on the elitist origins of museums and the ways in which some institutions attempt to counteract that legacy.
The website responses to "Is a museum a school?" are not only reflections on the educational role of museums, but also an opportunity to contemplate the nature of "school." Responses run from "Yes, [a museum is a school], because you learn stuff, but you don't get grades," to "the museum is educational, but not a school. It shouldn't have to pick up slack from a failing education system."
Other responses, says Durant, are "really profound in their simplicity too, or straight to the point, like 'Why no Spanish?' That's it. Three words. But those three words say so much." For the 52-year-old artist, whose previous works have looked at Civil Rights struggles and the dark side of the Mayflower mythology, these underlying issues of power and access are of prime concern. "That was sort of my area of interest," he says, "questioning -- how does the museum function? What does it do? And even more so, what do the people who come to the museum think about these questions?"
Working with the Getty gave Durant an opportunity to survey an incredibly wide cross section of people. "It has this amazing dual status of being an elite research institution and also a kind of incredibly populist destination," he says, adding that the project would probably have had a very different flavor had it been staged at a place like the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has a different, perhaps more focused audience.
"What #isamuseum?" is above all a means of giving voice to opinions and ideas -- like the Spanish question -- that might not otherwise be heard. "Without the Getty's courage to do this and have it be very open, that question wouldn't even come into the public dialogue," says Durant. "I think that the museum has been amazing in terms of really opening itself up and putting itself out on a limb." The comments submitted to the website are moderated for obscenities and inappropriate content, but, says Carpenter, "We really are trying to be as generous as possible ... Things that might not be flattering to an institution -- that goes through." And posts to Twitter and Facebook can't be regulated by the museum at all.
For Carpenter, working with Durant and the previous three Getty Artists Program participants has been an opportunity to look at things differently. "Artists come to questions from a different angle," she says. "They are very exploratory and experiential and I think that is always something to remember when you're working for a large institution." When the project is over, not only will the museum have served as the hub for a wide variety of conversations, but it will have a wealth of ideas, suggestions, and feedback from its visitors, both physical and virtual. "What we hope [to get] out of this project is that we walk away having done something that we wouldn't have done on our own and that the artist [wouldn't have] too," she says.
For his part, Durant got a crash course in social media. He had never used Twitter or Facebook -- never even blogged -- before embarking on "What #isamuseum?" "Obviously I'm a late adopter," he says, admitting that he still has a bit of trouble deciphering the Twitter feed. "Even if I'm personally not so invested in it or don't understand it really and how to use it properly, people do," he says, "I was really interested in getting as big a kind of opportunity for people to respond."
For some, the project smacks of strategies from the world of marketing and polling. M.L. Schumacher (@artcity) tweeted: "Artist Sam Durant uses the cheesy customer survey convention to ask BIG questions about art." From a certain perspective, "What #isamuseum?" is nothing more than a survey, albeit one whose purpose isn't easy to pin down. Consumer surveys are generally designed to narrow down a range of options to those that are most popular or vital; Durant's project works in somewhat the opposite manner, opening up reflection and debate and spawning new questions.
It's not clear yet what will happen to the responses once the project is complete. Carpenter says the website will remain available for "the next couple of years," although it will no longer accept new answers. The Getty may analyze the data, looking for patterns. Durant is treating the project as a kind of laboratory to learn more about how to engage people: "Thinking about doing work in the future -- public work that is asking for a response -- I'd like to know, what's the best way to get a response?"
That's a question direct marketers -- the people who create spam and banner ads, always hoping for a click -- have been pondering for quite some time. And it's not surprising that artists too are looking to engage us in the manner to which we have grown all too accustomed. Previous generations looked to billboards and magazine ads as forms of public art that reached beyond the gallery; today Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Vine may serve the same purpose.
It's apt then that Durant and the Getty should use social media to look at the role of the museum itself. As art moves increasingly into participatory online spaces, the boundaries of the institution dissolve, or at least grow fuzzy. New possibilities emerge as artwork and ideas expand far beyond its walls. It's somewhat startling to realize that, in the case of "What #isamuseum?" the components on Twitter and Facebook are completely outside the museum's control. Whether you see that as corporate interests permeating art or art working its tendrils into the fabric of everyday life is a matter for debate. But at the very least, distinctions between museum-worthy art, "net" art, and "public art" begin to break down. Durant and Carpenter situate "What #isamuseum?" precisely at this intersection. "At its best, it's a contribution to exactly this expanding or redefining of what constitutes public art," says Durant, "and we're in a moment where that's happening."