An Artist in Every Library

A large-scale residency program placing an artist in every library, archive and museum would rejuvenate institutions and promote critical engagement with information.

Let’s make it happen.

I spent the last two days with a group of world-class librarians, archivists, and other miscellaneous experts, talking about the future of education for students in what can be nebulously labelled ‘information services’. As is always the case when one is plunged into strange intellectual territory, I learned a lot: for example, the United States has an Archivist, and that he can draw a scale model of the Earth with smelly markers and a ping pong ball. At the end of the workshop, we were each asked to write a declarative statement about the future of so-called information spaces. I wrote:

Every library, archive and museum will have an artist-in-residence program.

The idea of artists-in-residence in these institutions isn’t new. Many, spaces, like the New York Public Library, The Internet Archive, and The Metropolitan Museum have active residency programs. My studio, the Office For Creative Research is in the midst of a residency at the Museum of Modern Art. Organizations with programs to place artists in their midst tend to be either very big, or very radical: that is, they either have the money or the administrative freedom to do it.

Can we scale this idea to make it possible for every institution? If so, I believe the benefits would be tremendous, both for the artists and organizations involved, but for society as a whole.

Zach Lieberman has famously said that ‘art practice is the R&D lab for humanity’. In an age where many of our most important challenges lie in our relationship with information, it’s vitally important for artists to be engaging at this intersection. Indeed, it is happening: Deep Lab, a congress of artists and researchers recently held at Carnegie Mellon offers a good survey for the variety of methods, materials an approaches that are being used by artist to engage with information issues.

In the meantime, libraries are facing an identity crisis: as the printed page gives way to the e-something, the role of the library as the ‘keeper of the books’ is fading, and in its stead libraries are looking to redefine their cultural roles. Similarly archives and museums are contemplating novel ways to activate their holdings. By bringing artists into their spaces (both physical and intellectual) these institutions can find an opportunity to revitalize their impact on culture, and can support critical engagements with essential information issues.

So how do we make it happen?

First, two ground rules:

The Artists is not cheap labor. Some librarians reading this post might be thinking: this is an excellent idea! We need poster making / data visualization/ <insert useful task here>. We can get an artist to do it! This is not how it works. To get full benefit from these engagements, the work done must be artist-driven and free from constraints.

The Library is not a free studio. While artists should be encouraged to bring projects and ideas into the residency, it’s important that the work done is not just in the institution, but with the institution. Artists should be expected to collaborate with staff, and to immerse themselves in the communities and expertise of the host organization.

The focus here is on symbiosis, on the creation of a relationship where the artist and the institution, along with the community at large, benefit. It is not about bringing art into libraries, but art making, and all of the messiness and rigor and criticality and questioning that comes with it.

Of course the biggest question is funding. If artist residencies in cultural institutions are to become a reality, it seems clear that the financial burden can’t lie with either cash-strapped side of the central pairing. So where does the money come from?

If we were living in some kind of a utopia where there was a consensus understanding about the importance of arts and culture, we might expect such an endeavour to be bankrolled by the state. But since we’re not living in Sweden, or in 1970's Canada, we’ll have to look elsewhere:

There are large corporations & organizations who could make this initiative a reality with a single funding push. Let’s persuade Google to build on their successful Summer of Code initiative and turn it into Summer of Artists in Libraries. Or, convince the Rockefeller Foundation that libraries as centers for collaboration can be a keystone for each of their 100 Resilient Cities. Certainly the Knight Foundation can make artists-in-libraries the focus of a Community Information Challenge?

Smaller corporations & organizations could adopt a resident, funding a single intervention in a specific institution. From my many interactions with corporations in the big data space, I know that many are keen to find ways to build community and make an ethical impact while they improve their bottom line. Sponsoring a residency in a library or a museum would be an easy and effective way to do this.

Finally, a crowd-sourcing push could easily fund a set of residencies across the continent. In the wake of the chaotic events in Ferguson in the fall of last year, concerned individuals donated over $300,000 to the tiny Ferguson Library, proving that we still believe that libraries have a role to play in strengthening communities and promoting social justice.

Enough talking, let’s give it a try.

I’d hereby like to propose a pilot program: Ten artists, ten institutions, ten new residencies, in the United States and Canada. Each of them will happen at some point in 2015.

The first step is to find institutions to host, and funders to pay for the residencies. For this first try, let’s assume a per-residency cost of $10,000.

If you work for an institution (library, archive, museum) that would like to host an artist-in-residency, please fill out this form. The 10 pilot institutions will be selected with the intention to maximize diversity of size and variety of focus area.

Once a set of institutions is identified, artists will be paired with specific institutions, through an open call and some kind of collaborative ‘dating’ process. The focus will be on linking artists to institutions that match their practice, as well as ensuring diversity and promoting community connections.

Here’s the most important part: If you or your company would like to support a pilot residency (or several residencies) (or all of the residencies), please get in touch. At some point it might make sense to set up a crowd-funding page of some variety, but for now I’ll keep it simple and ask you to e-mail me. As I learn more about potentials for funding, I’ll update this page, or post a follow-up.**

Of course it’s possible that no one will read this post, or that no institutions will apply to host residents, or that no one will be willing to foot the bill. If that’s the case (I hope it’s won’t be), I personally promise to fund at least one of these residencies, so at least the idea will start to move forward. The goal to have an artist-in-residence in every library, archive and institution may be a long ways off, but if we take action we can see the first steps towards that goal in the coming weeks and and months, instead of years and decades.

* A short note on funding: I won’t receive any financial benefit whatsoever from this endeavor. I won’t hold a fee of any kind, won’t funnel anything through my company, and won’t apply for or take part in any of the funded residencies. **

** I do, however, hope to visit some cool libraries.

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