Art As Thought Manifested
I. The Atelic Way
I aspire to the “atelic” from the Greek word a telos or “without end.” It represents a powerful expression with no true finish, that continues evolving to inform the next gesture, iteration, or interpretation. My artistic practice is an ongoing investigation of how ideas can exist in many forms, materials, and dimensions. This understanding allows me to have a process that remains fluid and changing. It opens up a space to channel creativity, impact others, and extend the conversation for each artwork. When our senses are attuned to our ever-changing environment, we continually learn, expand, and begin anew. This is the Atelic Way.
II. The Creative Self
As a child, I wasn’t preoccupied with calling myself an artist or worrying about what things were or were not art materials. I explored with the boldness of youth and the curiosity of a scientist. I scratched my father’s albums with the needle of the record player. Without invitation, I drew on people’s wallpaper or the interiors of their cars. I used heavy encyclopedias as the post and lintel for towers and cities. Very early on I intuited that ideas could be conveyed through the visual language of my mark-making. There is knowledge in what we are drawn to before we are ever aware that anyone is watching. When people ask me now how to find their passion, I tell them to remember what they loved as a child. There will be real wisdom there.
My parents didn’t know much about art, but they did know how to minimize property damage. When I was 8-years old they took me to an adult painting studio run by an instructor named Ed Fish. Looking back, I really appreciate how they acknowledged my instinct to make, although they simultaneously reminded me that it was hardly a potential career. I learned to paint properly on canvas, although my distracted approaches were not reinforced by Mr. Fish. Yet, the tools, colors, and textures of painting called out to me, as they do this very moment. My mind immediately goes to the myriad potential possibilities, materials, and forms. They beckon me. They ask what if we were mixed together? What if we recontextualized this pile of trash? What if we altered this object’s scale?
Making art was a lonely avocation for a young child who also gave time to academics, sports, and a social life. But looking back I was always drawn to designing things, as small as illustrations or as large as stage sets. Although art was not my primary purpose, I continued to take courses ranging from anatomy — reading vintage sources like Gray’s Anatomy — to printmaking. All of these experiences added to the quiver of my growing artistic language.
For 25 years, my adult life was beautifully chaotic with a husband, four active children, an extended family, and numerous board engagements in both the not-for-profit and profit sectors. But as the children grew, my needs shifted, and certain outside obligations began to lose their relevance. It was an open moment and my creative self had to be more fully realized. There was simply no other choice. One day while multitasking, sub-optimally of course, I just suddenly stopped. (I was likely drying my hair and listening to a weather forecast while prepping for a meeting.) I grabbed a pen, and wrote the words, “I AM AN …. ARTIST.” That lone act focused my attention and provided clarity about the steps needed to pursue a serious artistic career.
What happened and why did I pause at that very instance? My hunch is that my ongoing meditation practice alongside a deepening awareness of my own thoughts and emotions both played a role. Over time, I realized that I was not fully expressing my creative possibilities. I became increasingly attuned to my senses and the attention paid to these direct experiences provided grounding and reflection. My lifelong fascination with navigation and spatial cognition suddenly made sense. There is an undeniable potency in being fully present; it allows for the emergence of an interior intelligence about the invisible. It makes connections between the physical body, mind space, and a larger consciousness.
Periods of such concentrated attention granted me the grace of courage. Not courage in the heroic sense, but in a generous and intentional way. (The derivation of courage is from the French word coeur meaning heart). An inner spaciousness gave rise to important questions about what is essential and worthwhile in life. How could I be more truth-seeking and less approval-seeking? How might my abilities be useful to the world?
People frequently ask me two questions when they meet me. The first question is how did I do it? The second question is why did I do it? A family member asked if I was going to become a professional house painter. Others said they were pleased to know about my new hobby. I intentionally sought out wise voices, and let’s just say that my noise-canceling headphones served me well during this time. The truth be told, moving towards a creative identity was not difficult. I intuited a distinct navigational pull and began visualizing possibilities. I had both a clarity and a calm confidence within me. There were numerous pragmatic issues to manage at the periphery, of course. Vigilance against distraction was on red alert. With discipline, I cleared my schedule and discontinued board service, with the exception of MoMA and President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. These two board memberships were informative to my burgeoning practice. But otherwise, I accomplished something that is not easy. I became a black belt in saying no.
I assembled a portfolio and applied to the Master of Fine Art program in Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I smiled broadly and breathed deeply when I received my acceptance letter. It just felt right. My professors, the majority of whom were women, reinforced my confidence that my artistic voice was valid and would be useful in the world. Their assurances assuaged the continual waves of guilt I experienced about the professional work I left behind and the emails that went unanswered. I knew I had to become monastic as a way toward the deep work of a studio practice. It was a time to radically expand my skill set while also following my curiosity wherever it led. (More detailed stories about my adventures as a 50-something urban art student will be saved for another time.) In 2012 I graduated with an MFA, and in 2014 I opened my first formal studio in downtown Chicago.
III. The Studio as Lab
In developing my studio design I was able to put my years of experience to good use. I worked with the brilliant architect and humanist Jeanne Gang to build an environmentally friendly space with repurposed and recycled material. But beginning a new studio startup was daunting and life-changing. Operating an artistic business adds even more distractions to a contemporary culture full of content assaults with their tantalizing if empty, dopamine hits. I have learned that my linear processing occupies a different brain space than my artistic thinking. The analytic and creative best run in separate, parallel, paths in order to optimize workflow. The morning is reserved for uninterrupted artistic work. The afternoon is allocated to tactical problem-solving. Overall it speaks to a process of disciplined and accountable work meshed with a generative receptiveness to new ideas, unexpected data, and the welcome magic of serendipity.
My studio is best described as a research and development “lab.” But the studio is also a mental space as much as a physical one. I think of it as a zone of focused attention that enables me to locate my expressive voice. The impulse to create is uniquely human and the artist’s studio is a place that should foster that instinct. I go into the studio — with a capital “S” — in order to inquire, dissent, and provoke. I approach it as a laboratory and my process reflects that experimentation.
In my former employment life, an important part of my job was to present ideas. In my life as an artist, I’ve learned one of my most important goals is to make ideas present. So much emerges and takes form as a result of the conditions I set up as my process. As in the sciences, I collect, experiment, and assess what new information has been yielded. In my studio, I want to be open to both intentions and accidents and I value the opportunity to view ideas and objects from fresh perspectives. I continually reorganize, reconsider, and re-contextualize information, which allows nearly anything around me to become a possible catalyst for new work. Understanding can be elevated by failures as much as by successes, and that is a good thing. When I am in the midst of artistic work it is a sweet place of flow, while deep in focus. I often feel that all of my senses are on tiptoe and I have heightened clarity while making work. The process is intentional and not haphazard, but the results are often impossible to predict.
With so many research projects progressing in the studio simultaneously, I think of three essential items that take my artwork from idea to reality: my sketchbook, my smartphone, and my project wall. My sketchbook is the place where I am constantly taking notes, drawing in the margins, and collecting my thoughts. The practice of faithfully keeping a sketchbook anchors my artwork in-process and continual new creation. My smartphone has made collecting images and capturing moments an integral part of my studio practice. Anything I see can be collaged, mediated, or referenced later when I always have a camera in my pocket. Drawing apps enable me to combine marks onto photographic images with tremendous ease. Interesting colors, compositions, or quotes from my environment keep me inspired back in the studio on the project wall. This acquisitive process reveals itself in the studio by creating opportunities for unexpected dialogue between the pieces. As the work transitions into actual projects, I display vertical files in the studio ‘war room’ to provide visual cues and increase my accessibility with ongoing work.
IV. Mark Making
It all begins with a mark. A mark informs where we are, what material we hold, and how we exist in the world. Mark-making creates an index of experiences, where sensory input becomes a physical record translated through the hand. Art becomes thought manifested. I have always been a mark-maker, most typically in two-dimensional media such as drawing and painting. While in graduate school, my curiosity expanded into video, installation, and sculpture. Drawing was key in enhancing my understanding and expanding my means of communication. It is a mode of creating and processing information that activates optical senses through the brain and hand. To this day, this is my starting point whether I’m using a graphite pencil or a digital pen. My evolving practice includes myriad new tools and new ways of creating, which never fail to excite me. There is no imposed hierarchy of one material over another — any mark made by any means is as good as any other mark made by any other means.
My work frequently includes layering techniques so that paint, encaustic, and images combine in a rich conversation. I also have an enduring obsession with tape: colored, flexible, metallic, newly unrolled, or previously used. It inexplicably finds its way into many of my pieces. This layering may metaphorically reflect the palimpsests, memories, and recalled responses of our lives. Our brains and bodies contain a wondrous organic database of lived experience. The surfaces of my work become flat planes where my life and a viewer’s perception meet. This approach reveals my personal interest in forging new perspectives in order to discover what revelations they may provide. Distorting, inverting, or dimensionalizing subject matter challenges my perceptions so that something that I thought I understood becomes unfamiliar. I am standing in the same place, yet everything is different.
V. Attuning the Senses
Notice what interests you and it will be more likely to hold your attention. Think about the ideas and concepts that you want to explore. Summon your heart and be courageous. Then begin again. Art is a language and artists make ideas present. Follow your curiosity and embrace the fact that your path is unique, even if you are afraid and your voice shakes.
Hard disciplined work needs to happen. No one is exempt from this and ideas can often emerge from a difficult process. Immerse yourself in the art historical canon but stay critically aware of its sources and acknowledge both its gifts and limitations. Go to exhibitions, live concerts, dance performances, and notice what truly draws you into deeper concentration. Feel what you feel, then take action. Unlike plant life, we were designed to move. Sharpen your skills and your tools of communication. Read, journal, and learn about the workings of your own mind. Convene with those you trust with your most vulnerable instincts, as they will inform and reinforce your path. Accept the inevitability of failures along the way. View these as clear data informing you what not to do. Never frame failure as a personal shortcoming. Over time I have paid closer and closer attention to what interests me. I can now fully trust that a particular thread of inquiry will lead me on a worthwhile journey regardless of the outcome. I believe that the road to many successes includes many failures. Often, something that I thought I understood becomes beautifully unfamiliar.
My Solo Together project started in this exact way, by noticing how people interacted with common red plastic cups. These cups have assumed an iconic status via their single-use convenience for America’s college drinking culture. But its use goes well beyond campus life, as evidenced by its prevalence everywhere we go — on our streets, oceans, and in our landfills. I became curious about these red cups for reasons that I could not immediately articulate. I trusted the spark of curiosity I had toward the cups and was willing to go where it might lead me. I became more observant. I saw each cup as an individual, no longer as leftover garbage but as a representation of its previous holder. Each cup began to signify an absent user, a missing consciousness. My interest deepened. All of us make constant unconscious gestures and vibrations into the world. I noticed how the cups’ users expended energy to alter their cup’s shape in some way. Their cups were twisted, crushed, or split apart to assume new forms. These marks documented the actions of each anonymous person who left a cup behind.
I went on to crush 300 separate cups, made sculptural molds for each, and painted the resulting plaster casts in realistic detail. My new cups were perfect reproductions of the cheap red plastic cups, each distressed in a similar, but slightly different, manner. Every part of this process was methodical and demanding, but I was committed to the path I found myself on. I wanted to see all 300 of the replicated solo cups together. The newly completed cups were weighty, and I imagined that they contained received energy, both the original holder’s energy and my own. Each of the original holders were solo individuals, yet I had combined them together with me in the studio. My careful solo actions preserved their collective casual actions. We were now truly solo together. I could have stopped at this point and considered the project finished. In fact, many artists would have stopped, since it seemed that a significant artistic conclusion had been achieved. But my atelic mind knew this was not the end. This was just a new beginning.
My first primary motivation in undertaking this project was to use the red cups to highlight the way each of us exists uniquely in the world and how I might show respect to that existence. But Solo Together soon provoked further complex questions about responsibility. Who is responsible for our conveniences? What mental processes allowed the original holders to throw their cups down without a second thought? Who, exactly, is responsible for cleaning up the deluge of cups and other non-degradable single-use plastic products currently destroying our planet? Who is responsible for disposal? What new meanings may emerge for this group of cups, who act as ghostly signifiers gathered together on a gallery floor? It is clear to me that solo and together we can find the right balance between the convenience plastics provide and the proper disposal they require.
My curiosity renewed itself and my investigation continued until I decided to enlarge one cup’s scale to monumental size. Which one should be chosen? Which individual cup would receive this elevated status? I selected a cup called JOKESTER because of how it sat on the ground and because its form had the potential to become a topography of sorts. The more I examined JOKESTER the more I could anthropomorphize it and imagine it at a larger scale. I wanted to increase the scale but maintain the color and surface quality of the original cup because I felt that on a grand scale JOKESTER could transcend its meaning beyond being a mere cup. The engineering problems were significant, but I eventually opted to fabricate JOKESTER by adding fiberglass, epoxy resin, and urethane foam onto a welded stainless steel armature.
The small cup that originally sparked my curiosity had become so much more. Its vibrant red color exceeded the party cue it was designed to be and now acted as a visual stop sign to signal true alarm. I became interested in how the piece occupied viewer space and how it required physical negotiation around its form. It was both a spectacle and an obstacle. At this new enlarged scale, the open mouth of the cup had the shape and urgency of an air raid siren designed to send a warning. JOKESTER extends the issues raised in Solo Together to serve as a reminder of consumption, waste, pollution, and re-use with a clear call for social change. Perhaps it does even more.
VI. Failure is Data
I strive to nourish that childlike creativity we all have. We must allow space to make mistakes. It’s part of the process, so pay attention. If we’re truly open to creativity, we must also be open to failure, acknowledging that failure gives good data from which we can learn and try again.
In 2016, my solo exhibition Bearings Down opened at the Goss-Michael Foundation in Dallas. The show was an aesthetically ambitious and visually charged immersive installation, with the eponymous work at the center. The exhibition was about bringing forth comprehension of one’s position in an uncertain, dynamic world.
It is fascinating to observe how one idea’s momentum can lead to others. I see this as a characteristic of many artists who are able to see the transformational possibilities of objects and spaces. Bearings Down was initially prompted by my original Africa Drawings (2010). These sketches were made while riding in a helicopter above the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. They recorded the experience of changing directions, experiencing turbulence, and seeing multiple points of view. Given their light and eccentric starting point, I worked with Adam Lowe and his brilliant team at Factum Arte in Madrid to dimensionalize the drawings until they functioned as depth maps and then etch them onto glass. A mirrored box was fabricated to further enhance reflection and illusionistic space.
However, during the shipping, the piece was damaged and the glass partially broken. It was maddening and saddening at the same time. Not one to be wasteful, I thought of ways to repair and redefine it. What could be created from the glass shards? The Japanese art of Kintsugi provided inspiration. I liked the idea that strength can be found in the broken parts. Ultimately, I turned away from repair and focused on further destruction of the surface, testing various methods with hammers and glass cutters. I arrived at the idea of using silver ball bearings to break the work. I loved the weightiness of their round forms. This tied nicely back to navigating space and provided convenient wordplay in “locating our bearings.”
I was mindful of the act of throwing the balls at the glass surface and the resulting effect. The creative gesture started back in a helicopter over South Africa, then found its way onto etched glass in Madrid, and finally on a broken artwork in Dallas. But the creative curiosity did not stop there, because in truth there is no end. The ball bearings simply provided the next creative step and the repeated assaults were captured with high-resolution audio and video. The finished video work was shown on custom-designed screens and debuted at the Goss Michael Foundation in Dallas with the sculptural work at the center. This version incorporated the sounds of shattering and tracked the paths of the rolling ball bearings. Object, video, and sound coalesced to create both a micro and macro landscape. This experience and resulting art illustrate how unintended events catalyze future opportunities to create. The reverse side always has a reverse side.
VII. Nature Shows the Way
I am so grateful to be an artist. I remember on the morning after the Presidential election in 2016 I had no words. I went to the studio and painted searing hot encaustic on raw wood to write Mourning in America. The melted and burned detritus became a chaotic assemblage called Alternative Facts and layers of black wax took on the appearance of a funeral veil declaring Orange is the New Black. Artmaking provided mental space to process my grief and the deep anxiety of suffering to come. I later contributed these works to an auction for Planned Parenthood.
I experienced similar emotions last February 2020 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. My work was being exhibited as part of the For Freedoms Congress at MoCA. (Please refer to the ongoing work of For Freedoms an artist-led activist organization that is leading important civic and social justice conversations.) I happened upon an exhibition about survivors of the tragic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It is a moment in history I am forever drawn to because of my father’s role as a navigator in the early years of the Cold War, flying reconnaissance trips over the north pole. He flew in a B-29, the same type of aircraft used in the infamous bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My father flew by the stars at night and landmarks during the day. He was part of an elite group called the “pole jumpers.” His snapshots from this time inspired my Bomber series, exploring the complex difficulties of navigation with limited instrumentation and my enduring fascination with this period in history.
The exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum revealed so much unnecessary suffering and horror. Yet within the exhibition, It was a partially melted sculpture of Buddha that made me gasp. Its metal was disfigured and partially dissolved by the atomic bomb. It embodied the moment as an indexical witness to the power of the destruction, a physical trace from that scene as undeniable as a fingerprint. I could not shake its hold over me.
I photographed the melted Buddha from multiple angles. Just a few days later, the realities of the pandemic and the necessary isolation hit. Like the rest of the world, I felt untethered and helpless in this space that was disrupting familiar behaviors and undermining the artifice of what we believed was controllable. Abounding fear and anxiety were collectively palpable. My learning from the Buddha had just begun. My understanding deepened along with an empathetic connection with a society that had been brutalized and damaged beyond recognition. The suffering was unnecessary and the chaos destabilizing. There were understandable accusations and blame, demonization, and stories bent to rationalize actions (sound familiar?). But the transcendent gift from the Japanese people is clear; to always take action and move towards healing even in unspeakably altered terrain.
One survivor of the Hiroshima blast, who went on to become an acclaimed landscape architect, told me about the feeling of ecstasy he experienced when he witnessed the first sprouting seedlings. Nature shows the way. It reminds us that through nurturing, and fortified by a support system, we can adapt and begin again. With the pandemic little is asked of us besides wearing our masks, keeping our distance, and washing our hands. We can handle these new daily requirements and thrive.
As we experience the tectonic shifts in society and its norms, there is a profound loss to be grieved. The death toll continues its rise to record-setting levels never witnessed during periods of peacetime. How do we heal while building a new normal? Any belief in returning to what we once knew is delusional. But the pandemic has provided a reset — there is an openness to possibilities and to choices based on what we have learned. It is important to move forward, adapt, and connect beyond ourselves. We are an intertwined ecosystem of nature and human fellowship.
When my metaphorical wheels threaten to spin-off (which is often) I return to what I refer to as the guidelines of my “Daily Six-Pack.” This six-pack has nothing to do with beer, nor unfortunately the state of my abdominals. It is a set of intentions that ground me. They include 1) meditation, 2) healthy eating, 3) exercise, 4) social outreach with family and friends, 5) sleep discipline, and 6) making art. During early isolation, I had few art supplies available, so I spent hours on my iPad and drew on simple copy paper or whatever was available. The haptics of drawing centered me in a generous way. The early works focused on the images of the Buddha. The empty center of the sculpture eerily echoed the shape of the actual bomb clouds. I continue to obsess over its positive and negative spaces. Maybe I am searching for some sort of direct clarity beneath the layers of materials and mediated imagery. I imagine a phoenix rising from the center of the ashes. Maybe there is hope still to be apprehended from the destruction.
VIII. Art and Activism
I am definitely an artist and an activist — they are one and the same for me. Because art can transcend language, politics, culture, and race, it can provide moments to pause and get out of our reptilian brain and into our prefrontal cortex. As a result, we can think differently, and we can begin to listen. We cannot continue to just be rigidly reactive. My work, inwardly and outwardly, reflects my deep concerns about the environment, social justice, and climate change. I try to make art in a way that is not didactic but provides viewers with multiple entry points for pause and reflection.
Specifically, I have been an active environmentalist over the years, and I have always thought about how we get that message across. I don’t have a choice. I have to be active on these issues, and I have found that my art is the best way to express that point of view. Art snaps us back to the present moment. We have been overwhelmed with the polemics of politics, religion, and culture. But we must pay attention. Over time, the planet becomes a logbook of our collective marks. In the case of single-use plastics, our legacy is piling up in landfills and forming bogs in our oceans. Awareness and empathy are necessary to create an improved relationship with the environment and with others. We need Mother Nature. Mother Nature does not need us.
It is now that the artist must resolve to take action. The studio, that most protected sanctuary of making, must turn outward to manifest your vision. You must join the conversation to move forward. Sharing your work, taking a stance, or even simply bringing an idea into reality can be daunting but it is necessary to enter the social language of art. After honing your senses and absorbing the moment, you must act. That action, even a single pencil line or advocacy for the creative community, is an act of preservation and a physical record of your experience. Art has the ability to provide a respite from these turbulent times. There is growing fatigue over the polemics in politics, religion, and culture. There is undeniable power in empathetic connection. Our future will be shaped by those who adapt, pivot, and collaborate creatively.
More recently, I have become an active supporter of The Black Lives Matter movement. The movement is an essential reckoning about the immorality of racist behavior. It is about our American system and the ways in which it has reinforced exclusion and injustice since its origins. The inflicted cruelties and harsh inequities have weighed down our nation. For me, it starts with an unflinching assessment of my own blind spots and biases. I have sought out the wisdom of black friends and frankly listen, much more than I talk. How can I effectively open doors to a fuller understanding and help change structural biases? As a white woman of privilege, what access can I provide to the people, and to the power positions within corporate, social, and educational realms? As an artist and an activist, it is my duty to be part of an expanding creative community that provides open platforms for growing conversations about issues of discrimination and societal fractures.
I know we need clear strategies and disciplined accountability in order to make change. And honestly, at times, I am embarrassed to be a white American. But I know that the need to correct our course is urgent. It is a necessary priority for me, and I am committed to learning, reflecting, and activating change. We all must work to electable and courageous leadership and perform our most important duty as citizens via the ballot box.
We must also put money behind our words, and that is why I have been so deeply engaged with a variety of organizations like For Freedoms and the Art for Justice Fund. The Fund is the brainchild of two truly exceptional people, Aggie Gund and Darren Walker, the Director at The Ford Foundation. Its mission is to bring together a community of artists, advocates, and donors to address the brokenness of mass incarceration and bring reforms to our criminal justice system. The Fund works to disrupt the very processes and policies that lead to high prison populations in order to work toward just solutions.
IX. A Place to Convene
I serve as chair of MoMA’s Committee on Education. MoMA’s original charter, dating back to the time of its founding in 1929, was in education. The foresight of Abby Rockefeller and her two fellow female founders, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, was to provide exposure and knowledge about modern art to a larger community. I feel endless awe and reverence for their brilliant vision and execution. Remember this was the start of the Great Depression and financing a new art museum of any kind in New York City was neither inevitable nor easy. They gave the arts a premier cultural position, as something powerful and essential to our human society. My own work with prehistoric cave signs, some dating back 40,000 years, reveals a consistency in the appearance of human marks and their ability to convey information and express ideas. The American psychologist Abraham Mazlow popularized the “Hierarchy of Needs” in 1943 by charting his understanding of innate human requirements. Yet Mazlow somehow neglected the human urge to create. Mazlow’s hierarchy missed the literal writing on the wall for our entire species — the need for an expansive language of creative expression.
MoMA began a two-year trial program called the “Educational Project” in 1937 and that led to today’s Department of Education. As early as the 1940’s MoMA incorporated laboratory-style art instruction, which grew offshoots like the MoMA Studios or, more recently, the People’s Studio. MoMA’s education programs and artist educators have been cultural leaders in the field on local levels, such as schools and community programming, and on the global level with full digital learning platforms. During a recent month, online MoMA courses recorded 1.2 million subscribers. While the content and delivery methods may have changed, the commitment of excellence to the theories and practices of learning has remained constant. With its wide aperture, the education department observes our local and global communities and interacts closely with our evolving audience.
Just this past March 2020, the MoMA Education Department launched a new audio-guide series called “Beyond the Uniform,” led by the artist Chemi Rosado Seijo who collaborated with MoMA security officers to tell personally meaningful stories about works of art from the officers who protect them every day. Visitors can listen to novel stories and insights from voices not typically heard, and since many of them are artists themselves, they have unique perspectives on the Museum and its collection. In one deft move, security officers shift from being the defenders of the museum’s collections to acting as the thoughtful, generous insiders who have been with the work the longest.
MoMA has had many opportunities for thoughtful examination during its life, spurred on by world events. The institution was founded during an extraordinarily difficult moment in America, and its history is punctuated with active responses to seismic cultural events. As the impending trauma of World War II loomed closer, MoMA remained open to the public and organized exhibitions underscoring humanity and freedom. In 1955, in the aftermath of World War II, MoMA organized the first truly monumental traveling photography exhibition called “Family of Man.” The curator, photographer, and noted pacifist Edward Steichen structured the exhibition around themes of connectedness, healing, and the possibility of seeing part of ourselves in the faces of others. MoMA has been the site of protests, including the 1963 picket by artists Jack Smith and Henry Flynt. In 1970 MoMA hosted the “Information” exhibit introducing its audience to the challenges of conceptual art. The critical urgency of many works from that exhibition rattled the very core of inherited institutional practices during the time of the Vietnam War. MoMA responded by each of these moments as they occurred and learned new lessons about its cultural role and educational mission each time. (Picketers Jack Smith and Henry Flynt are both featured in MoMA’s permanent collection now, for example.) The COVID 19 crisis is the just latest opportunity for MoMA to demonstrate its meaningfulness and social worth during a time of national duress.
Right now the ground under MoMA, like most cultural institutions, has shifted during the pandemic. In this space of anxiety and opportunities, we are required to reimagine our role in an unprecedented situation where there is altered access to physical space or objects. How can we be of service to others in such difficult times? It is exactly at a time of so many unknowns that the MoMA Department of Education is prepared to learn. Discussions are being held in real-time as we think about adaptations. How can a museum dedicated to facilitating direct, face-to-face encounters with works of art continue to educate during social distancing? How can a cultural destination housed in Manhattan and Queens serve its out-of-town visitors at a time when travel has become complicated, or potentially dangerous? Undoubtedly, the answer will be in the digital space where we can continue the crucial connection with our audience and expand it further with content. I expect much of it will be driven through educational platforms because at MoMA the educational impulse has been present in the museum’s DNA from the very beginning.
All cultural institutions need to more equally reflect the communities which they serve, now more than ever. Cultural institutions that wish to stay alive and relevant must not become ossified by previous successes but must remain agile and open to the accomplishments yet to come. Museums can no longer be defined by their edifices but must be places for convening, interacting, and learning. MoMA’s history has largely been informed by the scholarship of a predominantly white and male western canon. There are valuable lessons to be learned from that canon, such as generations of immigrant artists fleeing revolution, war, and genocide in Europe for new beginnings in America. But there are so many more thoughtful voices to be heard and many more valuable lessons to be learned.
In September 1974 Nelson Rockefeller spoke at his own Vice-Presidential nomination hearing in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Regulations. In his speech, Mr. Rockefeller recounted a letter he and his brothers received from their mother, Abby Rockefeller. In the letter, Abby Rockefeller advises her sons “…never to say or to do anything which would wound the feelings or the self-respect of any human being, and to give special consideration to all who are in any way repressed.” That was good advice for a mother to give her sons, but also good advice for a New York City museum. We continue to evolve in our understanding because we continue to grow. The MoMA Education Department and its educators are proud to carry on the legacy of Abby Rockefeller and will be invaluable resources for future growth.
X. The Role of Creatives
We all have a responsibility and at this moment there is a particular opportunity for creatives. If we aspire to be a society with a conscience, then we must think about our habits and recognize their effects. Artists, architects, and creatives can all set the tone, promulgate the values, and work to build a more responsible and reinforcing relationship with the world.
This ethos was never more apparent to me than during my time spent on The Presidential Committee for Arts and Humanities. The committee reflected the President and Mrs. Obama’s belief in the essential role of the arts in culture, history, and diplomacy. Margo Lion and George Stevens Jr. led a constellation of extraordinary creatives including Yo-Yo Ma, Alfre Woodard, Kerry James Marshall, Thomas Mayne, and Edward Norton to name a few. There was a seriousness and purposefulness. I knew from day one, this was not going to be a light lift. We went to work on initiatives to Save America’s Treasure and on a Haiti cultural recovery program. We toured schools and celebrated new generations of artists from the Coming Up Taller program and the National Medals of Honor recipients. We worked closely with then secretary of education Arne Duncan to address the budget cuts to arts programs in schools across the nation.
We refined our focus with the development of TurnAround Arts, where committee members “adopted” low-performing or failing schools. The goal was to provide arts programming in visual and performing arts. My question related to assessing the progress of these programs and defining metrics. Despite the initial skepticism and some dismissive attitudes, I pushed for measurements that might provide data about success and failure. In Congress, I understood that funding correlated with a direct outcome stood a better chance than mere anecdotes. We needed to speak the language of the realm and we had the President and Arne as advocates.
Through personal work at the University of Chicago, I witnessed the value of performance analytics. Sarah Stoelinga at the Urban Education Initiative provided our committee with strategies to develop programming and measurement. Once instituted, the early data from the initial group of TurnAround schools was promising: attendance rates increased, and disciplinary incidents decreased. This was only the start, but we were on to something. The program expanded to other schools and I am happy to say it continues to live on under the aegis of the Smithsonian.
For me personally, the experience of working with so many exceptional talents and observing the myriad innovative approaches to problem-solving reinforced my belief in the strength of diverse ecosystems. The Obamas led with their brilliance and compassion, and they were clear about how fulfilled they were with the infusion of arts and culture into the White House. The act of inviting those who would not typically experience the arts was life-altering for many of us on the committee. At the end of Obama’s second term, I submitted my resignation.
XI. To Gain Our Bearings, We Must Begin Again
In these turbulent times, where can we go to get our bearings? How can we find our bearings physically in the world? We must seek the courage to build a tangible and visceral life, not only a digital legacy. So I look for ways to map experiences and to navigate the spaces in between — where we all search for our bearings.
When we fall down, we begin again. In those moments, when we give ourselves opportunities to pause and notice, patterns of beauty and significance are revealed. My daily intention: to give more than I take. Other people matter and we have to think through the consequences of our actions. Relating to each other and finding commonalities will enable us to work together for the sake of the future. Realities are inhabitable. We can develop a new reality together with attention and courage. Perhaps we can meet each other there?