By the end of June 2010, Robert Dante, a professional bullwhipper, had become an Open Field legend. Nearly all Walker staff described the day the man with a whip came to teach kids how to do something dangerous.
“Can we really do this? We can’t do this! What if someone gets hurt?” One staff member recalled her initial fear after learning that an open call for public participation had yielded a proposal for a class on cracking whips. “I don’t know if our liability insurance even covers bullwhip accidents.”
Another staff member seemed ambivalent about the prospect: “Bullwhipping is awesome! But what the hell does it have to do with art?”
These interviews were one component of Commons Census, our research project that sought to survey Open Field and explore what it means to create a cultural commons at an art museum. Over the course of the summer, we gleaned the thoughts of staff and participants on-site as well as those of artists, thinkers, and community leaders at locations around the city.
We set out to interview each and every Walker staff member about whether or not Open Field was changing the culture of the institution, and of the thirty conversations that resulted, many used the bullwhip lessons as a way to explore the meaning and impact of the field’s public activities.
At first crack, bullwhipping has nothing do with art, but for one afternoon that activity proceeded alongside other unambiguous happenings on the field. Kids were rolling down the hill, groups of strangers were discussing the merits of individual colors around picnic tables, and some adults were simply enjoying a beer. What did any of this activity have to do with art? Was that even the right question to ask?
Many of the staff members we interviewed seemed less interested in what Open Field activities had to do with art than with what such undertakings said about public participation. It was, after all, an open field; the Walker was not curating or programming so much as facilitating public ideas and experiments, which were quickly found to be more varied, and in some ways more ordinary, than they’d expected. Among the yoga classes, Frisbee games, and book clubs, they all seemed to welcome the presence of the bullwhipper, if only because he exemplified their hopes and fears for the project.
One staff member described his perception of Open Field in this way, “It’s great to see so many people here hanging out, so many families, but a lot of them are just hanging out. They’re playing ladder ball. They’re learning about bullwhipping. But they’re not coming inside. They’re not experiencing the art. How do we get them inside?”
Another staffer lamented, “Outside is fun. There’s beer. You can learn to bullwhip! People are playing; they are creating. They are having conversations. How do we bring the outside in?”
One guard had this observation of the people who were going inside from Open Field to explore the galleries: “I’ve noticed that more people are getting close — are trying to touch the art. The kids are coming in and thinking they can run around. It’s chaos, but what do you expect? They’re running around outside, and the next minute they’re supposed to be quiet and look at art?”
The narrative of inside/outside was not limited to talk of visitor behavior, but also to the perception of artists: “It’s great that Open Field is offering space for artists to come and perform or share work. But I worry that people won’t understand the difference between the inside art and the outside…. I wonder if people will come here to do something just to say they’ve exhibited at the Walker.”
This tension was not surprising given the history and culture of art institutions, which have always played their role in defining the territories of sanctioned and unsanctioned art. Open Field introduces a new, more ambiguous space, one that invites public participants to help create and define its parameters. The Walker commissioned large-scale residency projects from the artist collectives Futurefarmers and Red76, but both groups worked in partnership with other artists, students, and museum visitors to realize projects together. At the same time, artists from a variety of disciplines, communities, and professional backgrounds brought their own performances and projects to Open Field. Whether or not this concept made them uneasy, almost every staff member we interviewed seemed to embrace the experiment.
We wondered what visitors thought of the Walker’s emphasis on play and public participation at Open Field, or about the notion that they were creating a cultural commons. To find out, we designed a simple survey based loosely on the US Census (the 2010 census was active at the time), and asked visitors to use it to engage one another in conversation on a broad array of themes. What was their reason for visiting the museum? What were their thoughts on which creative assets should or should not be held in common? What skills or knowledge did they have that they could share with others? Were they willing, at our suggestion, to explore the museum galleries with a complete stranger? We used a simple bulletin board and made hand-drawn visualizations on-site to reflect back what we were hearing.
What we learned was that in contrast to Walker staff, who seemed to labor over questions such as the state of our cultural commons, participatory art, or the inside/outside nature of museums, Walker visitors, for the most part, just wanted to enjoy themselves. They came to the Walker to experience art inside and outside. To most, there was hardly a distinction, except that only one location was always free.
These desires to be entertained as well as enlightened have probably always been part of what drives public audiences to connect with cultural resources, and museums and other cultural institutions have always attempted to imbue this experience with elements of education or appreciation. So what was different about Open Field? Was it really an exercise in creating a cultural commons, where visitors, staff, and artists can share resources and co-create? Can an institution such as the Walker Art Center seed and than cede that kind of turf?
We needed to look outside the Walker to gain insight on these questions. The soul-searching of Walker staff and the offerings of public visitors could only open part of the field. As a final piece to our Commons Census project, we invited a group of artists and thinkers whose work engaged similar questions, themes, and practices as those explored at Open Field to join a roving think tank that would visit six other “open fields” around the Twin Cities in search of a deeper understanding of the Walker’s project.
Over the course of the summer, this group visited an empty lot that artists and activists in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul envision as the site of a community farm; we toured a scientific research site where natural rather than cultural ecologies are studied, illuminating notions of diversity and resilience; we toured the Powderhorn neighborhood in Minneapolis with an expert on the history of the American lawn to see what we could glean about the Walker’s big green backyard; we danced in public with artist Marcus Young, whose Don’t You Feel It Too? project makes use of the open space of city streets to explore public performance and the transformative experience of embarrassment; we ate dinner in an alternative art space and met with artists who were exploring creative economies in a pop-up storefront.
These conversations, while far from Open Field, were perhaps the most generative, and ultimately the most enlightening. We learned that the questions posed by Open Field, while relatively new and exciting in the museum world, have deep precedents in other places. For Walker staff members who joined the series of field trips, it was a chance to steal some distance and perspective on the chaotic experiment unfolding just outside the museum walls. For participating artists and thinkers, it was an opportunity to get a sense of the field, broadly speaking. And for the public we encountered while visiting these sites, it was often an introduction to the Open Field project, and sometimes, to the Walker Art Center.
Most importantly, this part of Commons Census connected the museum to a larger network — one that we are all a part of — in meaningful ways. The inside/outside dichotomy seemed to lose relevance when you stepped back and viewed the Walker’s Open Field as just one of many cultural commons evolving in a city. Everywhere we went, the people we talked with spoke of a desire to create something meaningful together, something that was not based upon the exchange of money, but rather, of ideas, skills, or even simple conversation. Perhaps future iterations of Open Field will more fully embrace this patchwork landscape of fields, lawns, lots, streets, tables, and markets where cultural commons are in constant creation; and by listening to artists, audiences, and its own staff, perhaps the Walker can evolve while learning from Open Field and other ongoing experiments.
The commons is an elusive idea, and can’t be summed up by any single definition or action. More than just a space where artists, the public, and museum staff could explore and co-create commons in fun, creative, and playful ways, Open Field provided a platform where participants were invited to share, and in many cases enact, their interpretation of the commons, even if that meant cracking a whip.