Open Studio: A Collection of Art-Making Ideas by Artists

Toby Tannenbaum

The J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection is largely historical, with essentially only one area – photography – extending into the twenty-first century. When I joined the Museum in 2008, we began discussing how to engage with contemporary art and especially with Los Angeles’ artist communities. The Museum had previously displayed the work of two local artists: Zoopsia: New Works by Tim Hawkinson and Please Be Seated: A Video Installation by Nicole Cohen. The decision was to focus primarily on how we might connect with local artists and contemporary ideas through the museum’s programme.

Mark Bradford during a workshop

During the workshop run by Artist Mark Bradford

© The J. Paul Getty Museum

We began to ask ourselves:

  • What are the rationales for art museums – particularly those with historical collections – to collaborate with artists?
  • What are potential roles for artists at theGettyMuseum? And what might be the value or impact for artists, audiences and the Museum?

In 2010 the Museum launched the Getty Artists Programme with the intention of inviting one artist annually to undertake an innovative project, or series of projects, based on their own interests or practice in collaboration with museum staff. Each artist has the freedom to select an audience with which to work and develop the project focus and format. The projects provide staff and visitors with new insights and perspectives into the Museum’s collections and exhibitions, and audiences with opportunities for unique learning experiences. By inviting artists to put forth the programming ideas the Museum cedes a measure of control over the ‘lens’ through which our visitors (both in person and online) engage with art and art-making.

Mark Bradford and Open Studio

The inaugural artist for the Getty Artists Programme, Mark Bradford, lives and works in Los Angeles and holds a bachelor of fine arts and a master of fine arts from the California Institute of the Arts. He is the recipient of a number of prestigious awards, including a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ in 2009. His work, in a range of media, often alludes to the dynamics of class, race, gender and urban economies.

Bradford chose kindergarten­ to twelfth grade (ages 5–18) teachers and students as the target audience for his project, as it is his belief that artists should take an active role in providing contemporary arts education. Based on his own school experiences, Bradford recognised that students often don’t have opportunities to engage with contemporary art and ideas during their school years. This belief was reinforced when he was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the National Art Education Association where he received many requests from teachers for curricula that address contemporary issues. While the Getty offers teachers more than two hundred curricular resources online, all were authored by staff or classroom teachers and none focuses explicitly on contemporary art practice.

Bradford and the museum staff developed a ‘wish list’ of  artists they would like to have participate in the project and extended invitations to an international group from this list. Participants included Catherine Opie, Kara Walker and Xu Bing, among others, who then authored prompts or art-making activities based on their own studio practice. Not surprisingly, given the range of the participating artists’ practices, many of the exercises are not about the making of objects, but rather conceptual, performative and participatory approaches. 

Developed as a solely online project, Open Studio: A Collection of Art-Making Ideas by Artists is the compilation of their contributions that is easily accessible to teachers and students around the world. The Getty site currently receives more than 8,000 page views per month.

Artists’ submissions and staff roles

Through the course of this project, we at the Getty investigated the role of staff in regard to artists’ projects. The projects developed through the Getty Artists Programme were intended to reflect the interests and visions of artists. The appropriate role of staff is to bring to the programme an intimate knowledge of the collection as well as expertise in audience and learning styles.

For the Open Studio project, staff designed a template in order to make artists’ submissions as easy as possible for them to share. As contributions arrived, staff members experienced with school and teacher audiences reviewed them with the artists. Together they worked through issues such as clarity of instructions and age-appropriateness of language. They also discussed how the exercises could be categorised in terms of media and level of difficulty. Staff (and then the editor) used the lightest touch with all suggestions, given that we wanted to retain each artist’s intention and voice, and we received the artists’ final approvals on all aspects.

Mark Bradford, RE-RE-Process

Bradford’s own submission, for example, was RE-RE-Process. It comprises three assignments: arranging song lyrics to make a visual statement, charting social groups in the school lunchroom, and creating self-portraits using blind contour drawing. All three are about mapping, indeed mapping something about oneself.

Assignment #1
Song Text Piece: Arrangement/Subtraction

Pick a song with lyrics that you like, then type the lyrics into the computer. Pick a font you like and make the type size thirty-six or forty-eight, so that it’s big enough to read at a distance, and then print the whole thing out. Cut the words out and arrange them on a large poster-sized sheet of paper. Finally, use scissors and cut out words that you don’t like, or that make you feel bad or uncomfortable.

… if you re-arrange the words out of order, is it a remix?

Assignment #2
Mapping the Lunchroom: Visual Information as Abstraction

Using a large poster-sized piece of paper (24 x 36 inches [61 x 91.5 cm], for example), draw a map of the lunch room or cafeteria in your school. Consider the architecture (tables, chairs, walls, cashier, etc.). On a second piece of paper laid on top of the map, draw the social groups that form within the space. Also draw how people move through the space. Think about how to articulate the information using colour, shape, and line – red dots for the cheerleaders, blue squares for the basketball players, yellow lines for how the hipsters enter and exit the room.

Is abstraction inherently all around us, and is expressing it simply a matter of separating it from the architecture of everyday life?

Assignment #3
Blind Sculptures: Displacing Linear Process, Physical Translation

This assignment is done in two parts: a contour drawing of a self-portrait, then a sculptural translation of the portrait.With eyes closed, draw your own head (from the shoulders up). Use your non-drawing hand to feel your features from the back of your neck, up and over the skull, across the hairline, down the forehead, and around the eye sockets, nose, cheeks, lips, and chin. Translating touch into drawing usually works best when the pencil never leaves the paper – create this portrait with one long, single line. Next, translate your contour drawings into three dimensions. Using paper and masking tape, students should use their drawings as guides (paper and tape is cheapest, but you can use anything, really: wire, clay, etc.). The larger idea is that the choices you make might reveal who you are as a young adult and how you translate your identity into art work. Everything that you’ll ever need to make art is already all around you. How can these ideas be adapted to something more specific to where and how you live and study?

Remember that these are only suggestions, places to start. If you start to wander, just go with it and see where you end up.

Bradford regularly engages in projects with local communities as well as with groups in other locales, often through museum-based programmes. As the Getty’s Education Department learned from teachers about their use of the project ideas in the classroom, we approachedBradfordabout his interest in interacting with students in a local school. He was less interested in ‘teaching’ using the activities he devised than in seeing how students interpreted the assignments and in talking with them about those experiences. He visited a studio classroom in a public (government-funded) high school not far from the Getty  and organised a very informal critique, looking at work from all three assignments. In his comments he often used single adjectives – particularly pairs of antonyms, e.g., structured/random, delicate/bold – to describe the work, and assisted each of the students in finding the commonalities in their own work as well as other students’ work.Bradfordtold the class ‘With this project I wanted you to experience … art that comes out of your day-to-day experiences.’ 1

Other Open Studio activities

Catherine Opie’s set of assignments, Documenting Home, reflects a body of work she made in 2004–5 titled In and Around Home, her most personal series. She offers five basic instructions for making images about one’s self, family, home and neighbourhood. In Assignment #5 she asks students to invite others to view their photographs ‘of people, places, and things and talk about them,’2 also providing reflective questions for the students to consider.

 In Color Walk, Amy Sillman directs a user to ‘Go on a colour tour of your town: spend an entire day out and about, observing the uses and expressions of colour everywhere EXCEPT at a museum or gallery.’3 She encourages them to consider the obvious uses of colour as well as how colours are used symbolically and harmonically. She suggests using a notebook to record how colour functions as warnings, advertisements and expressions of personal taste. Then she sends users to a museum to study how colour works in art. Finally, she offers opportunities for making personal statements with colour alone, on one’s person or in a public place.

Dissemination and extensions of Open Studio

The project continues to average approximately eight thousand page views per month. Teaching staff use individual lessons and share student work in professional development workshops, at conferences, on the Getty’s Teacher Facebook page, and through the e-newsletter Getty Teacher Update.

Bradford has recently had a mid-career survey exhibition, curated by Christopher Bedford, which opened at the Wexner Center, Toledo, Ohio, in 2010 and travelled to multiple venues, concluding at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in June 2012. In planning meetings at each institution, he introduced the Getty project and shared his interest in providing teaching materials on contemporary art. Following those conversations, the Aspen Art Museumand SFMOMA have developed parallel projects, both called Open Studio, and soon the three sites should be linked, providing users with an even more extensive set of artist-authored materials.

Recent Getty Artist Programme Artists

Each year the Museum invites an artist to create a project as part of the Getty Artist Programme. Jennifer Steinkamp, the programme invitee for 2011, is an acclaimed installation artist who works with new media and video to explore ideas about architectural space, motion and perception.

For her project, [re]vision, Steinkamp addressed the Museum as a site for exploration and inspiration, and she opted to work with university audiences. During three school terms, students from the Department of Design and Media Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles, were invited to create animation and design projects in response to the Museum’s collection and site. Students selected works of art or aspects of the surroundings that they found personally compelling, and through a process of interpretation, adaptation and revision, created new works.

A screen grab of Steinkamp's project

A sreen grab of Jennifer Steinkamp's project at the Getty on the small screen. 

© The J. Paul Getty Museum

John Divola, the invitee for 2012, works primarily with photography and digital imaging with an interest in, among other topics, the relationship between the abstract and the specific. Divola devised Digital Scavenger Hunt, in which participants use cameras and a short series of prompts to capture subjects drawn from theGettyCenter site and the Museum’s collections. Intended for multiple audiences – from elementary school to community college students – this playful and open-ended project provides a unique entry point to the museum experience as well as the practice of photography. The resulting images were assembled to create large-scale collective prints that encourage looking and express multiple, individual engagements. The project ultimately calls into question ideas of authorship and allows a large group of individuals to show their work at the Museum – and is thus playfully subversive, calling into question who decides what is worth exhibiting. 

screen grab of digital scavenger hunt webpage

A screen grab of the project overview at Getty by John Divola

© The J. Paul Getty Museum

Sam Durant, the 2013 Getty Artists Programme invitee, is a multimedia artist whose work explores the relationships between politics and culture. His socially engaged practice addresses subjects as diverse as the civil rights movement, southern rock music, and modernism. For his project, What #isamuseum?, Durant continued to investigate these ideas by engaging museum visitors and staff in an exploration of the roles and functions of a museum. Through a call-and-response format, visitors discovered a series of artist-designed questions placed in unexpected locations throughout the Getty Center. With these questions, Durant invited reflection on and a response to the expectations and preconceptions of what a museum is.

Sam Durants project on the small screen

A screen shot of the small screen at Getty of Sam Durant's project.

© The J. Paul Getty Museum

Because the Getty Artists Programme is intended to support artists’ proposals, sets of learning goals are not developed for each project. We can observe and document the level of agency and the outputs these projects generate. However, we recognise that we have not gained a full understanding of the types of learning taking place, and so we encounter some outstanding questions: To what degree is it appropriate to assess the outputs of a project rather than its outcomes? What assessment models would allow us to understand the impact of collaborative projects on audiences, artists and institutions? Each project has suggested new approaches for teaching in classrooms and in the Museum. As we move forward with this programme, and others with which we engage and collaborate with artists, we will consider and develop new models of assessment, aligned with the projects, in order to better understand their impact and value.

Toby Tannenbaum is the Assistant Director for Education and Public Programmes at the J. Paul Getty Museum,Los Angeles.

This paper is part of a series that are from or in response to presentations made at the Worlds Together Conference at Tate, 2012.