Engaging Artists, Communities, and Museums
For an imaginary moment, we stand together, shoulder to shoulder, looking at the horizon, looking at art, and ask: What do you see? What is your story?
While the final end product validates the collaboration, it is in ‘the doing’ that
we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the multiple and complex meanings of ‘family stories.’ The richly textured stories, steeped in the irony, ambiguity, and contradictions set within the cultural context of the historical moment, are at once compelling, tension-packed, and fulfilling.
finding family stories is at once immediately comprehensible--everyone has a family with a story--and at the same time, there is no straightforward way to define the project. It is an exhibition, it is a series of public programs, it is an educational program, it is about contemporary art. Most of all, it is about working together with no one person or entity predetermining the exact shape and size of what we are creating. We--the partners and the artists--mold the outcomes of the project in tandem. Our focus throughout the life of the project has always been on the process itself, more than the realization of specific outcomes. At the heart of it, finding family stories is about relationships--establishing, building, scrutinizing, and valuing relationships, between artists, groups, and institutions.
The Japanese American National Museum (National Museum) initiated finding family stories in 1995 to facilitate dialogue among diverse communities, artists, and organizations in Southern California. It was hoped that by directly working together to develop and implement a series of public programs, exhibitions, and educational materials, participants could learn from one another, both organizationally and culturally, negotiate differences, and establish a shared ownership and responsibility for the project.
The concept behind finding family stories was born a few years earlier in the aftermath of Los Angeles’ civil unrest in 1992, which coincided with the National Museum’s public opening. While we opened the institution, we couldn’t help but ask, what role could we play as a member of this diverse Los Angeles community?
Museums have historically been considered authorities on historical truths and standards of art, not necessarily addressing contemporary issues and the needs of communities. But as Kinshasha Holman Conwill states in her essay, museums around the country are now dealing with this question, especially after 9/11, of how to be "community-conscious," because they recognize that "museums are part of the web of organizations that create the life of communities." What responsibility can museums take in serving their diverse constituents, in being catalysts for community engagement and change?
The answer to this question is at the root of finding family stories. The National Museum realized its role as a catalyst in conceiving a framework where we could engage other cultural institutions in meaningful dialogue about what it means to be in Los Angeles, at this moment. We wanted to create a means by which to engage the community in this discussion as well.
In the first phase of the project, the National Museum partnered with the Korean American Museum (1995); Plaza de la Raza (1996); the Watts Towers Art Center (1996); the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum (1997); and the Skirball Cultural Center (1997). The project’s culminating event was the opening of exhibitions at each site. Contemporary works of art were selected by a committee comprised of curatorial and educational staff from each partnering organization. The exhibitions featured existing and new work by emerging artists who explored the complex yet familiar theme of family. Workshops, public programs, and educational components were developed and implemented by the partners. A significant outcome of the first three years was that the various institutions began to take ownership of the project. Participating staff and volunteers began to use the word "we"--not just in reference to one institution, but for all the partners involved.
finding family stories used a unique marketing concept: one exhibition in multiple sites. In order to see the entire exhibition one had to travel to all the partnering organizations. This sent audiences throughout the city, often to unfamiliar neighborhoods, hopefully with a desire to see art and be open to new experiences. The project encouraged a broad public to make their own connections to the diverse array of art and to discover and reflect upon their own family histories. This was no small matter in a city where geography divides people by race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation, and also delimits people’s interactions with those seemingly different from themselves.
In 1999 the National Museum, through the support of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, embarked on a second phase of finding family stories. Previously, the artists were not part of the process of conceptualizing the project as a whole. We began to consider how much more meaningful the exhibition would be if the work on view was developed within the context of the project, rather than outside of it. We felt that the power of the exhibition and the project would be enhanced if we invited the artists into the collaborative process from the beginning and commissioned them to create work inspired by the project itself.
In 2000 we hosted the first meeting of the project’s partners: the California African American Museum, the Chinese American Museum, and Self-Help Graphics & Art. Together we agreed to sponsor an open call to L.A.-based artists who would participate as equal partners in this project. After a rigorous review process, we invited eight artists to join the team: Sandra de la Loza, Teresa Hagiya, Patrick "Pato" Hebert, Betty Lee, Michael Massenburg, Dominique Moody, José B. Ramírez, and Steven Yao-Chee Wong.
With three years to work together (two more than in the previous phase), the framework for the project necessitated that the partners, including the artists, truly collaborate on developing every aspect of finding family stories. That is not to say that the project had no direction or goals; however, at the heart of it was a belief that the participants could learn from one another through actually "doing" it together. The hope was that everyone would have an equal voice at a table where all ideas were vetted with respect and where leadership could emerge from amongst the partners and artists.
A strategy for accomplishing parity among the partners involved the creation of teams of key staff members to develop and implement specific project components. Roundtable sessions, dialogues, and tours of different partner sites were organized to facilitate this process. Equally important was the commitment of all participants to diversity and cross-cultural exchange, expressed in the statement developed by the partnering board members: "We work together to inspire the public to value diversity, nurture creativity, honor our histories, engage in dialogue, and collaborate to build strong communities within our urban environment."
Collaboration is no simple task. While ambiguity allows for multiple interpretations and perspectives, in reality it often causes confusion and anxiety. In the past three years, there has been significant negotiation, discussion, discovery, and reflection. The end result is an exhibition at four different venues, with eight different artists whose work could not be more dissimilar. In her insightful essay on the artists and their new work, Sonia Mak reveals that despite their differences these artists hold similar values: respect for family, no matter how they define that term, and belief in the importance of the stories we all have to tell about who we are and where we come from.
Ultimately, those values are what bind the project together. finding family stories is not one thing; rather, it is many. It is about accepting and supporting, challenging and redefining, staying rooted and taking risks. Despite the disorientation partners and artists sometimes felt, we ultimately believe that finding family stories is a productive challenge and that the resulting exhibitions, programs, and the project itself are the result of us all standing "shoulder to shoulder" listening intently to one another’s stories.
--Claudia Sobral, Project Director and Kristine Kim, Project Associate
An Arts Partnership Project of the Japanese American National Museum
An Arts Partnership Project of the Japanese American National Museum