Alternate Pathways to the Art: 5 Tips for Public Programs

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I’ve been fortunate these past four years to serve as Manager of Public Programs at the Seattle-based Frye Art Museum. In that capacity, I oversee a portfolio of external facing, adult-oriented programs that include exhibition related programs, lecture series, and studio classes. My goal is a simple one: to offer the Frye’s audiences a new pathway to the artwork, that sparks within them ideas and perspectives that complement the themes of the exhibitions without being a discursive regurgitation of what the curator and artist have already put forward. How do I do this? Here are five tips and tricks I employ.

  1. Curators aren’t the only ones who should be researching artists’ practices and bodies of work. When charged with developing a program, it behooves the Manager of Public Programs to learn as much as possible about the artist’s ethos, exhibition record, their writings, and what has been written about them. Before and after you’ve done that, talk to the artist and curator. Repeat as often as necessary.

  2. You may know a lot about a given artist’s work or an art historical topic, but I guarantee you there is at least one person who knows way more than you. Identifying and inviting subject matter experts shows that you are in tune with the contemporary discourse and care enough about your audiences to give them the best.

  3. Partner with organizations and individuals who specialize in areas of the arts outside the immediate purview of your institution. This shows your openness to new ideas and genuine interest in capturing new communities. It also brings additional expertise into your institution, that it didn’t already have and creates a new associate with that expertise in the minds of your patrons.The Frye did this with its Jazz in the City program organized in partnership with Ariel Media and it has been a great success.

  4. Set yourself apart by doing what your peers are not. In 2015, the Frye launched the Native American Art History Lecture Series in part, to contribute to (re)situating the discourse about Native American art in the now. Approaching it’s fifth edition this year, the audience has grown steadily and the museum is now known as a place where contemporary Native American Art is a valued part of the visual and discursive fabric.

  5. Collaboration is key and ideas can come from anywhere. Key to success in my role is knowing whether I’m handling all parts of a program - ideation to execution - or whether I’m simply facilitating. Sometimes it’s both. My job is impossible without the support of most departments within the museum as well as partners, guest curators, and of course artists. Allow these people to help you be less myopic. It will only make your programs better.

 Negarra A. Kudumu

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