The question of whether social practice work belongs in museums has been brought up many times recently, partly as a result of several different museums attempting to include social practice in their programming. There are a variety of approaches to include social practice work going on or in the works at the moment with various museums in the US. I think some examples work better than others, but the idea that social practice should not be in museums seems ridiculous to me. The 20th century is filled with cases of art practices that were at first not considered art at all and in various ways excluded from inclusion in art institutions. A notable example is Impressionism, which during its introduction was totally dismissed, and now of course is considered high art and is popularly appreciated. In other cases the artwork was less easily fit into a traditional form, like painting on canvas, but still made its way into museums and art world acceptance as in the case of performance art. Social practice is no different in that it not only should be included in museum contexts, but will most likely, as in those other cases, even find ways of operating in commercial gallery systems as well. Individual artists may decide not to show work in those places or participate in the commercial art world, but it should be their decision to make (and of course will depend on if they are given that opportunity in the first place). But it is my hope that even when artists doing social practice type work operate in museums that they will continue to also do work in non-art contexts as well. Part of the benefit and in some ways condition of making socially engaged work is being able to site and activate it in whatever the most appropriate locations for the work’s specific qualities are, which might mean a museum but just as likely could be a grocery store, library, park, etc.
One of the interesting developments of social practice is that in many cases the way that it arrives in a museum context is through the education department. I think there are some good things about that, and some problems. Museum education departments are already interested in public participation and interaction in ways that curatorial departments have not been, at least historically, and as a result there is greater value placed on some of the qualities of social practice (site specificity, participation, activity, deemphasizing objects, etc.) that in traditional gallery exhibitions might be thought of as problematic. Exhibitions are usually static and only designed to be viewed, not interacted with or participated in. But education departments are generally thought of as subservient to museum curatorial work and for that reason marginalized, and that can easily rub off on social practice projects commissioned by education departments. Education departments also often have mandates related to quantitative measures of success, numbers of school groups served, etc. etc. For those reasons it can be difficult for a social practice artist working with a museum education department to be taken seriously, and/or can be used instrumentally in detrimental ways. I have talked to many artists who were asked to propose projects for a museum through education departments, which were then not given the same level of support and respect as projects that had come through curatorial. That kind of discrimination is something that can and should change for both museum education departments (who I think can play a much more important role in museums than they have traditionally) and for socially engaged projects that take place in museums.
It is a bit tricky because social practice inherently contains elements that are desirable to museums in regards to creating participatory projects and potentially even addressing problematic museum issues and topics, but social practice artists ultimately need to maintain autonomy and freedom as artists to work on projects that have no obligation to fulfill museum interests. If the conditions that a social practice artist works in becomes too prescribed and determined only by the ways that the projects can serve the museum then it will negatively impact the work. There needs to be choice for social practice artists to determine in what ways and on what topics their work is focused, and that should not be overly directed by institutional concerns. Many times I’ve been told by a museum, especially in association with an education department, that I have total freedom in developing a project and then when I come up with an idea it is shot down or altered to a point that makes it no longer interesting to me because it doesn’t seem to directly address internal museum expectations or goals.
I think there is a great capacity for social practice to be integrated in museums if the work is understood and appreciated appropriately. Because social practice projects often don’t need traditional gallery space and can be done on a different schedule than exhibitions (longer or shorter than a typical exhibition run) makes it easy for a museum to accommodate. The fact that social practice is usually site specific means there are no shipping or storage costs, and in many cases there are no objects at all to have to worry about. Social practice projects can also be commissioned by museums but then primarily take place outside of the museum building creating greater opportunities for engaging with non-traditional audiences. Social practice work is positioned as art, and museums are the most valued institutions in the art world, so it is important that social practice work and artists find ways to be included and appreciated within museum contexts.