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The Curatorial Commons:
Places With a Past

Courtesy pervades the organizing of exhibitions, at least at the outset where a kind of courtship is enacted. It is seen in the language and practice of making invitations: an institution invites a curator to organize an exhibition; the curator in turn invites artists to show their work or, in more recent decades, to make new work; and the audience is invited to come. This protocol was well suited to the genteel setting of Charleston, South Carolina—a colonial city where the pineapple, a symbol of hospitality, abounds. Thus in January 1990 I accepted an invitation from nigel redden, general manager of the Spoleto Festival USA, to curate a sculpture show on the great lawn of Middleton Place, a former plantation along the Ashley River north of Charleston. With a background in the visual arts, he had wanted to strengthen its representation at the festival.

Exhibitions often start this way—simply—and then things intervene that enrich or complicate, enable or disable the process along the way. You can pretty much count on obstacles. And in point of fact, in October 1989, when Redden and I met for the first time in Chicago, everything had changed. Hurricane Hugo had hit weeks before, rendering it impossible to use the proposed exhibition site. This could easily have meant [End Page 151] postponing or cancelling the exhibition. But Redden, like me, had seen Kasper König’s 1987 “Skulptur Projekt,” the second installment of the outdoor show that continues to take place every ten years with the mission of inviting artists to use the city of Münster as inspiration and location for new works. In that version of König’s program, a small group of projects provocatively referenced the city’s dark histories, thus distinguishing this show from its inaugural version.1 Redden proposed something similar—using Charleston as site. He imagined that art could forge new ways for visitors to perceive this city. Just as the performing arts were staged throughout the city during the festival, this complementary art program would be dispersed.

As it happens, the shift of location to downtown Charleston, to my mind, was greatly preferable. For one thing, there was a precedent in the festival’s own history: the 1962 exhibition “Sculptures in the City” in Spoleto, Italy, where the organization had been founded by opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who later also established it in Charleston. Curated by Giovanni Carandente, this show is perhaps best known for giving rise to David Smith’s Voltri series, placed in the city’s Roman amphitheater. I had also employed a related curatorial strategy at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for the 1986 retrospective of Jannis Kounellis, an artist who was a forerunner of performative-installation works. In that case, four disused, turn-of-the-century industrial buildings were brought into dialogue with the works on view in the museum. To Kounellis, these nineteenth-century structures, with their layers of history, were the very embodiment of the American immigrant story and thus became the means to realize a visual “opera,” as he called it, about the passage of culture from the Old World to the New. At the same time, pressing these buildings into service was practical, for it would have been difficult to have shown more than a few of the artist’s installations in the museum’s then-cramped quarters.

Likewise, this move to downtown Charleston proved to be practical in a number of ways. It was also opportune. Later, in the years that followed Hugo’s retreat, the city became spiffier. Delayed renovations and upgrades (financed by insurance claims) were followed by housing speculation, with the part-time resident population growing in the lower peninsula and a housing boom spreading throughout the whole region, along with the construction of gated communities of ersatz Charleston homes on former plantation properties. [End Page 152]

But in 1990, immediately after the hurricane, Charlestonians were catching their breaths and regrouping to repair. So we were able to operate rather freely in this interstitial time.

Conceptually, it was a ripe time in the arts field to integrate an exhibition into the fabric of the city. Coming at the height of postcolonial critique both in and outside the academy, the idea afforded the chance to commission work that directly acknowledged histories left out of the canon—that is, experiences left out of art history as well as absent from broader cultural and national histories.

With this agenda, I felt I could build on my past curatorial experience, previously advocating for women artists in the late 1970s when I first entered the field and, resisting a New York-based perspective, championing “local artists” in Detroit2; then in Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1980s jumping in as European and later Asian art reemerged on the American scene. Moreover, a place-based endeavor offered me a chance to work directly with artists and audiences at a time when I had grown frustrated by the inhospitality of museums to those of other cultural backgrounds, while privileging the desires of a patron class.

Working in Charleston was an opportunity to put theory to the test of practice, and, in turn, Charleston provided an amazing setting for a revisionist appraisal of history. Every inch of the city seemed to have a noteworthy historic claim. Its tourism focused, not surprisingly, on the successful landowners who had come from Europe starting in 1670 and who made this colonial settlement into a major international port and phenomenally rich city only a hundred years later. Contributions to the Revolutionary War and, especially, the Civil War, which started in its harbor, were recounted with pride. But Charleston’s historical and living reality is both rich and fraught. In the nineties, the work of African slaves and the essential role of African American slaves and freemen to building the culture and wealth of these rice planters went completely unrecognized in the narrative visitors encountered. Meanwhile, every day in Charleston, seemingly remote histories of migration and trade played out in real life, in intimate, personal ways.

Charleston’s history lives through its citizens of all colors, many who can claim long lineages and a deep sense of connectedness to the place. Historian Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett felt this when she described Charleston as an environment [End Page 153] of living memory (milieu de mémoire), in contrast to a site of memory (lieu de mémoire), which exists in the form of museums and monuments.3 “Every intervention into Charleston’s past is also an intervention into the present. The past is everywhere and how it is produced at once displaces and produces the present,” she wrote. “In such environments, memory is part and parcel of everyday life. … It is embodied, narrated, and transmitted in the course of daily existence.”4 And this she found for herself, writing of Charleston: “Embodied memory is what we were privileged to witness.”5 Like artist David Hammons—who, setting foot for the first time in Charleston’s Eastside for Places with a Past, remarked that “This place reminds me of Africa” (though he had never been to Africa)—Kirschenblatt-Gimblett understood, too, that art has a unique ability to enact memory in the present. Yet how we remember has been a subject of much debate among historians and cultural critics. Memory is transient and fugitive, and it also may be collective. For many Charleston families, remembering has a long trajectory that dates to early origins on this side of the Atlantic and finds its way through the waterways of the Low Country. It can be shared across racial lines, sometimes intimately so. In deeply politicized as well as deeply personalized living history, there is little separation between then and now, history and everyday life. It was in such liminal spaces that combine temporal and political registers that I believed contemporary art could dwell for a time.

What would artists do in the city where North American slavery was born—a fact unacknowledged in the footpaths of tourists but remembered deeply by families that live on in Charleston? Could an exhibition provide a space for silences, long cloaked in Southern courtesies and traditions of servitude, to be broken? Could artists respectfully “give voice” (a now-discredited idea that [End Page 154] nonetheless is relevant here)? Could artists as outsiders open up a space for residents and visitors alike to come into dialogue with these histories, at least for a time? In Charleston I found what seemed to have become lost in art museums: people caring deeply about art as it enters and touches their lives and everyday circumstances. Such art experiences can last, and they can change us.

So what began with Redden’s own experiential encounter with art in place (in Münster and earlier in Spoleto, where he had been an intern), which sparked this idea for a sited exhibition in Charleston, became something much more. Artists confronted the conflicted histories of race in America; visitors were exposed to the subject in palpable ways; and for some residents their past was validated, while for others family stories as they knew them were reconsidered. Yet there was no curatorial mandate given to the artists to use, illustrate, or correct Charleston’s history. (It seems perhaps surprising now, in retrospect, that it all wasn’t more straightforward, but real process never is). Instead, to begin, there was only experience. There was no thesis. No theoretical prospectus or preliminary, discursive platforms to set the stage. Ideas could have started with cultural critics such as Homi Bhabha, Franz Fanon, or Edward Said, but this time, here, they had to be located, first and foremost, in the presence and actuality of the place itself.6 And it started with artists. Not conceptualizing the show on my own for artists to fill in the details, I left the concept open and unformed so that ideas could grow in conversation as we visited together and became for a while part of that place.

This kind of emergent practice can be challenging when working in museums where an exhibition concept and roster of artists needs to be delivered to the director, committees, and various departments, so that they can do their jobs. Museum curators, too, are charged with corralling artists’ creative wanderings and keeping their budgets on track. The festival was not in the business of exhibitions (its focus was on main-stage, ticketed events), but it did understand creative process and production. So this dialogue between artist and curator could follow a more generative, open path.

With no final list of artists in hand, my first invitations were to three artists with whom I had previously worked,7 drawing on past dialogues as I plotted next steps. There was Ronald Jones, who could provide sharp political critique and who had family in the Charleston area; Joyce Scott, whose ancestors were [End Page 155] slaves in the Carolinas; and Ann Hamilton, who possesses a perceptive sensitivity to cultural materiality. These and the other artists that followed accepted the invitation not because they were given unlimited finances or extraordinary production resources (as has become possible in subsequent decades with megaprojects). It was also not because their work would be seen by thousands (as biennials and big-city art museums can ensure). Charleston had long been at the periphery. There was something else at stake. For most of those who accepted the invitation, there was a sense that here they could respond to the gravitas of a larger human story.8

Every artist’s visit was a fresh start: new impressions arose from being in the moment and outside familiar surroundings. Each conversation I had with artists on the ground motivated the next move. I often ventured from my working list, which focused on artists whose cultural identities and works bore a potential relation to this city’s colonial history. Visits stretched out over more than a year of the sixteen months allotted to preparing the show, with David Hammons—hardest to track down but ultimately the artist longest in residence—arriving for the first time barely three months before the opening. Process-oriented curatorial practice means being in the process with artists; it means being present all along the way, respecting artists’ ideas and supporting their ways of working.

For me, working as a curator also means holding open the space of art making, expanding the sense of time and staying in the flow.9 A continuous series of reflective exchanges threads through this speculative, nonlinear, organic process. Ideas are talked about over and over and tried out as trials. At times I might propose something to an artist, but it is not important if the idea is taken up; even when bypassed, it may serve to keep things going, and even when accepted, it is inevitably transformed.10 My suggestions are open gestures, while artists’ willingness to offer inchoate concepts is part of the generative give-and-take. This dynamic is different from that of artist-as-curator and curator-as-artist, notions that arose in the 1990s. Rather, to me, it is a shared, co-creative activity: curating as a dialogic process.

Yet one constant in the proposition I made to artists was that the work be an installation. Installation art offers an embodied experience, affecting us in multisensory and multi-referential ways. When an installation is sited, its meaning is compounded.11 The act of walking into spaces of daily life that for a time become [End Page 156] art recasts familiarity into a new reality, carrying with it associative meanings from our own past. Such psychic and somatic experiences stay with us.

So we walked the streets, the artists and I, looking at buildings from outside and in. We looked at sites of prominent historic stature where partnerships might come about and at derelict buildings where public access might not be given. We began in areas traversed by tourists, then ventured further afield into neighborhoods and even beyond the peninsula if an artist’s particular interest took us there, as in the case of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who had long used the USS Yorktown as a subject in his work and found it docked in nearby Mt. Pleasant. So his site was necessarily off the walking map. Ann Hamilton considered many buildings, deciding only a couple months before the show opened on a former auto repair garage, chosen for its wooden, cathedral-like, skylit ceiling, which became the only non-historic site used. The nautical electronics on loan for Chris Burden’s boats and the photographs that emerged from Cindy Sherman’s study of images of Civil War field amputations required placing their works in the Gibbes Museum of Art where also, following the Münster model, there was an orientation display on view.

It was not possible to preapprove sites, as it would have been impossible to predict just what was to take place. Anyway, there were hundreds of possibilities—churches, schools, homes, stores, the harbor, a jail, and more—that needed to stay within our realm of imagining. Each place seemed to hold some potential. At every turn, critical questions emerged. Most of all, we met people who, in the course of going about their daily activities, would illuminate what mattered to them at a given site. Some of our meetings were prearranged, especially those with scholars and experts. Others occurred by happenstance. Yet all had something of value to offer, and everyone expressed their commitment to the Charleston area. While our experience of being in Charleston with the artists was enriched by each tourist attraction seen and every meal eaten, it was these experiences with people—our observations of and interactions with those who invited us into their lives and their histories—that grounded the process of making an exhibition and of making art.

While no outsider can arrive in a place and represent its population, a visitor can listen. In that, you can learn a lot. For residents, the presence of outsiders can offer something, too. There is safety in telling your story to strangers. Perhaps [End Page 157] they are less likely to respond with reproach or incrimination; visitors will eventually leave. And strangers can be receptive, while community members might have already heard the story, maybe many times. Moreover, there is a need to explain yourself, your home, more fully to strangers to make clear what you care about and what matters to you. In doing so, we sometimes hear ourselves for the first time and discover what is truly in our hearts. These conversations can be a gift to an outsider who lands for a time and engages in conversation; it can be a gift to the local community, too. In dialogue, we share points of view.

Some exchanges were collaborative, as with Antony Gormley, who asked young residents of the public housing project—after they had come poking around to see what was up—to help him place the figures that made up his installation, Field, one of six works that filled the Old Jail.

Figure 1. Antony Gormley, Learning to Think, 1991.<br/><br/>Photo: John McWilliams. Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.
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Figure 1.

Antony Gormley, Learning to Think, 1991.

Photo: John McWilliams. Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, who had made dialogue with residents a hallmark of their art as early pioneers of social practice, worked directly with the elderly owner of the home they had painted in a woodland camouflage pattern. Camouflaged History was the first project to go into production for the show, and it signaled the larger dialogue between art and life that would unfold.

Nearby on Charleston’s Eastside, David Hammons invited community input on how to finish a house-like structure he had framed out on a vacant corner lot. Local contractor Albert Alston called for the house-sculpture to become a house-museum, where young people could learn the value of their own homes and of their past. In many ways, the structure became Alston’s project, even to the point where he suggested identifying parts of the house with engraved black plastic labels like those he had seen Lorna Simpson use in her project on the other side of town. Hammons asserted his stamp on the house with a pineapple juice can in the gable, a play on local hospitality, and then shifted his attention on the companion park across the street, leaving the completion of the house to Alston. While he had hoped for aesthetic freedom, even there the city parks department showed up one day and planted sod, making a path and neatening [End Page 158] it up by bordering it in brick. Such developments cannot be anticipated. They happen on site and with people whose lives give meaning and form to art, ultimately bestowing it with its very reason for being.

Figures 2 and 3. Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, Camouflaged History, 1991.<br/><br/>Photo John McWilliams. Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.
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Figures 2 and 3.

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, Camouflaged History, 1991.

Photo John McWilliams. Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.

As it turned out, Alston raised the stakes with his demand that art promote historical reflection about both the present and the past. His commitment was powerful. Like a soothsayer in an ancient Greek play, he saw into the future. In 1991, he knew change was coming to the city. He was persistent in his message and fierce in his determination, drawing on the unrealized dreams of generations. Hammons felt that when he named this work House of the Future.

Today Alston still cares for that little house at the corner of America and Reid Streets. And at the park, called America Street, the festival still renews the billboard and the city’s recreation department maintains it. On the local scene, this project has become part of the stock-in-trade carriage tours, while on the international art scene, it has set a new bar for artists working in communities.12

Bringing accomplished artists into Charleston is business-as-usual for the Spoleto Festival USA. But Places with a Past summoned artists to town in an unprecedented way: to look at and engage directly with the city as subject. This was far from the premise of Gian Carlo Menotti, who founded the event in the US in 1977 to bring culture to Charleston, a region he deemed lacking in it, selecting this city over others for its theaters and European-like ambiance. And whereas all previous festival events had had admission fees, the citywide, open [End Page 159] access of this sited format of the art exhibition was taken as a gesture of hospitality: the local population was invited into the festival, as the festival inhabited their spaces.13 For many, this meant “attending” the Spoleto Festival for the first time. They may have accepted the invitation because the event was free or because it was right in their neighborhoods; maybe they found it compelling as art or mistook it for not being art at all. They might have gone because it was relevant to their ancestry. Others might have gone expecting to see someone else’s history and found a part of their own. Places with a Past’s meditation on history may have been healing for some. And even though residents and other visitors were not collaborators or involved in ways later enacted through community-based, relational, or participatory practices, everyone was offered in essential ways a chance to be a part by experiencing this place in a new and vitalized way.

Figure 4. David Hammons, House of the Future, 1991. Text on house: “The Afro-American has become heir to the myths that it is better to be poor than rich. Lower-class rather than middle or upper. Easy going rather than industrious. Extravagant rather than thrifty and athletic rather than academic.” America and Reid Streets in downtown Charleston. Photo: John McWilliams.<br/><br/>Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston.
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Figure 4.

David Hammons, House of the Future, 1991. Text on house: “The Afro-American has become heir to the myths that it is better to be poor than rich. Lower-class rather than middle or upper. Easy going rather than industrious. Extravagant rather than thrifty and athletic rather than academic.” America and Reid Streets in downtown Charleston. Photo: John McWilliams.

Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston.

[End Page 160]

While in 1991 discussions about art and identity politics and erased cultural histories were heated, contemporary art discourse had not arrived at a reconsideration of audiences—who they are and how art can address them. We are in fact still far from understanding the complexity of audiences in current-day social practice, not to mention in museums that vacillate between marketing and educational strategies. By investing in questions around historical memory and whose histories are remembered, I sought with Places with a Past to value the personal experience and personal stake which the non-art-expert audience, the people we met and the others who lived there, brought to the art. With that aim, this show offered some lessons in how art can be a lived experience and how it can matter beyond the field of art itself. It also offered me a way to think about the art experience more broadly and profoundly than had ever been possible for me as a museum curator.14 Can an exhibition continue to contribute to the lived experience of a place? And can that experience unfold within a community’s time beyond the time of an exhibition? If artists’ projects emerge from circumstances in life, are connected to people, can they feed back into the life of a place? Can art create a commons in which experience can be shared among a community?

Because this was a period in which artists were well versed in theory, so critically conscious of location and its histories and cultural complexities, all the artists in Places with a Past, by education and personal background, felt the gravity at hand in coming to Charleston. All saw this place within wider global stories of migration, exploitation, commerce, and culture. Yet critics distant from the process and actual local experiences were circumspect of their intent. One such example is Lucy Lippard’s 1997 critique in Lure of the Local, in which she criticizes artists who take up invitations for short expeditions to lesser-known places or to communities of peoples whose heritage she deems different from their own in order to create site-specific or social projects. Calling this “parachuting,” she sees this as exploitation of community histories for artists’ own career ends, citing Places with a Past as a key example. While Lippard had neither experienced the show firsthand nor talked to the citizens [End Page 161] about the affect of these works on them, she felt qualified to write that Places with a Past is “the model for art about place rooted less in local community than in myth filtered through the avant garde [that] tends to be strong in form and weak in connectedness.”15 Summarily dismissing such practices because the artists appeared not to clock in the right amount of time with persons different than their own ethnicity or removed from their place of residence, she went on to describe her own version of program curating, which, she purported, would have rectified the situation.

Well, how would Lippard know that Places with a Past would lead to another decade of community engagement starting in 2000? Of course, she could not have imagined the meanings made by visitors; what impact this experience would have on the artists’ and curators’ practices; and institutional efforts to represent other histories both inside and beyond Charleston. Yet I have seen how art and life can become intertwined over the course of time when the art in question springs from peoples’ everyday realities and aims to make that reality something that can be shared. When art is a commons, it is a place of deep and real communication. As we struggle within art’s institutions and discourses, including the thorny path of social practice, it is most important to take time to listen to the audience. What if we valued the art experiences by which personal and social connections are made, as much as we did what artists and curators and critics had to say?

So when In 1999 Redden invited me back to Charleston to do a project referencing the Middle Passage (an invitation that again did not play out exactly in that way), it evolved into a nearly decade-long engagement with Charleston communities through a series of projects that came to be known as Places with a Future.16 Some works undertaken in this period were mediations, and healing found great expression in J. Morgan Puett’s Cottage Industry (2002), Kimsooja’s A Lighthouse Woman and Planted Names (2002), and Suzanne Lacy and Rick Lowe’s Latitude 32°—Navigating Home (2003)—all very different approaches to site.

This period also afforded me the exceptional opportunity to hear from Charleston residents themselves about what meaning the works from Places with a Past had held for them. New acquaintances would describe to me in detail each element of their favorite installations and how it was both conceptually [End Page 162] understood and felt affectively over time. Most of the works were no longer on view, and had not been for nearly ten years, yet many Charlestonians’ recollections were surprisingly clear and intertwined with feelings, evoked by the artworks, that seemed transformative. Their comments seemed to affirm Michael Brenson’s statement that

if you really believe that the art experience can allow people to engage profound questions about history and power and the construction of the self and the construction of society, then you have to consider the complex, mysterious, multilayered ways in which art works. […] If you are interested in real growth and change, then you have to invest in the possibilities of thought and poetry outside institutions.17

Brenson also cites the process as one that “values[s] an experience in which the primary gesture is one of personal and collective opening, that can give hope for community and the political” in which “there was some point, some space, where all these histories could intersect without erasing any of them.”18 These ideas seemed supported by poet and Charleston native Kendra Hamilton who, as a participant in 2001, wrote this to me:

Figure 5. Kimsooja, A Lighthouse Woman, 2002. 9 different lighting sequences, 30:00 loop. Morris Island, Charleston.<br/><br/>Photo: Bill Struhs. Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.
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Figure 5.

Kimsooja, A Lighthouse Woman, 2002. 9 different lighting sequences, 30:00 loop. Morris Island, Charleston.

Photo: Bill Struhs. Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.

I never got to tell you how I felt, but that experience seems to have completely healed the wounds that I’ve been carrying around in my heart from growing up in that sick and seductive city since childhood. When I return to Charleston now, to visit my family or do research, it’s without that dull ache that used to start throbbing as soon as the pine barrens gave way to the low marshy flats surrounding the city. That is a gift you have given and I only wish there was something I could do to repay you.19 [End Page 163]

And based on this exchange, Hamilton became an artist-collaborator, working from 2003 to 2008 as part of a team with landscape architect/designer Walter Hood and conceptual artist and social choreographer Ernesto Pujol.

Yet in addition to the personal affects of Places of the Past and Places with a Future there have been some effective changes in Charleston, too. The three sites in the latter program all saw changes. At the Borough site, the two homes there that were used by Puett and Lacy-and-Lowe were saved from being condemned by the city and removed for redevelopment. The dirt parking lot of the Memminger Auditorium, once a civic building that served both black and white populations, became a permanent public garden thanks to Hamilton, Hood, and Pujol; this site is located across from a public housing project and the Old Jail used in 1991 by Antony Gormley. And the freedmen community of Phillips was made visible to local authorities, and with that, the highway that cuts through to new communities slowed down to a safe speed and funding was found to buy communal land for a future community center.

Figure 6. Philips Community, US Highway 41, historic marker.<br/><br/>Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.
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Figure 6.

Philips Community, US Highway 41, historic marker.

Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.

Figure 7. View of Phillips Community and surrounding housing developments, Charleston, 2004.<br/><br/>Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.
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Figure 7.

View of Phillips Community and surrounding housing developments, Charleston, 2004.

Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.

Several other sites associated with city’s troubling history with slavery were newly interpreted, such as the slave landing on Sullivan’s Island, Eliza’s House at Middleton Place, and the African American cemetery at Drayton Hall, which was reengaged by Lonnie Graham as an artist’s project in 2001 and subsequently opened to the public. [End Page 164]

Importantly, in 2006, the US Congress established the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which recognizes and preserves the unique contributions of captive Africans from North Carolina to Florida.20 Michael Allen, National Park Service Ranger and Community Partnership Specialist in Charleston, was instrumental in establishing the commission and in realizing this act of Congress; he told me he was inspired by the contemporary artists working in Charleston, and he joined several of them between 2001-2008 as a collaborator and interlocutor.

Figure 8 and 9. Kimsooja, Planted Names, 2002. Set of 4 woven carpets. Installation at Drayton Hall Plantation House.<br/><br/>Photo: John McWilliams. Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.
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Figure 8 and 9.

Kimsooja, Planted Names, 2002. Set of 4 woven carpets. Installation at Drayton Hall Plantation House.

Photo: John McWilliams. Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.

It was these experiences that lead me to the work of John Dewey, who taught that we grow through both doing and reflecting, and to my mind there is no better catalyst for deep reflection than the words of this philosopher. Dewey also believed in art as a means of personal transformation and potential social change. Where it leads is not limited by the artists’ intentions but rather set [End Page 165] into motion by them.21 This belief was steadfast because he put great stock in people’s experiences, not just of art but also of aesthetic moments as they happen in the everyday. In reflection, such experiences give meaning to our lives, and he would have loved the art that animated Charleston and made meaning for so many, me included. As Dewey knew, those meanings become a means of communication that transcends language and connects us. Communication, to Dewey, is a prerequisite for the existence of any community of persons. And to be a community is to share in a commons, to affirm what is common among us, and what the common good means in our time. What was experienced in Charleston was that kind of art: a form of communication by which we enact our humanity.

Mary Jane Jacob

MARY JANE JACOB is Professor of Sculpture and Executive Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies at the School of the Art Institute at Chicago. She is the author or editor of books including The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists (2010); Grain of Emptiness (2010); Learning Mind: Experience Into Art (2009); and Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (2004). Her curatorial projects have included “Studio Chicago,” 2009–10; “Learning Modern,” 2009; “Awake: Art, Buddhism, and The Dimensions of Consciousness,” 2003; and “Evoking History” and “Places with a Future,” 2001–08.


1. These projects included Lothar Baumgarten’s memorials to tortured Anabaptists, Rebecca Horn’s revisiting of a medieval-tower-turned-Nazi prison, and Dennis Adams’s bus stop “advertising” images of the trail of war criminal Klaus Barbie. These were the most prescient works to me.

2. See Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor 1963–77 (Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1980).

3. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett employed the work of French historian Pierre Nora in this portrayal. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, “Reflection on Spoleto’s ‘Evoking History,’” in Reflections on Evoking History: Listening Across Cultures and Communities (Charleston, SC: Spoleto Festival USA, 2002).

4. Ibid., 22.

5. Ibid., 24. See also 27: “Contemporary art practice, which takes as its hallmark critical reflection, is an ideal medium for shifting normative heritage productions from the informative to the performative. That is, by reflecting critically not only on historical narratives, but also on the modalities through which they are instantiated, contemporary art practice can make the modalities ‘perform’ themselves, thereby revealing not only how they ‘inform’ but also how they produce their authority. If authenticity is really about authentication, then a performative (and not only informative) approach to heritage is a signal contribution that contemporary art projects could make.”

6. For a more recent take on the situatedness of this show, see Michael Brenson, “Places with a Past: New Site-Specific Art in Charleston Belongs to Its Place and Time,” Brooklyn Rail, July 15, 2013. See http://www.brooklynrail.org/2013/07/criticspage/places-with-a-pastnew-site-specific-art-in-charleston-belongs-to-its-place-and-time.

7. Of the other artists in Places with a Past, Christian Boltanski was the only other with whom I had previously worked. [End Page 166]

8. The artists who took up this invitation were Christian Boltanski; Chris Burden; James Coleman; Houston Conwill, Estella Conwill Majozo, and Joseph DePace; Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler; Ian Hamilton Finlay; Gwylene Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet; Antony Gormley; Ann Hamilton; David Hammons; Ronald Jones; Narelle Jubelin; Liz Magor; Elizabeth Newman; Joyce Scott; Cindy Sherman; Lorna Simpson and Alva Rogers; and Barbara Steinman.

9. I discuss this process as a curatorial practice in the essay “In the Space of Art,” in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, ed. Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 164–69. See also my “Making Space for Art,” in What Makes a Great Exhibition (Philadelphia: Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006), 134–41.

10. For example, I brought a catalogue of Civil War photographer George Barnard to my first artist’s meeting, which was with Ronald Jones. He honed in on Barnard’s South Carolina Cherubs, which became the image for his tribute to slave insurrectionist Denmark Vesey, an idea with which he had arrived. At other times, artists spurred on other artists, as when David Hammons brought a tree that had fallen in Hurricane Hugo to Joyce Scott. It came to symbolize a lynched body in her installation.

11. Arthur Danto, a rare philosopher who devoted much of his career and thought to the subject of how art is experienced, explored the uniquely engaging, non-didactic aspects of site-specific art and his experience of it, in “Spoleto Festival U.S.A.,” Nation, July 5–August 5, 1991.

12. Funders and those versed in contemporary practice especially lauded the community interaction in Hammons’s project. I wanted to go further in this direction, cultivating ways that might allow such public interaction to happen more fully. This became one of the driving missions of “Culture in Action,” which I subsequently curated in 1991–93 in Chicago; see Exhibition as Social Intervention: “Culture in Action” 1993 (London: St. Martin’s Press, Afterall Books, Exhibition Histories series, 2014). Then when I returned to Charleston as curator in 2000, this two-part project by Hammons—still in situ—became the starting point for that decade.

13. The disposition of works also meant, de facto, a radical change for the Spoleto Festival USA, as it was the first time they offered a free event. If the original plan had gone forward, there would have been a considerable admission charge to Middleton Place.

14. I discussed the dilemma of the audience for contemporary art in the essay “An Unfashionable Audience,” in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, ed. Suzanne Lacy (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), 50–59. It became the driving discourse around the exhibition Conversations at the Castle that I curated in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics.

15. Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Sense of Pace in a Multicentered Society (New York: The New Press, 1997), 281.

16. The artists who were featured in the projects curated for the Spoleto Festival USA from 2000 to 2008 were, chronologically, Neill Bogan, Ping Chong, and Lonnie [End Page 167] Graham; Marc Latamie, J. Morgan Puett, Kimsooja, Yinka Shonibare, and Nari Ward; Suzanne Lacy and Rick Lowe; Frances Whitehead; and Kendra Hamilton, Walter Hood, and Ernesto Pujol.

17. Michael Brenson, “Conversation: February 22, 2022,” in Reflections on Evoking History, 45.

18. Brenson, “Conversation,” 43–4.

19. Kendra Hamilton, email from to the author, January 4, 2002. Hamilton would also go on to open the 2008 Spoleto Festival and deliver the inaugural speech on the steps of Charleston City Hall, the first woman and African American woman to do so.

20. See “Gullah/Geechee National Heritage Corridor,” National Park Service, at http://www.nps.gov/guge/index.htm.

21. See also my essay “Audiences Are People, Too: Social Art Practice as Lived Experience,” in A Companion to Public Art, ed. Cher Krause Knight and Harriet F. Senie (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, forthcoming, 2016). [End Page 168]