What’s New Pussycat?: Socially Engaged Art and the Institution


It has been established that socially engaged art is not new, it isn’t news and at this point, it is not an innovation. There is a long history of this way of working. However, what is new is the institutionalization and professionalization of these practices which we see in the proliferation of MFA programs focusing on socially, publicly, and community engaged art, not to mention the many engagement-driven programs at art institutions across the US. Entire departments, programs, and staffs are dedicated to public engagement, social practice, public practice, community art (or whatever SEA freak flag you fly) and help to prove my theory that we can now leave the idea of the avant-garde behind. Socially engaged art is in the major, current, established, system of art and arts education. For me these developments signal at least two significant shifts: the education of future generations of artists could place significant focus on social implications, and that institutions could play a major role in the support and production of contemporary socially engaged art.

I believe that an artistʼs relationship to and placement in society should not be an area of specialization, or afterthought, but instead a core component of the education of all artists. Because I believe that all artists need to contemplate and consider context, publics, and relationships, I have recently been making the argument that art and social practice need to be taught as a foundations level requirement (the majority are MFA programs, or optional certificates). As much as artists are pushed to develop craft and hone in on concepts, they should be thinking about context, publics, and social function. This should be the basis of all art education today.[1]

Over the past five years I have worked with the Education Department of the Portland Art Museum on an ongoing series of public engagement programs and events, centered on an artist-in-residence program for social practice artists and Shine a Light. Shine a Light was developed in collaboration with the Education Department and connects socially engaged art to museum publics, creating a space in which to rethink what can happen in a museum centered around an annual one-night event that hosts over twenty artists creating site-specific work. Doing this work has given me access to see firsthand the challenges and struggles (as well as the excitement and pleasure) that museums encounter while finding ways to bring these practices into the institution, working with artists in fluid ways, and allowing for unknown quantities. Anyone interested in going deeper into what this looks like should read the Machine Project Public Engagement Artist in Residence Report. These are just two examples of many, but the big question that emerges for me is: What should be the role of institutions supporting socially engaged art?


Cat FestWalker Art Center Open Field, Internet Cat Video Festival, 2012. Photo courtesy Walker Art Center.

[1] These ideas originally appeared in my essay, “Ten Lessons Graphic Designers Learn That Every Artist Should Understand,” Share Document: Writings on Design, published by Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books, Portland, OR, 2013.

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Read more from Growing Dialogue: The Latest Thing

“Interrogating Innovation in Socially Engaged Art” by Elizabeth Grady – September 22, 2014

“I’m down with dropping ideologies.” via Twitter – September 23, 2014

“What Are We Trying to Get Ahead of?: Leaving the Idea of the Avant-Garde Behind” by Jen Delos Reyes – September 24, 2014

“’Innovation’ in art and capital” by E. C. Feiss – September 30, 2014

“Notations on Innovations” by Carin Kuoni – October 3, 2014

“Re/new” by Robert Sember – October 7, 2014

“Radical or Reactionary: The Value of Innovation in SEA” by Elizabeth Grady – October 9, 2014

“What’s New Pussycat?: Socially Engaged Art and the Institution” by Jen Delos Reyes – October 15, 2014

“Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes.)” by Stephen Pritchard – October 20, 2014

“Innovation as symptom?” by Carin Kuoni – October 31, 2014

“Unmaking Innovation: A Return to the New” by Elizabeth Grady – November 10, 2014

“Change as Form” by Robert Sember – December 1, 2014

“Jen Delos Reyes Responds to Growing Dialogue and You Won’t Believe What She Found on the Internet” by Jen Delos Reyes – December 4, 2014

Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.

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