Walsh brings novel interactive museum experience to WCMA

Lexa Walsh jumps next to a Phillip Guston acrylic, breaking museum etiquette to make a point.
Lexa Walsh jumps next to a Phillip Guston acrylic, breaking museum etiquette to make a point. Photo courtesy of Portland Monthly.

Lexa Walsh seeks to bring museums to life. A social practice artist who aims to activate the gallery by creating experiences instead of works, Walsh calls museums “graveyards of art,” in part because the nature of art objects inclines curators to place works at a distance, away from the viewer.   

No such distance will exist this Thursday, Jan. 28, from 5-8 p.m., when the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) will be made both interactive and alive for the second WCMA at Night event of the year.

“There will be art activity all around the museum,” Walsh said, “in bathrooms, on benches, around pillars.”

The event represents the culmination of a Winter Study course that Walsh taught this year called “Mapping the Museum – Intervention and Participation in Contemporary Museum Life.” The class examined the work of contemporary artists engaged with the institutional critique of museums through the art they produce.

During the first few classes, Walsh spent most of the time presenting, providing her five students with background on the types of artists she wanted to discuss.  Nobody in the class, she said, identified as an artist, although two are art history majors. But all of them got into it. The rest of the classes were spent in student-led discussions and presentations on “interventions” that could be done at the College’s own art museum.

“I really enjoyed the class,” said Kate Kennedy ’18. “It was fun to learn about something that we have on campus that’s pretty extraordinary, but that I often don’t give a second thought.”

Those who attend this week’s WCMA at Night will have the chance to take alternative tours of the museum, based around poetry readings and music that will change depending on the room. “Emoji boards” will be set up to allow visitors to record their responses to artwork in the language they usually employ to send text messages. People will also be able to take part in a sort of abbreviated WALLS program by adopting a work of art for part of the night and carrying it with them as they move throughout WCMA. Students from Matthew Anderson’s “Audible Imagination: Exploring Sound Across the Arts” Winter Study course will be leading sound interventions, and the College’s improvisation groups, Combo Za and Treestyle, will be performing. A set of rules delineating all the things you are allowed to do in a museum – as opposed to the things you are not allowed to do – will be on display. Walsh said that these legal actions include singing, breast feeding, reading a newspaper and making out, and added that the list is based upon interviews with security guards on things that they’ve seen happen in museum galleries over the years.

While it’s Walsh’s name and picture on the posters advertising the event, she stressed that Thursday’s event will be the product of work done by the entire class, including her five students, Nina Pelaez, WCMA’s assistant curator of public programs, and Rachel Heisler, the museum’s student engagement manager, who sat in on all the classes. The event is, ultimately, a student-led initiative – one that Kennedy said will hopefully facilitate “greater interaction between students and the museum,” affecting those who planned the event as well as those who will be attending.

Art will be everywhere in WCMA – except in the rotunda, which will be made into an “art-free zone.” Instead of paintings and sculptures, there will be yoga and food. All snacks will be “unpretentious” – think hush puppies and grilled cheese instead of fancy hors d’oeuvres.

Walsh studied sculpture in college, but later became drawn to social practice art. She has previously worked in a number of other places, including Portland, Oregon and Ljubljana, Slovenia. She was originally invited to come to Williamstown to collaborate on an exhibition with her brother, Dan Walsh, an abstract minimalist painter whose work is quite different from hers. It was the first time that the pair had worked together, and Walsh described the process of collaboration as quite “hard” – it took about two years. But she also believes that it was successful, because the final product is something neither sibling would have thought of individually. The show, called “Both Sides Now,” opens Feb. 11 at WCMA.

Walsh hopes that those who come to Thursday’s WCMA at Night will be “delighted, surprised and provoked” by what they experience. She wants to leave people with the sense that the museum involves them, that it is something far different from a library. Museums, for Walsh, are places in which you do not have to stay quiet. You can talk. You can whistle. “You can even yell,” she said, “as long as you don’t scare anyone or knock the paintings from the walls.”

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