There’s been so much hemming and hawing about “social practice” art in the past few years, it’s a little painful to even say, or type, the phrase. It’s extra painful to someone with roots in performance, because the phrase tends to refer specifically to the visual arts in a way that ignores or discounts the collaborative, politically engaged work made by many in the performing arts, particularly theater and dance, for at least the past century (1, 2, 3). Recently seeing the phrase stuffed into the bio of an artist whose work doesn’t fit it, I wondered about the factors that might have led to it being there — perhaps ambition and the desire to attract funders along with critical or academic attention. Some prominent examples of the form last year, particularly Suzanne Lacy’s “Between the Door and the Street,” foregrounded questions about the material conditions this kind of work is produced under and how credit and resources are distributed amongst participants.

So, it felt a little odd to be picking up a fairly lengthy book on the topic, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, published by Duke University Press. But the number one reason I was intrigued by this volume is the person who put it together: Tom Finkelpearl. It’s even more interesting to read his book now that he’s set to serve as the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Tom Finkelpearl (image via Duke University Press)

Tom Finkelpearl (image via Duke University Press)

Finkelpearl has held a handful of different positions over the years, but has spent the bulk of his professional career working in Queens. He started his career at PS1 in 1982, and then returned there after a few years away when the museum merged with the Museum of Modern Art. Since 2002, he has been the executive director of the Queens Museum. While that institution is most widely known for the spectacular tourist attraction it has housed since the 1964 World’s Fair, “The Panorama of the City of New York,” many projects have taken root there in the past decade that you wouldn’t typically associate with an art museum.

Among the new hires Finkelpearl brought to the museum during his first few years was Naila Caicedo-Rosario. Her job, building on her years of experience working on political campaigns in Queens, was to serve as the museum’s community organizer. Caicedo-Rosario’s work led to a series of partnerships and events centered around Corona Plaza, a public space not far from the museum that was tied to the history of the neighborhood. Among the many not-so-typical-for-an-art-museum offshoots of Caicedo-Rosario’s work was a bilingual Healthy Taste of Corona Cookbook, over 7,000 copies of which were distributed for free in response to the growing incidence of diabetes among local residents. Even before that, with the hiring of artist Jaishri Abichandani to run public programs, the Queens Museum began opening their space to community groups for literally anything, from meetings to fundraisers to celebrations. (Read more about these projects here.)

The Queens Museum also holds classes in partnership with the local library system on subjects ranging from painting to web design in languages that mirror the first languages of many residents of the borough, which is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world. And for the past three years, following the launch of artist Tania Brugera’s Immigrant Movement International project, even more work is being done at the museum to incubate and support community members and leaders within the immigrant population of Queens and beyond.

Pedro Reyes: The People's United Nations (pUN) Assembly, November 2013. (Photo by Ramiro Chavez, courtesy Queens Museum)

Pedro Reyes, “The People’s United Nations (pUN) Assembly” (November 2013) (photo by Ramiro Chavez, courtesy Queens Museum)

All of which is to say that Finkelpearl’s commitment to genuine and long-term exchanges with his community, as well as his work to hire and provide space and resources to Queens residents, is in many ways the opposite of what “community outreach” has come to look like elsewhere in the arts. Enter What We Made. Neither Finkelpearl nor the Queens Museum is perfect, but the book is a really rich and nuanced entry into the conversation about artwork that brings artists and communities together, specifically within a visual arts framework.

Aligning well with the political commitments of the projects he’s shepherded in Queens, the book does not have a single authorial voice. Instead, it’s comprised of edited transcripts of interviews and conversations with over 20 artists, curators, academics, and otherwise, some of which Finkelpearl wasn’t even a part of. Down to making a point of naming each person pictured in each photograph, Finkelpearl’s fastidious insistence on giving credit to individuals other than himself is refreshing and largely unfamiliar in either the visual arts world or academic publications.

A couple of central themes ran across a number of the interviews that are worth highlighting.

Goals and Success, Demonstrating Possibility

In almost every conversation in the book, someone raises the question of how to determine whether or not a work of “art and social cooperation” (as Finkelpearl prefers to call it) has been successful. What are the criteria by which we should judge work like this — aesthetics, political outcomes, personal outcomes? This is the root of much of Finkelpearl’s conversation with Claire Bishop in What We Made.


Bishop is the author of one of the books considered a must-read on this topic, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, and is known to be deeply skeptical of the form, both for its political potential and its aesthetic value. One of the most interesting moments of Finklepearl’s conversation with Bishop comes when the two start discussing the fact that work generated outside Western Europe and North America often operates in decidedly different social, political, and economic contexts. Here Bishop admits to possibly needing to rethink some of her frameworks for evaluating what she terms “participatory art”:

The more time I spend in South America and Eastern Europe, the more confused I am about what my criteria are or should be, because I simply can’t map these criteria onto them; they are just not comparable contexts and histories.

As the conversation continues, Finkelpearl highlights his sense that America in particular is a unique context, largely at odds with other societies:

We are living in an extreme form of self-oriented individualistic society, though perhaps we are now in mild recovery from the most reactionary set of federal administrations, which obsessively valorized the individual over the collective …

Finkelpearl’s hunch about the uniqueness of the self-orientation of US populations is actually borne out by a research study that I’ve referenced before, “The Weirdest People in the World?” (see a write-up about it here).

In one of the interviews in the book that I found most fascinating, Finkelpearl touches on questions of success and outcome with Naomi Beckwith. Now a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Beckwith, as a teenager, was one of the participants in Mark Dion’s Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group, part of the seminal Culture in Action project organized by Mary Jane Jacob in Chicago from 1992 to 1993.

In the interview, Beckwith and Finkelpearl tease out the ambiguities that underlie any attempt to gauge the impact a social project might have. Beckwith says:

It’s difficult to know what sort of criteria to apply. As a curator I’m always a little wary of judging projects by their social effectiveness. Though I’m always happy to see that as a byproduct of the art project, I don’t know how to judge it as such. Still, there are personal and social outcomes for us. … As teenagers we were trusted for the first time, trusted as intellectual beings. It was a learning process where we were encouraged to think among ourselves, to talk among ourselves, and develop individual projects. It helped create a certain curiosity about the world, and sense of understanding, a performing of gestures that can be thought of as art in hindsight.

Later, she adds:

I always thought of success in terms of having participants be able to replicate Mark’s system of archaic science as art practice, and with that comes a different understanding of knowledge production. … In the end it was about shifting perspective—about how we inhabit the world intellectually and ecologically.

Time and again in What We Made — from Tania Bruguera discussing her Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School) to arts programmer and curator David Henry speaking with artist Ernest Pujol about a project they worked on together, “Memory of Surfaces,” at the Rhode Island School of Design — the notion of demonstrating various modes of inquiry, as well as alternative possibilities for social and political organization, come up as distinct project goals, often over and above, or at least equal to, aesthetic concerns.

Crossing Boundaries

One of the other potent questions that comes up throughout the book surrounds the question of crossing boundaries. A huge and very serious part of the critique of social practice art surrounds the fact that often a single artist enters or is given entrée into a community that they are not themselves a member of. The artist then leads or shapes a project that, in many settings, is attributed solely to him or her, regardless of how many community members actually collaborated on or enacted it. It’s easy to see why these scenarios bring up critiques focused on colonialism. And it can be really hard not to be cynical when you see artists reap significant economic rewards in the international visual art market after creating work that wouldn’t have happened without the input and contributions of frequently unnamed collaborators.


Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas (photo via Wikimedia)

Two of the interviews in What We Made touch on this topic but offer real counterpoints to the artist-as-interloper model. The first concerns Rick Lowe’s now well-known Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas. The second is a conversation with artist Pedro Lasch and architect Teddy Cruz, though the issue comes up most specifically in relation to Lasch’s Sonido Tianguis Transnacional project.

Lowe’s Project Row Houses, which began with the restoration of a block and a half of shotgun houses in the early 1990s, has been much discussed in recent years for its social outcomes and the uniquely long-term commitment it has made to Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood, with the formation of both a nonprofit organization and an affiliated development corporation. One of the interesting points that Lowe makes in the book is his discussion of the insider-outsider issue from a vantage that is, in many ways, the opposite of colonialist critique. From Lowe:

There is the need for people inside the community to benefit from what we’re doing on a service basis. But at the same time we realized that Project Row Houses was also intended for people outside the community to participate, to benefit from the opportunity to interact in a different kind of environment. … It’s been trying to explain to a wider audience that one of the unique values of community arts is that they simultaneously can engage local communities and networks of people that are nongeographical.

He goes on to mention some of the tensions that arise around the project’s identity as an African-American organization:

I deal with [boundaries] all the time in terms of how to allow Project Row Houses to maintain an identity as an organization that’s African American-centered but, at the same time, exposed and open to cultural views and outlooks from all over. And I see that some African American organizations are somewhat resentful of that. … My inclination, my sensibility, is about helping create collaboration and interconnection among the core populations that I’m working with, but in a way that maintains and reinforces the importance of the vertical connections.

Lowe also offers a nuanced take on the question of gentrification, which is particularly interesting coming from someone whose work has been centered for over two decades in an historically racially segregated and economically depressed neighborhood:

One of the ways that arts and cultural institutions add value is by providing an opportunity for people to come and contribute to a neighborhood’s diversity. So much development of urban neighborhoods is being driven by land values, and it’s causing a demographic shift. So the question is, do we have to allow the shift in demographics to take place as it’s happened in the past, where one group comes in and the other moves out, or can we create opportunities for a kind of staying period for this diverse population?

Is it possible to maintain a state of heterogeneity? And how? His desire in this statement doesn’t seem to be for statis — not for the old neighborhood or the new, but rather to foster a kind of change that prevents quick erasure and displacement.

Video stills from Pedro Lasch’s Sonido Tianguis Transnacional, Chapter 3 - North Carolina, 2007. (Courtesy the artist.)

Video stills from Pedro Lasch’s “Sonido Tianguis Transnacional, Chapter 3 – North Carolina” (2007) (via tianguistransnacional.com)

In Sonido Tianguis Transnacional, Pedro Lasch is more of a facilitator and a connector than a creator, and he takes his role seriously. For the project, Lasch collaborates with sonidera/os, DJs, and artists who produce music and large-scale gatherings and parties that have grown, at least in part, out of working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City. Through recordings of the live events that are distributed far and wide, these gatherings also facilitate connections with a larger Mexican diaspora. Lasch says:

A crucial role of mine as artist and cultural producer here is also to create connections where there are none, establishing links across social spheres that tend to remain separate, such as the informal and undocumented, the artistic and the academic spheres.

He goes on to point out that sonidero culture doesn’t require legibility within or recognition by northern arts institutions to be successful, but that instead arts organizations stand to learn from it:

Basically I think the sonideros and their networks already have impressively sustainable practices and solid artistic agency. The idea of opening contemporary art circuits to them is surely to democratize those circuits…but it is mostly because contemporary art museums and cultural institutions need to pay attention to what sonideros and people like them are saying and doing.

This switch helps to flip conversations about power dynamics and foreground the offerings of those being visited by artists and arts organizations. Rather than seeing this work through a colonialist framework that disempowers existing community members, Lasch suggests that those doing the visiting bear the larger responsibility for learning.

Artist Wendy Ewald succinctly makes a similar point in the interview focused on her “Arabic Alphabet” project, part of her larger American Alphabets series:

I have trouble with the expression ‘giving voice.’ The people I work with already have a voice. Often we don’t listen.

What What We Made does, perhaps better than anything I’ve read so far about this particular kind of art, is utterly refrain from arriving at singular summaries or judgments. Instead, the conversations foreground the nuanced and complex social relations tied up in any artwork, but particularly collaborative artwork that draws on communities operating largely outside of the arts marketplace. And the projects Finkelpearl has chosen to discuss and feature by and large demonstrate real possibilities for genuine exchange across networks and communities. I look forward to seeing how some of the thinking and questions Finkelpearl explores in this book play out as he takes the helm of one of the largest cultural institutions in the US.

Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation is published by Duke University Press.

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently started a podcast, The Answer is No, focused on artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are...