Objects like crystal globes, shale stones, a love pyramid and even tree bark, become relics of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s collection through the blkHaUS Commons Artist Project, “The Commons Collection.” The collection is an exhibition and community experience assembled by designers Norman Teague and Folayemi Wilson, who explore the collections of everyday people around the city and display them in The Commons, the museum’s space for artistic and civic exchange.The project is more than an exhibition about collectibles: it’s a conversation about community and value, juxtaposed against the walls of an art-collecting institution. In the wake of other museums and institutions reevaluating their practices and how they contribute to the art world, the Commons Artist Project takes the museum out of its confines and brings it to the public.
Wilson, Teague and the MCA curator January Parkos Arnall organized five dinner discussions, scheduled through January, in community spaces across the city, on topics related to collecting, community, institutional practice and a question posed by blkHaUS. (Each dinner had its own question, related to the evening’s theme.) The dinners are a second component of “The Commons Table,” and serve as an open research model to bring community members and a designated curator together for conversations. Guests also bring a collectible and are photographed to have their objects and photographs displayed in the museum.
“Our idea was to look at what the main job of a museum is, what they collect, how they decide what they collect, and what they value, and then question how we push against hierarchical structures of museums as institutions and move them from a vertical posture to a more horizontal posture that includes the communities they sit in to make them more inclusive,” Folayemi Wilson says. “If you’re going to include people, you have to know them.”
Collectors are also asked why they chose their objects and what significance they hold in their lives. The collectible of Woodlawn resident Terrance Miller was a crystal globe that was displayed as a part of the “Nature and Social Justice in Twenty-First Century Cities” Collection, curated by William Hill. Next to his item was a didactic panel with a quote from Miller about the globe:
“I worked for United Way, and they collected stuff to give to us as gifts. These crystal globes of Earth were discarded, and I took them. Four years ago, I started an initiative, ‘The Black Man’s Expo.’ The globes became an award for community spirit and activism. The globe is a way to create connection with community—promote artistic and creative endeavors in the community.”
These are not the types of pieces you typically see in a museum, which is precisely why Teague believes the project is important, especially given the lack of diversity within institutions. He believes the dinners allow for the soft opening of topics that allow people, a lot of them black and brown, to deliver their own narratives, and engage different areas of the South and West Sides of the city.
“The act of dinner is a sincerely curated moment that respects and opens us for conversation and allows for a wide sharing of thoughts,” Teague says. “We intentionally placed geographical importance on the dinners to cover a diverse audience as well as garner new voices, and convey and demonstrate new and old forms of collecting as it relates to common life, while also posing the question to the museum, who designates the value in object selections?”
January 7’s program was hosted by TRACE at Austin Town Hall on the city’s West Side, with Paola Aguirre, artist and founder of Borderless Studio and curator Juarez Hawkins of Studio Rez, on “Radical Futures.” Some are even in people’s homes, like the upcoming January 28 program on the relationships between collectors and artists, at the home of longtime collector and founder of Diasporal Rhythms, Patric McCoy. McCoy’s home is considered a historical site for the Black Arts movement in Chicago, and his walls are covered with his vast collection.
Parkos Arnall says the MCA plans to continue these conversations over the course of the spring, and its signature “Dialogue Season” will be focused on “the idea of inheritance in the public sphere, including accumulated art objects as treasures in our public institutions.” It will also present an upcoming show organized by senior curator Naomi Beckwith, “Seeing Chicago”, featuring Nigerian-born, London-based fashion designer Duro Olowu, whose exhibition will feature objects from collections throughout Chicago to tell a story of artists and objects across time, media and geography.
“The objects we choose to collect in our individual lives tell stories about the values we hold as a community of Chicagoans. The MCA is in the process of thinking deeply right now about how our collection can be increasingly porous in its operation as a public resource,” Parkos Arnall says. “I am excited that this project allows us to be in direct dialogue with members of our community about the values we need to reflect as we continue to build a contemporary art collection for the city of Chicago.” (Ciera Mckissick)
“Commons Artist Project: blkHaUS studio” is at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 East Chicago Avenue, through March 1.