Monday, November 23, 2009

Studio Practice in the Museum

Guest Blogger:
Jacqueline Terrassa
Assistant Director of Public Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Copying has been on my mind after a trip to London last week. The cast rooms at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the interpretive galleries of the Turner Wing at the Tate Britain reminded me how, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, drawing from the masters and especially from the objects of antiquity was a cornerstone in an artist’s training and practice. Copying was the way to learn from the past, a form of visual and intellectual research and a means to feed one’s artistic ideas and methods.

As an art student traveling through Europe twenty years ago, I too carried a sketchbook with me and spent hours looking at art, drawing what I saw. Drawing (copying) in the then pre-digital age was cheaper than developing multiple rolls of film. It was also a better way to graphically record what I was seeing, to make sense of how certain artworks functioned visually. While copying from the masters may no longer be the norm, drawing from artworks was alive and well in London last week. School-kids carried sketchbooks and drew what they saw, the walls of the cafĂ© at the National Gallery featured Frank Auerbach drawings after famous paintings in the museum, and young artists sat on the floor of the Tate Modern sketching.  

Are these old fashioned ways of looking at and making art? Hard to say. What interests me about the traditional practice of copying is that it relates to several larger questions that I grapple with as an educator at the MCA: How is it that artists use museums now? In what ways do they use museums for research? And how can museums, and especially contemporary art museums, best feed an artist’s studio practice?

A practice is a form of focused energy, an attitude, a commitment to a set of inquiries, a discipline. A practice is a way of learning and doing that is sustained over time. A studio practice has become a way of naming the kind of activity that is necessary in order to make art, an activity that may not be fully productive at every step, that may be partly private and at times social, whether it is carried out by an individual or a group. This activity may happen in a studio or elsewhere or both. Its results are a series of things and actions that come to be seen as works of art, as well as a larger number of bits and pieces gathered and of failures and false starts. The point is that, for part of the time, at least, studio practice is not about producing a final product for exhibition, but instead involves research, tinkering, and exploration. 

This is where the museum enters the picture. My involvement in Studio Chicago and the MCA’s upcoming exhibition “Production Site: The Artist’s Studio Inside-Out ” is making me reflect on what we call “studio practice” and in how this work extends beyond the physical limits of an actual studio into other spaces, especially museums. 

Artists are an important audience for many art museums. They produce what these places present. If art museums, and especially contemporary art museums, don’t engage living artists as audience members and as partners in thinking and doing, we are doing something wrong. 

But the relationship between studio practice and the museum matters in two other, more fundamental ways. First, artists take part in a dialogue with the past, both recent and historic, looking at what others have made. As places that present art and cultural artifacts for a public, museums have long served as catalysts for the creation of art. In this way, museums are part of the art making infrastructure--the system of resources, spaces, people, and conditions that constitutes a generative environment for new ideas and new art. Second, as art museums try to adapt and remain relevant to culture, we are now increasingly seeing aspects of current studio practice make their way into both the public and back-of-the house activities of museums, expanding how the viewing public sees art. 

A final tidbit from my London trip. On Friday, my husband Anthony and I met with an artist friend at the National Gallery. Our friend wondered if the National Gallery had any Caspar David Friedrich paintings (they have one, not on view). Recently he’s been reading about Friedrich and has become interested in how those broody male figures with their backs to us in some of Friedrich’s paintings function empathetically as stand-ins for the viewer while simultaneously preventing us from ever “entering” the picture. I was fascinated by our friend’s interest in studying these paintings; after all, he makes text-based paintings and there is little on the surface that would visually link his work and Friedrich’s. At a conceptual level, however, the connection made sense. He wanted to better understand how another artist had conditioned our own looking within the work itself. I left thinking that how an artwork functions, how it engages us as viewers, is perhaps the key aspect guiding how artists look at art in museums today. And later I thought of John Neff’s piece for the exhibition “Production Site”, which alludes  to aesthetics and specific works from art history to recast these very questions of reception, desire and mediation.

How is it that artists use museums now as extensions of their studio practice? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Jacqueline Terrassa is Assistant Director of Public Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She is interested in the intersections between art, people and institutions and has worked as a museum educator and art administrator at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Smart Museum of Art, and the Hyde Park Art Center. She received an MFA from the University of Chicago.

Cast room at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London;  Wall text in the interpretive room of the Turner Wing, Tate Britain;  John Neff 


  1. I really enjoyed your entry, Jacqueline. It was very thorough and thoughtful. Some questions did pop up while reading your entry.

    If the museum plays a larger part in studio practice of research, study, and display, then does it give the museum, an institution, not only a bigger role, but more power throughout the artist's studio practice? Basically, would this be another form of 'the institution forming/creating their own artists'? I do realize the public gravitates toward museums more than galleries exposing them to the art sphere. However, how could we expand the perception of art besides the museum or even within the museum?

    These are questions I've been asking myself for some time and I hope they were articulated well enough. It'd be great to hear your opinion on these.

  2. Thanks for your response and apologies for the delayed response. I’ve been having some technical troubles with the comment function.

    Right now I work in a museum, so I am interested in this entity. However, I am not claiming that museums are the only venues for expanding notions of what art is.
    I can also see why you and others would some pause at the idea of mingling the museum and the studio. But I don’t see the danger as being one of narrowing the sphere of art or making artists. Instead, the danger is not presenting the complexity of art practice well enough in the museum context, taking a superficial approach, and turning the creative process into entertainment.
    A museum stands by artists when it presents their work. And as I mention in the blog post, museums already have been and continue to be catalysts for new work, from the quiet activity of artists coming to a museum to see the work of other artists to the active and public function of museum commissions. (A future blog discussion could just center on museum commissions and the studio.)
    I am more interested in the museum in relation to the less visibly productive and reflective sides of studio practice, in how the museum can be helpful to artists in these processes and how we can foster public understanding of these aspects of artists’ work.

    Some artworks take this as a subject: Bruce Nauman’s “Mapping the Studio I: Fat Chance, John Cage” is a wonderful meditation of both distraction and method in the studio.
    In what ways can we in museums publicly share more of the studio practice of artists while being respectful to artists themselves? Materials and interpretive resources included in exhibitions is a classic and still effective way. Other strategies that the MCA and other museums are using include: artist talks focused on process and choices made; participatory workshops that adopt an aspect of an exhibiting artist’s way of working that tackle a question the artist is exploring in her work; projects by artists that don’t involve the making of “artworks” but instead reveal their interests and approaches, such as artist-curated exhibitions from a collection or museum archives; open rehearsals; or situations where the studio is temporarily situated in the museum, turning a gallery into a recording studio, a dance studio, or a visual art studio. (On-site studio situations are the trickiest to do well.)

    Does this long answer address your questions? Thanks again!

    Jacqueline Terrassa

  3. Jackie, I found that participating in the MCA's Works in Progress series ( by bringing a version of my studio into the museum was a terrific experience. My process involves a lot of material and visual research/experimentaition, and so translated quite well.

    When visiting the museum myself, I am mostly focused on the artwork and the formality of the setting, but this experience made me appreciate Museum audiences -so much broader than I could put together for a studio visit. The feedback and responses I got from all sorts of people (I was there on a free Tuesday, when the audience is particularly dynamic and varied), was invaluable to the creative research I was involved with at the time. I was also impressed by how receptive people were to seeing the materials and processes of a working artist. It is something I take for granted, but most people don't have access to this.

  4. Hi Sara, I'm glad to hear this (especially since it was at the MCA!). This is one of those programs I was referring to. The longer we ran this program the more we learned about how to make it genuinely useful for both the artist and the visitors who came by.