Finding an appealing yet manageable way to stage art-making activities within an art museum challenges museum educators.
Situating a hands-on opportunity to create in close proximity to the art-filled galleries feeds visitors’ curiosity most immediately. But how to go beyond the basic art supplies — the predictable construction paper in primary colors and pipe cleaners?
Since joining the staff two years ago, Ray Williams, the Blanton Museum of Art’s director of education, has been toying with how to reimagine the means of offering intriguing opportunities to engage in on-the-spot art-making to visitors.
Summertime sees volumes of children and families fill the Blanton’s Worklab, a drop-in art-making studio, sometimes lining up to wait just to get in. And Williams witnessed adults hunkered over the child-sized tables whenever special programs featured hands-on activities.
"I’d see grown men, crouched on child’s chairs while they were completely engrossed in whatever art-making they were doing," Williams says. "We had to come up with something appropriate for all ages to use."
But last week, like a sleek sculptural installation, three wood structures appeared on the museum’s atrium mezzanine.
Called Worklab Satellites, the structures are mobile art-making stations; their staging on the mezzanine last week was a trial run. They’ll return in early June, dovetailing with the museum’s family summer program and forthcoming exhibit, "In the Company of Cats and Dogs."
If they seem more conceptual furniture than Worklab Satellites, that’s because they’re the creations of multi-disciplinary artist Leslie Mutchler, who leads the University of Texas art department’s core studies program.
In fact, intrigued by Mutchler’s "Trendfactory" participatory art-making installation when he saw it in a faculty exhibit last year, Williams invited her to collaborate.
Cut from standard-sized sheets of furniture-grade birch plywood, the elements of each Worklab Satellite are designed to neatly flat-pack, ready to be assembled, disassembled and easily moved around the museum’s facilities.
The modular structural elements allow for the workstations to be configured in a multitude of ways, no hardware needed. Window-like openings connect a shared work surface, offering a place for people to collaborate and converse. Boxlike rectangular stools can be stood on end to seat adults or laid on the side for children.
Mutchler crafted the workstations in the art department’s new Digital Fabrication Lab, cutting the lumber with a CNC router, a computer-controlled cutting machine.
A broadside panel on each Worklab Satellite features simple directives (in English and Spanish) to create, such as the beginning instructions to make paper sculpture or how to explore warp and weft through weaving. Designed by Mutchler to teach and reinforce formal design principles and aesthetics, the creative challenges will change with instructional panels designed to be swapped out easily for new ones.
Two-wheeled cabinets hold the art supplies: strips of fabric, plastic stencils with geometric patterns, large sheets of thick fibrous paper, vividly colored tape and an array of drawing pencils.
"I wanted this to be as much like an artist’s studio as possible," says Mutchler. "It’s not about issuing a prescriptive for people to do something specific. It’s more about inviting them to explore, experiment and play with materiality — to have the sense of being a maker and make aesthetic choices."
As she did with her "Trendfactory" installation, Mutchler’s added a social media component to the Worklab Satellites.
Visitors to the Blanton’s satellites will be encouraged to share photos of their creations on a Tumblr blog set up to be an online archive of the piece. A project hashtag — #bmaworklab — will encourage people to connect their experience via Twitter and Facebook. For those without a smartphone, museum staff will be on hand, ready to upload.
Though Mutchler used sophisticated computer-controlled instruments and though there’s an Internet element to the project, Williams points out that the simple materials and construction of the Worklab Satellites speaks volumes.
"The hand of the artist is very evident in how they’re made."