This is not a narrative of a project or series of them. It is a text that takes up the subject of time: the time of a project, the stream of time that flows through the process of a project, especially when one is in the flow, and then as one process flows into the next, over time. There’s constancy, yet, like a river, it is never straight by nature. This is also an essay about art—not so much about theory as about practice. It is about the understandings gleaned from art-making as a research practice—research manifested so that you can see for yourself and so others can partake or contribute. This practice constitutes a life’s research for artists; it can also be so for curators.
I will start this story in 1991, in Charleston, South Carolina, with the invitation from the Spoleto Festival USA to curate a sculpture show at Middleton Place plantation, which became “Places with a Past” downriver, in the heart of this colonial capitol. Here, the use of public, non-gallery locations was not so much a critique of the museum-as-institution as a critique of the institution of slavery. On the streets of Charleston, artists could play out theories of post-colonialism for real, vitalizing rich and troubled discourses of place, history, and memory. Here, artists experienced an unmistakable, though long silenced, presence of the past, and they deployed the temporary venue of an arts festival to push meanings forward. This was an exhibition that occasioned experimentation for some artists, with them extending their practice by venturing into installation (Lorna Simpson and Alva Rogers’s Five Rooms), community collaboration (Antony Gormley’s Field and David Hammons’s House of the Future), large-scale outdoor work (Joyce Scott’s Believe I’ve Been Sanctified), and the engagement of an entire building (Ann Hamilton’s Indigo Blue).

“Places with a Past” has been cited as an incidence of alternative curatorial practice, and it did help spawn a lineage that ranged from Fred Wilson’s institutional critique “Mining the Museum” in Baltimore to “Revelations” at Port Arthur, Tasmania, the landing place of Australian emigrants, artists’ look 15 years later at that nation’s own dark past. But, for me, it was not so much a conceptual trope as an embodied practice in tune with the processes of art. Curators care for process, as well as objects, creating situations so that art-making can happen fully and deeply. Curators also take care that experiences can happen for others, believing that experience in art and life will connect. (Mary Jane Jacob)

Ph. David Hammons, House of The Future, Spoleto Festival U.S.A, Charleston, 1991, photo: John McWilliams, courtesy Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina.

PDF of Mary Jane Jacob‘s complete article

Mary Jane Jacob is a curator and writer who pioneered public, site-specific, and socially engaged art as a shared practice. Launching her career as chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Los Angeles, she staged some of the first U.S. shows of American and European artists including Jannis Kounellis, Giuseppe Penone, Rebecca Horn, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Magdalena Abakanowicz—whose revolutionary fiber sculptures will be the subject of her upcoming show for the Tate Modern London in 2020. Shifting her workplace from the museum to the street, she critically engaged the discourse around public space with such landmark community-based programs as Culture in Action in Chicago, Conversations at The Castle during the Atlanta Olympics, and Places with a Past for the Spoleto Festival USA, which catalyzed two decades of community engagement in Charleston, South Carolina. In the early 2000s, Jacob co-led an open-ended investigation into the relation of the mind in creativity and meditation. This exploration resulted the book Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, while catalyzing exhibitions and programs across the US. In 2008 she launched the Sullivan Galleries for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Louis Sullivan’s famed Carson Pirie and Scott Building. Its research-oriented programs bring the city’s premier academic community into direct dialogue with its citizens as well as the global field of contemporary curatorial practice. Meanwhile through he co-edited volumes Jacob had grappled with artists’ work within the wider realm of society—Learning Mind: Experience into Art, Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, and the Chicago Social Practice History series. Her most recent book, Dewey for Artists published by the University of Chicago Press, brings together the experiences of artists and curators with that of the public in making meaning in the everyday.