Maiza Hixson’s Curatorial Statement

I treat the art exhibition as an educational and social medium as well as an opportunity to encourage public participation in and engagement with visual culture. I employ digital video and new media as tools to portray alternative experiences of exhibitions, including the array of conversations behind the making and reception of images.

How can contemporary art and cultural institutions connect with the public and demonstrate value and relevance in everyday life? According to Author Nina Simon in her book, The Participatory Museum, (2010), we can do this by inviting people to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers. Simon states, “As more people enjoy and become accustomed to participatory learning and entertainment experiences, they want to do more than just “attend” cultural events and institutions…Visitors expect access to a broad spectrum of information sources and cultural perspectives. They expect the ability to respond and be taken seriously. They expect the ability to discuss, share, and remix what they consume. When people can actively participate with cultural institutions, those places become central to cultural and community life.”

Two examples of my previous projects involving audience responses in relation to contemporary art and visual culture include Men Are Much Harder 2, (2006, 2010) and Itʼs So What, (2010-11). The issue of creating a personal connection formed the basis for Men Are Much Harder 2 in anticipation of an exhibition that I organized in 2006 in Louisville, Kentucky entitled Oh Boy: Men and Masculinity. I was inspired by a study conducted by Beth Eck of James Madison University who researched ways in which men and women responded to images of the male and female nude in pornographic, medical and artistic contexts. Oh Boy featured photography and video by several contemporary artists who depicted men in various conditions, from bodybuilders to patients undergoing sexual reassignment surgery. One week prior to the opening of the exhibition, I invited people to the gallery where Oh Boy would be held. I showed them 11 x 17-inch reproductions of the works that would appear in Oh Boy a week later. I interviewed and videotaped the participants on their subjective reactions to the artwork. After recording the volunteersʼ responses, I edited the footage and presented it as an audio-visual introduction to the show. Participants returned the following week, some with family and friends, to attend the opening and to see their own interviews.

For Itʼs So What, I tested Simonʼs theory that people want more than to “attend” cultural events. On the occasion of a private fundraising event for the Louisville Orchestra at the home of Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicolas, I conducted a series of interviews on the collection of contemporary art on display. Using their art collection as a conversational catalyst rather than as an innocuous backdrop to a party, I showed the guests, including artists and the collectors themselves, reproductions of selected works from the Shapin/Nicolas collection, interviewed people on their thoughts about the artwork and videotaped their responses. I edited the footage from the interviews and held a screening of the interviews at the home of the collectors one month after the event took place. Attending the screening were the collectors and several of the participants who enjoyed watching themselves and others react in a highly engaged and meaningful way to the artwork. Many guests I interviewed took offense at the collectorsʼ works and reacted negatively toward it. Others enjoyed the works and the collectors were pleased to see how much of an impact their art made on guests.

My objectives are to address what attitudes or values people bring to a work of art and to document how selected works excite or provoke thought in the viewer. Rather than script conversation, I encourage spontaneous observation and feedback with visitors; to generate initial conversation, I pose such questions as: What do you see in this image? Do you like looking at this image and how do you feel about contemporary art? The measures of success for such visitor feedback projects as Men Are Much Harder and Itʼs So What include a high level of enthusiasm and engagement on the part of the selected participants, thoughtful responses on the part of the viewer, and a useful and relevant document for museums, collectors, and others. The dvd artifact of the interviews functions on many levels: as an evaluative tool for museums; as a curatorial didactic or alternative exhibition text; or as a critical and aesthetic by-product of the curatorial process.

Although I do not appear in the videos, as the person staging the interviews, I am aware of my position as an engineer of the given situation. In an attempt to signify this fact to the participant, I become a researcher who interviews people on art as a professional activity. However, throughout the interview, I subtly encourage the respondent to consider my role as the facilitator of such an engagement.