How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth, while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the organizational and artistic practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and practicing artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.
Here, we speak to Rob Blackson, director of exhibitions at Temple Contemporary at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. Blackson talks with us about the shifting relationship between artist and curator, Temple Contemporary’s approach to audience engagement, and the collective authorship of the Center-funded public project, Funeral for a Home. On August 28, Temple Contemporary will open reFORM, a Center-supported project engaging the community in addressing the closing of a school in North Philadelphia, with an immersive installation by artist and Pew Fellow Pepón Osorio.
How would you describe your organization’s character or personality?
More than a personality, I would say that Temple Contemporary has a moral compass that consistently guides our direction and values. An advisory council of 35 Philadelphians that I select sets this compass. The multi-generational council includes teenagers from closed public schools in Temple University’s neighborhood, Temple students, as well as civic and cultural leaders across the city like nurses, teachers, and historians. It’s their interests that guide us. This re-ordering of conventional gallery values necessitates a foregrounding of curatorial accountability, reciprocity, and exchange that forms the basis of Temple Contemporary’s social life, and by extension, our social values.
As a university-affiliated gallery, you engage with a variety of audiences—students and faculty, Temple University’s surrounding communities, and the broader art-going public. How do you approach audience engagement with these different groups?
I say this a lot, but I think it’s true: if your programming is for everyone, no one will come. Our approach to audience engagement is undertaken the same way you would start a conversation on something you care about. So it rarely has an endpoint or predetermined length in mind. This is different from the standard way many galleries work because we don’t live exhibition to exhibition. We don’t have to say, ‘our engagement with you or a topic you care deeply about will last for the next six weeks, after that there’ll be a new show.’ Instead, we remain committed on a person-to-person level for as long as that audience keeps the conversation going. This is how, for example, we’ve been able to continue doing programming addressing public education for over three years. Temple Contemporary is there to add another dimension for what people care about.
Can you share an example of a successful partnership that has influenced or inspired your approach to programming?
My benchmark collaboration is one between the artist Marcus Coates and an elderly man identified as Alex F, who was in hospice care and couldn’t easily get out of bed. Marcus asked Alex the simple question, “What can I do for you?” Alex’s surprising response was that he would like Marcus to go to the Amazon and report back to him about the devastation to the ecosystem and the indigenous cultures living there. Marcus went on Alex’s behalf and kept a journal the whole time (you can read his experiences in his delightfully restrained book The Trip). When he came back Marcus visited Alex once a week and read to him from the journal. Soon after he completed retelling the story of his journey, Alex passed away. What touches me about this collaboration is that it is both poetic and practical—this is the kind of balance I hope to strike in nearly all of our ongoing creative programs.
Tell us about a bold project or initiative you have undertaken that was particularly influential to your organization’s way of thinking or prompted notable change, either artistically or organizationally.
Funeral for a Home was a fairly bold project we undertook—not only for its sense of spectacle and associated risk—but more so in its active sharing of authorship. We worked very hard to insure that ownership of the project spread across Mantua so that it “belonged” in many different ways to many different people. Because of this I would say that what Funeral for a Home thankfully lacked in modernity (no single artist could take credit for masterminding the project), it gained in signaling a contemporary cultural moment that felt at home across this city.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your field over the past decade? How have these changes influenced your work?
Yes—I think there is a change afoot. When I began curating nearly 20 years ago, our focus was often limited to a curator’s ability to publicly deliver an artist’s wishes. This relationship between artist and curator was considered sacrosanct. Within my generation this single point of accountability between artist and curator has become diversified. There is now much more space for inclusion from the public and other professions outside the museum field which, I feel, enriches the curatorial process and, more importantly, breaks down the binary that kept the curator in lock step with artists.
Many of Temple Contemporary’s projects engage deeply with local communities. What ethical considerations most impact the organizational and curatorial decisions you make? How do they influence your sense of responsibility to the artists you work with, your audience and your community?
As our curatorial profession and the arts, in some cases, struggle to validate themselves and their service to the general public, I have noticed a deeper commitment to education. If we can call this a shift it fits well for my context within a public university as we center our work at Temple Contemporary on learning. The only responsibility of our advisory council is to ask questions that they do not know the answers to (all too often these are the last questions asked in academia). Anchoring our work in the unknown is the core of Temple Contemporary.
What is a particularly meaningful object you keep in your office? Why is it there?
I’ve got two objects that I like in the office right now. The first is a Wawa milk crate with the bottom kicked out so it works like a basketball net. And that’s been screwed to a backboard painted with a Wawa hoagie. It reminds me that all summer long it’s Hoagiefest! In Philadelphia. And the second is a marble stoop standing on end that has been carved (worn away, really) by the steps of its former owners. Somehow this reminds me that our everyday habits, like coming home every night, can eventually become something new.