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My Common Education: Lessons From Open Field

A Minneapolis Art Museum opens its grounds to community creativity

By By Sarah Schultz & Sarah Peters

In “My Common Education” Sarah Schultz describes Open Field, the Walker Art Center’s innovative experiment in offering an open space to the community as a commons where creativity of all kinds is encouraged. Sarah Peters in the story below, “When Bad Things Don’t Happen”, describes what could have gone wrong, and why it didn’t. Schultz is director of education and curator of public practice at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Peters is an independent writer, educator and arts programmer. These are reprinted from the new book Open Field: Conversations on the Commons, an absorbing collection from many authors exploring issues of the arts, the commons, public space and community co-creation raised by Open Field. OTC will be running several more excerpts from the book in the coming weeks.—Jay Walljasper

It isn’t that rules are unwelcome in the commons, but it is central to the notion that users will be able to participate in the process of decision-making about those regulatory principles.

“The common willing of a common world is an eminently practical undertaking and not in the least abstract.”
— Daniel Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula, Montana

It’s a muggy July night and hundreds of people are milling outside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A crowd is gathered under a tent to watch local chefs make sauerkraut. A group of regulars has grabbed some beers and joined the Drawing Club. Yarn bombers known as the Swatch Team are stationed at a nearby table, inviting anyone to knit. Far off in the field, an artist in a prairie bonnet sings to grazing sheep. The animals are followed with a boom mike to capture the soft sounds of chewing grass. The lawn has not been cut for weeks in anticipation of the evening’s grand finale — a concert of people mowing the field in tandem. A line has formed as the composer ties bells to the reel mowers volunteers have brought from home. He explains how they will move in three different groups around the seated audience. After twenty-six minutes, each individual will choose a path and mow off the hill out into the neighborhood. We overhear a woman saying, “This is a really exciting experience. I never imagined that I would be performing at the Walker. I can’t wait to tell my friends.”

The Walker Art Center campus includes four acres of largely open greenspace directly adjacent to the building. Situated on the edge of a residential neighborhood, it is flanked by a large downtown park and the idyllic Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on two sides and a busy freeway entrance on another. This parklike space is open to all, but privately owned, similar to many other public urban environments. Originally intended for development as part of the Walker’s 2005 expansion, the landscape design of the field, along with a proposed plaza entrance, was postponed. A notable addition was James Turrell’s Sky Pesher, 2005 nestled into the top of the hill, a room-size chamber whose ceiling opens up to the sky. Over the years, museum staff episodically used the field for large outdoor concerts, a mini-golf course, and traditional education activities such as workshops and family days. However, as time passed and people began simply to inhabit the field — having picnics, walking dogs, or just rolling down it with their kids — we were left to wonder what might happen if we thought of our open space as a shared resource. How might it frame cultural participation as a collective and dynamic process? What form of public park could emerge from the context of a contemporary arts center? There aren’t a lot of public places left in our lives where we can comfortably encounter people who, while they may not share our precise interests, hold in common an inclination toward engaged curiosity. In many respects, museums already serve this community, but an empty field provided us a rare opportunity to test something new. As a commons, the field was seen as a place for creative, social, and intellectual exchange and production rather than as a venue for the sort of presentation and cultural consumption typical for gallery, stage, or lecture room.

We assembled a loose group of non-Walker collaborators, and as we struggled to figure out how best to move forward, we jumped at their recommendation to host a community charette, a collective brainstorm session that would generate ideas; such communal planning seemed to us altogether appropriate to the goals of Open Field. This format turned out to be such a fruitful one that we repeated it the following year with a different group of artists and programmers. Six months before the opening in January 2010, thirty designers, artists, and cultural producers sat down together to think through the field’s unique physical challenges as well as the conceptual and logistical dilemmas of how to engage people both creatively and socially. By the end of the day, the group identified the site’s most pressing constraints and proposed an imaginative range of solutions, including a final plan for a shaded picnic area, along with the addition of a bar and grill and a plaza that could function as an impromptu stage.

The most difficult part of planning Open Field turned out to be the process of unscripting our own expectations and ideas about what should be developed. We knew we wanted the public to participate in programming, and we collectively wrestled with how to imagine an open, experimental, and functional environment that would achieve this. Walker staff had to acknowledge and set aside biases about the types of activities that people should organize; in my case, that meant foregoing some minor anxiety about mimes and juggling and a decided preference for jam-making and knitting. We were also concerned about the equity or balance of the space — that no one person or group should dominate the field in such a way that made it impossible or unpleasant for others to inhabit it with them. In the end, we took what I believe was an ambitious leap for our institution, making an earnest attempt to create a supported space in which anyone with virtually any idea or creative practice could participate.

“I have a right to know what kind of ‘experiment’ I’m involved in!” insisted one of our collaborators when we began to explain the project as an open experiment with the community. It was a stark reminder that we were changing the “rules” of institutional business-as-usual for the audience as well as for ourselves. We had some basic questions to address, and we needed to do so with transparency: How is one supposed to participate in a cultural commons? For that matter, what is a cultural commons? Nina Simon has written extensively in the Participatory Museum on the need for “scaffolding” participation, creating the structures by which people understand and are comfortable with how to engage and contribute. Since the museum and the public were literally entering new terrain together, we were most concerned that methods of engaging on the field be: varied (after all, we weren’t sure what was going to actually work); familiar but intriguing enough to inspire creative and social risk; more fun than frustrating; and most of all, able to reinforce the values and integrity of a commons. Over the course of the next few months, with the advice of many of our partners, Walker staff designed Open Field by using what I’ve dubbed in hindsight as the strategy of “rules, tools, seeding, and meeting.”

RULES
The first step toward not only articulating our values, but also facilitating a functionally “open field” took the form of the Rules of the Commons, later known as Field Etiquette [see accompanying sidebar], which were posted on the website. The construction and refinement of these operating guidelines brought up numerous tactical and philosophical questions, ranging from liability issues and hate speech to commercial promotion and trash disposal. While we struggled with the inherent tension between rules and radical openness, the crafting and enforcing of this document represented an ideological and pragmatic crucible for the project. [See accompanying story below.]

TOOLS
Our charette participants introduced the idea of providing “tools” for the field by designing things that would empower participants to create their own experience of Open Field. These included not only mock-ups for items such as portable seating, umbrellas, and shade structures, but also a model for ways that local artists might function as a kind of human prompt or “resident provocateur” by posing questions, instigating actions, or improvising the flow of exchange between visitors. Conversations on this topic inspired the production of a wooden structure aptly named the Tool Shed, which served as a hub for visitors. The fully realized construction housed sports equipment such as soccer balls, Frisbees, and hula hoops as well as art supplies, a library of books from several local presses, and even a portable tent kit designed by a local artist. Staff stationed there helped to facilitate and orient visitors, encouraging them to rummage through its shelves and use whatever they found inspiring, free of charge.

SEEDING
“Show, don’t tell” is every writer’s mantra. We also attempted to follow this maxim, yet at the beginning of Open Field’s first summer, it took us some time to realize that simply issuing an invitation for members of the public to “organize a book club, host a meet-up, teach others new skills” in a big outdoor space wasn’t providing enough direction; we needed to help people imagine the breadth of possibilities for what they might do on our field. A better strategy involved seeding the Walker’s commons with activities throughout the summer months, programming that we hoped might galvanize Open Field’s community participants to be imaginative and go public with their own interests and proposed uses for the space. We found that many had good ideas, but were tentative about doing things in the context of a contemporary arts center, particularly if they wanted to do something that had nothing to do with art. We needed to show participants what was possible, but also to offer them an invitation and, most importantly, permission to become more actively involved in planning programming themselves.

We invited local artists to use the field to experiment, to try things out. They hosted topical conversations; a playwright held public readings of plays; one local publisher even invited the community to pitch book ideas to him in an earnest but playful speed-dating format. One of our editors brought her daughter’s Suzuki violin class to practice on the field on several summer evenings, where they provided an unconventional backdrop for people throwing Frisbees or just hanging out and drawing.

“Seed it and then cede it” was a phrase coined during a second charette in 2011. This suggestion became one of our core operating principles — a good reminder for us to resist the inevitable institutional impulse to program or structure the field too greatly. We aimed to lightly seed the field with interesting programs, and then get out of the way to make room for whatever else might then happen.

MEETING
It was quickly evident that the social possibilities of Open Field were just as attractive, if not more so, than the invitation to create structured programs. Most of our audience is simply eager for a place to meet other curious and interesting people. In order to ensure that there was always something happening on Thursday nights, when museum admission is free, and to offer a low-threshold way for the public to participate, we launched Drawing Club.5 A weekly collaborative event, the program created an air of informal sociability around a shared task, where one could simply sit down and join in — it was art-making as a communal, informally collaborative endeavor, open to all comers. Along with events such as Acoustic Campfire (weekly acoustic music sets), artist-in-residence projects, and some intentional coordination of the publicly hosted activities, we were able to create unusual and lively programming mash-ups on the field that fostered an atmosphere of creative improvisation and social serendipity.

RESIDENT ARTISTS ON THE FIELD
As much as Open Field is a space for informal creativity, we also viewed it as a site rich with potential for professional artists interested in experimenting with public practice. As it turned out, our resident artists were critical to activating Open Field. Red76, Futurefarmers, Machine Project, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph were all commissioned in the first two summers to approach the field as a launch point for collective production and investigation; they embraced the public as collaborators in imaginative and wide-ranging activities — from the improvised building of a schoolhouse and the construction of a mobile, multi-person megaphone to performances starring neighborhood dogs or requiring push mowers to the making of a community classroom for social change. These highly visible projects proposed new ways to envision making, investigating, taking action, or playing on the field. The socially engaged practices of these artists and the intellectual and creative rigor with which they approached the aesthetic, social, and political implications of commons-based cultural practices were crucial to project’s evolution. The resident artists’ openness and warmth toward the public and their willingness to allow their work to unfold alongside whatever else was happening on the hill played an important role in what Open Field would eventually become: a porous environment that blurred the lines and leveled the playing field between professional and nonprofessional artists, weekend hobbyists, and creative enthusiasts.

During the first two years of Open Field, more than 200 people from the local community hosted programs ranging from storytelling and dance performances to art-making workshops; they brought to the field vernacular forms that included brass bands and knitting as well as social events such as book clubs and cribbage. However, many projects defied easy categorization, such as Spin with the Whorling Sisters or the Ground Breaking Invent Event. One of my personal favorites among these activities—If You Ignore It, It Will Get Better—offered participants free financial advice while they received a massage. For many, Open Field offered a way to share passions and interests with a larger community, and an opportunity to reconnect with creative energy that some thought they’d left behind. Artist and writer Gregory Sholette has coined the term “dark matter” to describe the array of output by informal artists, amateurs, and other creative producers whose work lies outside the formal art world’s critical frames — not by their choice, per se, but because of the “near-virtual hegemony [the elite art world] yields over notions of ‘serious’ cultural value.” Open Field not only brought this dark matter into view, but in some instances fostered it anew by empowering people to see their creative labor as a form of art and themselves as artists. The field functioned not as an arbiter, but rather as a catalyst that generatively and generously supported and made possible a wide spectrum of creative activity.

I heard some say Open Field got the art world out of the way, but of course it didn’t really. The contemporary art world was always right there, physically and psychologically adjacent and in constant interplay with everything happening outside in that common space. On Open Field, all forms of social and creative expression were equally respected and validated; the guiding principles of the field and the museum are not in competition, they’re complementary — albeit fundamentally different and creating a provocative discursive space where we might hash out questions around cultural value and representation. Indeed, Open Field instigated provocative and soul-searching conversations among Walker staff members around issues of cultural capital and quality, both within and outside the museum. Some worried that we were “diluting our brand” or that people would only come to Open Field and never step inside to the “real” museum. Others skeptically suggested that we were trying to get people to do the museum’s work for free, a comment that invites one to ask, “What precisely is the work of the museum?”

With the proliferation of alternative cultural outlets and forms, why should it matter that a contemporary arts center undertakes something like Open Field? Quite honestly, it doesn’t, if the motive is simply to increase attendance or if the work is done superficially and disingenuously. It’s a real challenge for an institution, even with a progressive history such as the Walker’s, to facilitate a truly improvised, open environment. It requires a dedicated staff, in attendance and at attention, to participate in and acknowledge the contributions and presence of others as well as patience with failure, faith in serendipity, the courage to relinquish control, and a genuine openness to change. As field coordinator Scott Artley wrote to me after the close of the project’s second year, “The physical and intellectual labor of the summer was considerable, but the real work was facing and attempting to challenge the institutional practice without alienating the very resources that made it possible to ask the questions in the first place.”

“The emergent properties of systems are never apparent from the conditions going in,” writes cultural critic Lewis Hyde in Common As Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. The same could be said of my own education on Open Field. What happened on the field was neither scripted nor accidental. Yes, it was scaffolded and seeded to encourage participation, and tools were put into place. But lest we take too much credit for crafting an encounter, it should be said with great certainty that Open Field only happened because people showed up, open and willing to improvise and engage with one another. Many compared it to the seasonal and temporary pleasures of summer camp, while one participant likened it to the story of Brigadoon, an enchanted Scottish village that appears for only one day every one hundred years. For while there were moments of amazing spectacle — an opera for dogs, a silent film that drew an audience of thousands, or the surreal site of local LARPers engaged in fantasy games — the field’s true enchantment arose from the practical undertaking of people coming together week after week, gathered in small groups around picnic tables, some knitting, some drawing, building something, listening to someone read a poem aloud, casually moving among others, talking, having a beer, just observing, or simply horsing around on the field.

“To inhabit a place is to dwell there in a practiced way, in a way which relies upon certain regular, trusted
habits of behavior,” writes Daniel Kemmis in his eloquent book Community and the Politics of Place:

_In fact, no real public life is possible except among people who are engaged in the project of inhabiting a place. If there are not habituated patterns of work, play, grieving, and celebration designed to enable people to live well in a place, then those people will have at best a limited capacity for being public with one another. Conversely, where such inhabitory practices are being nurtured, the foundation for public life is also being created and maintained._ 

“Open Field reminded me how removed I’ve become from play,” wrote one participant. “Humor can get us through the workday, but for play, we need other people and the willingness to suspend all self-consciousness with them.”9 Open Field reminded me of the fundamental ways in which we actually enjoy being together — playing, sharing, creating, conversing, daydreaming, and socializing. In this regard, it has changed the way I view my work as a curator and educator and renewed my own commitment to working more locally in this place where I’ve lived for more than two decades. Perhaps it is more precise to say that the people I met on Open Field changed me by demonstrating what it means to practice forms of social and cultural citizenship based on principles of trust, generosity, serendipity, caring, and authenticity.

My most humbling moment came when I tried to counsel the Swatch Team yarn bombers on creating a more “compelling” system of exchange for dealing with the hundreds of hand-knitted items they had collected and made during the summer. I was promptly interrupted and told I didn’t understand at all. They didn’t want to exchange with people, they wanted to “give it all away” in one celebratory moment with whoever showed up to take what they wanted or needed. I realized that as much as the institution helped give people a place, there was still plenty of opportunity for us to be put in our place.

The project began with questions about institutional practice and left me considering larger questions of where and how we want our public lives to unfold. What does it mean to live a generative or creative public life? How can we be more present with and for each other? In the quest to create a cultural commons, I stumbled upon acts of “commoning,” practices of gifting rather than owning, of curiosity rather than certainty, and of generosity rather than arrogance. I wish to neither reduce nor overstate what took place on the field, but truly, if we can’t sit down and make a drawing together, how will we ever make a world together?

In his landmark book The Gift, LewisHyde writes, “Both anarchism and gift exchange share the assumption that it is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.” The inhabitants of Open Field gave generously of themselves. What tangible or intangible parts of our institutions, I ask, are we prepared to “give away,” or at least hold in common so that the enchanted village appears more than once a century — or a summer?

When Bad Things Don’t Happen

By Sarah Peters

When Open Field launched as an expanse of grass, a set of wishful ideals, dozens of museum-organized programs, and an explicit invitation for people to come and use the space for their own creative endeavors, it also began with a set of carefully constructed parameters. Four “guidelines” and twelve “rules” [see accompanying sidebar on Open Field Etiquette] governed what a person could do (share skills, be creative) and couldn’t do (set up a grill, camp out, express hate speech) on the field.

These “Rules of the Commons” were a heavily debated subject within the museum. Questions of how to set up and maintain a privately owned, publicly available place played out in conversations that mirrored those you’d hear in a philosophy class. In staff meetings, we discussed issues such as: What are the central moral and ethical tenets of free speech and assembly? Who should be able to gather, to speak, to be here? What exactly do we mean by “the public good”? How do we construct written guidelines to communicate all of this?

The first version of the rules was intentionally minimal as a way of better communicating a spirit of openness. These most basic behavioral directives were later expanded and made more concrete after staff imagined several nightmare scenarios that could occur in an open, public space. We posted the rules on the Open Field website, but by the end of the project’s first summer, none of our fears about public misbehavior had come to pass. Political extremists did not evangelize, no one set anything on fire, and there were no trumpets played at midnight, which might have angered the neighbors. At the close of Open Field’s second season, we found that the situation remained much the same. Tai chi practitioners, guerrilla knitters, and Swedish chess players took turns sharing their skills on the museum’s lawn, and all did so in a friendly manner. The only ideological commotion I witnessed occurred midsummer, when a Christian flash mob cheerfully invited people to pray with them one busy Thursday night—hardly a disturbance; most people just ignored them.

Troublemakers or not, the participants who shared their creative activities on the field made good our experiment in crowdsourced content. Yet, this is not all that Open Field hopes to be. From the beginning, we set out to create a cultural commons using the outdoor space—a physical commons—of the museum. Out of respect for the concept of commons, and because that word is adopted so readily to describe its antithesis (shopping plazas or the grassy sections of private college campuses, for example), I think it is important to acknowledge the root concepts of commons and to articulate the differences between them and an institutionally driven, audience-participation project such as Open Field.

Generally speaking, a commons is a resource shared by a group of people. A vast literature outlines the history and contemporary practice of these systems, primarily in the realm of natural resource management and digital culture. In a commons, a set of resources—ranging from forests to scientific ideas—is regulated and shared by groups of people, all of whom contribute to regulatory systems that sustain the stuff that everyone uses. Without going into the long history and present complexity of these models, suffice it to say that Open Field was inspired by both the oldest and newest forms of such collective resource-sharing, from rights of pasturage for grazing sheep to Wikipedia.

In the case of Open Field, the available resources may not be as self-evident as a grazing meadow is for animals, but we found that several tangible assets help facilitate staging an activity on the field. The most obvious of these include amenities that take advantage of the open space, such as double-wide picnic tables and shade umbrellas, an expanse of grass-covered land, and a roomy soft-surfaced plaza that served as a stage. We also provided platforms for advertisement (analog and digital), some staff support, and social resources in the form of an audience. To that end, the museum is able to attract more substantial crowds to Open Field, which individuals working alone may not be able to gather.

The drive to make rules governing the use and availability of these resources came out of an apprehension around the very notion of “open.” We were nervous about the idea of the museum’s backyard being overrun by conflicting cultural, political, spatial, and aural agendas that could lead to arguments between participants, or worse, clashes between visitors and the institution concerning the messy territories of free speech. Additionally, the Walker is located in a residential area; we had neighbors to keep in mind, too.

Establishing a set of basic guidelines allowed us to venture forward into possible conflict with greater ease, primarily by determining a clear authority for the grass-as-commons. In addition to some fundamental rules, we also set up a system by which people could submit their events to a vetted online calendar. This functioned as a way both to promote the public’s activities and to filter out suggestions that didn’t comply with the field rules (such as events that would cause sound violations) or proposals that didn’t mesh with the spirit of the field (overt attempts to advertise goods or services, for example). We viewed the rules and staff-managed online calendar as tools that would allow us to live up to the “open” in the project’s name, while maintaining the authority to stop activity we deemed potentially dangerous or damaging to either person or property.

At first, the notion of reserving such institutional authority was uncomfortable given the stated aim of the project, for isn’t everyone supposed to have equal power in the commons? Not necessarily. As scholars from the fields of economics, history, politics, and culture have stated, all commons have rules and managers. Economist Elinor Ostrom discusses them extensively in her work; in fact, she adapts commons-based regulations of natural resources to serve intellectual production in her work with Charlotte Hess. Ostrom’s eight design principles shared by successful common-pool resource management systems include: rules adaptable to local conditions, ways for most resource users to participate in decision-making, monitors accountable to users, and self-determination of the community of users that is recognized by authorities. It isn’t that rules are unwelcome in the commons, but it is central to the notion that users will be able to participate in the process of decision-making about those regulatory principles. Architectural theorist Stavros Stavrides offers a similar view of the importance of user influence on governance. He posits that commons are not merely what people share, but also how they create and sustain these resources: “You have to be able to produce places where different kinds of lives can coexist in terms of mutual respect. Therefore any such space cannot simply belong to a certain community that defines the rules; there has to be an ongoing open process of rulemaking.”

These ideas about shared resources and rules are helpful in thinking about the way Open Field’s participatory goals fall short. The project aims to offer a commons of culture, but it deviates from the basic principle of users’ rights to participate in shaping the framework of that shared space. We didn’t set up open systems for field programmers or attendees to weigh in on the structure of the overall program, nor did we build a mechanism by which they might adapt the rules in a way that better suited their projects. In fact, it’s difficult to know how many people actually read our “Rules of the Commons.” They were only available on the website, not in the physical space, so it’s unclear to what extent any of the field’s casual users knew about the governing structure of Open Field at all, or that a theory of the commons was at play in the project as a whole.

We initially put the guidelines in place in an attempt to prevent the bad things that we imagined could happen, but as the project continued, we realized the rules we established also played an important role in imparting a set of values that both reflected and helped shape the sociality of Open Field. The social operations of commons are in need of considerable attention. Ostrom and Hess’ very definition of commons is “a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas.” As people negotiate using a shared space potentially for wildly divergent ends, a stated set of values functions as a solid foundation upon which to navigate users’ differing desires.

The ethics of Open Field were more clearly articulated in the iteration of guidelines that ushered the project into its second summer. Written by Open Field coordinator Scott Artley and dubbed “Field Etiquette,” this text uses the language of preservation—“Protect the Spirit, Protect the Space, Protect the People”—to communicate many of the same rules but by emphasizing values of respect, trust, and responsibility. These principles, while not foreign to the institution, are less explicitly stated or modeled inside the museum walls.

In this sense, these rules of etiquette can be read as a mission statement for Open Field. With its emphasis on creativity and community, the project’s aim is similar to the Walker’s core mission to be “a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences,” but it is important to note that the inside and the outside of the museum don’t operate on the same principles of openness. I’m not talking about gallery admission and theater tickets (though this is a distinct and obvious difference), but about the wild territory of non-curated programming accepted outside the gallery walls. Mark Allen of Machine Project once referred to this kind of experimental programming as a “shadow institution” that operates using a different set of rules than its parent. These two mission statements—inside and outside—can and should be part of the same institution.

One lesson we’ve learned from Open Field is not to make the galleries more like the lawn, or vice versa, because each mode creates an interesting context for the other. The fact is that the inside and the outside don’t hold equal power. The gallery show and the collecting of art is part of a market-oriented system of money and power set apart from the experiments playing out on the plaza, which may or may not possess the same measure of quality. However, the juxtaposition of these two spheres inevitably raises interesting questions about how and why we value culture.

In my earlier list of Open Field’s resources, I neglected to mention an important one: cultural capital. This is a complicated term; I prefer the old-fashioned word for it, prestige. Open Field invites people to conduct creative activities in a communal space with other artists, including those chosen by the institution. Sharing a resource such as institutional prestige doesn’t happen easily for museums that have traditionally played the roll of gatekeepers of culture. This proved, in fact, much harder than making rules to outlaw infrastructure damage and hate speech. It’s not unreasonable that the museum asks people not to do bad things such as pounding stakes into the sprinkler system or throwing cruel epithets at each another. But what do we do if they come to the field and make bad art? Or, what if the activities they present aren’t art at all?

Herein lies a challenge for institutions that employ criticality as a necessary function of their program. At Open Field, the judgment of “bad” is reserved only for actions that damage the environment, either literally or by violating the trust of its community of users; this is much the same way that other commons operate. On the field, people share picnic tables and join each other’s programs. Crafters who might not otherwise find an open invitation at the museum come every Thursday for knitting club. A wide variety of forms of expression are welcomed and presented. There is enough room for everyone, so long as they respect the space and their fellow inhabitants. In this sense, the Open Field commons illustrates what David Bollier calls “a flexible template for talking about the rich productivity of social communities” as much as it is about sharing the physical resources of the site.

This way of operating effectively debunks the mindset of false scarcity informing the way many institutions dole out, or protect, their cultural capital. Open Field posits that there is plenty of prestige to go around, if we simply shift the way we view the ownership of ideas. Ostrom and Hess strike this nail directly on the head when they describe knowledge as a “‘flow resource’ that must be passed from one individual to another to have any public value.” Perhaps the best thing that could emerge from this project would be for the Walker to give up the notion of its cultural capital as a finite resource to be controlled in favor of looking upon its institutional prestige as an infinitely available resource, continuously renewed by all of the people who come to share it.

Open Field, as a structured program of the Walker, is slated to end after 2012. [The Walker is not discussing how to continue the project.] Some significant questions now come into play. The museum expends a considerable amount of money and time to activate the field through staffing, assistance with public activities, communications, and programming. When the sun sets on this support, what will happen to the commons we’ve created? Will people continue to hold dance concerts on the plaza? Will Open Field’s most active users return in the absence of the social infrastructure provided by the museum and develop their own methods of organization? And crucially, would the Walker welcome them once the direct invitation for participation is no longer extended?

It is clear, in hindsight, that the urgency we felt to make rules to protect Open Field and the museum from trouble were not really necessary for the reasons that first impelled us to create them; people have not disrespected the space. The real concern turns out to be the question of whether members of Open Field’s commons will continue to use the space once the institutionally sanctioned program is concluded. Each September, after the official programming ends, the public-organized activities also cease, even though the field remains open—the picnic tables sit there, and the sun still shines on the grass, even as summer transitions into fall. Does this lack of continued public engagement constitute a failed project?

Poet and historian Dolores Hayden draws an inspiring conclusion about failure in her study of American utopian societies: “But failure, I think, is attributable only to the most unimaginative experiments, and I am willing to define as a success any group whose practices remain provocative even after the group itself has disbanded.”

In that light, I suppose the success of Open Field remains to be seen. It was begun as a way to change the public’s view of their agency in an outdoor, culturally imbued place. The challenge now for the Walker is to transition this creative usage of space from a museum-centered program to a genuinely public practice. This can only happen when the project is over, whatever “over” means for an experiment such as Open Field. My wish for its future is that this could be a space governed by a common law of creativity and an ethic of trust, and that it be tended lightly by its institution and ruled by its users.

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Posted October 26, 2012

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