INSIGHT: Dennis Kois – Executive Director, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum

it welcome to inside today we’re chatting with tennis courts
executive director of the Cordoba sculpture park and museum the corner the
sculpture park and museum is the largest part of its kind in New England Inc
under sink 30 acres northwestern Boston dennis is generously
agreed to share some his experience with us like to thank you dennis for joining us
thank you for having me appreciate the invitation so let’s talk about cordoba talk about the the physical plant and its gets
quite extraordinary 30 acres sixty works it is it’s both the
sculpture park and museum so that’s where contemporary art institution the thirty acres hold sculptures from ass for modern art up to made last week
and then we have galleries interior spaces that fulfill all the things you’d
expect in a more contemporary art institution have and the landscape is quintessentially
New England it’s located just down the road from Walden Pond so has his beautiful this doesn’t use in
a pond in forests and I it’s a quite stunning environment for Contemporary
Art and and your guests come and do the experience the Park first today
they tend to experience the contemporary that’s a great question
we’ve been wrestling with actually and you know they come in now they drive in and sir park in the park so typically
they’ve come through a portion of the Park first nay often will transit that in the
summer and make their way around obviously in the dead of winter they’re
less likely to spend their time freezing outside to be inside for the
program but we had about a hundred twenty thousand visitors a year and I’ll the vast majority of those I
think no es first as a sculpture park in that second early as a museum that has
galleries as well so the sculpture park itself the thirty
acres in a sense also functions as your entryway as your introduction into the environment into
thanking into the meditation visitors will undertake hearts not a
fact how you program the the museum and how you treat the the whole institution I think you
know they’re opportunity is there to make something
really special happen because white you can do outside in a park with
contemporary is quite different from what you can do in a gallery setting I think people arms
so much more open to the kind of experience as a contemporary demands in a park setting and they are in a
gallery in saree thinking a lot about how those two programs complement each other
and push each other forward and so for a lot of visitors their first
experience with sculptures outdoors many many folks will not visited apart for
and they’ll get there and that is a whole different world from
the kind of experience are used to in a any Museum at any time well and and what
I said fine so interesting about outdoor spaces in which are resides is
the interactivity that occurs not only
between the works and the viewer where the experiencer but
also between the environment and the work the environment in the
viewer in ache in a conventional museum you’re
walking into a space that is a where people are speaking in hushed
tones you have the work on the wall I if you’re lucky it’s
isolated very often there’s a lot of interfering noise from other works that
are there in close proximity and you are given an experience that is quite cost right
now that’s not possible in an outdoor experience where you don’t
control what actually happens to the to the user that’s correct i mean in in those are
very truest sense of the word that’s a self-directed experience out there and I think the real challenge for
Sculpture Park Circle different situations often get viewers to I serve look with new eyes it’s what
every museum tries to do it when I spent a long time I trying to do is a designer museums
before I became a director trying to get people to let go of those
preconceptions what they’re going to see anything the real beauty of the sculpture park is
because they’re outside because there are no hushed tones because their kids
can run around their dog can come with them if they
want I’m they’re much more open to those kinds of
experiences outdoors and they are in and so it’s are real advantage that
what they see first is that park the curatorial approach also needs to be
adjusted for the fact that you’re dealing with an environment the changes so people who visit the spring are going
to have a different experience than people who visit in the fall course going to and it’s going to be a
lot less that’s within the control the the curator because the environment
is not something that the curator control absolutely not
but the artist to the artists do and can and that’s the beauty of it i think is
that they’re so interested in that outdoor life an
object and in their work seen in those kinds of
contacts so you know I have yet to run across a nurse who hasn’t thought very
carefully about working outdoors in the way to cite the
work in the the seasonality other than what it will look like with snow and sometimes they don’t know and to
them it’s a great experiment as well and I think one of the things that we
are trying to do very carefully to part ways to be an artist centric
institutions were very thoughtful about inviting artists in to
do things they couldn’t do anywhere else now they can’t do this in a gallery they
can do this in a traditional institution and so they can do something that is very
unique it’s a very unusual opportunity for a lot artists we work with an often
where the first time they’ve worked outdoors in a really
serious way or in a particular way that they’re going to work with us they’re very thoughtful about even our
curator’s lose some control I think the RS survive are very excited to have that
opportunity in front of them so forgive my lack of knowledge abut a how many of the pieces or were all of
them cited by the actual artists themselves it’s a mix we have a
collection over outdoor sculpture not a huge
collection in fact we can talk about that but we
intensely now are very picky about what we choose to collect so above and beyond how we might be
choosy for our regular a surf photography and painting Colossians we have a number works that are borrowed
so from the Artis from the galleries from collectors I and
then we have prolly about a third of the work in the park is commission so it’s
site-specific your site relation and in that is meant to be a specific place
for specific duration into their arses working here and
helping choose that site most typically so it’s a real mix in the park the the real
focus for the court about is to be an
institution that’s about the future appts culture and wheres culture is
going and truly be a contemporary art institution and so much what you see when you go business
culture part particularly in the United States is a parking lot for the history and
culture so its orbit double challenge I think to be both the sculpture park and a true contemporary institution
we’re pushing boundaries in 11 is Rs come in and do something new and it has a a life for you know we
made only Commission projects for a year for two
years maybe three at the very outside what we do but it’s really quite
quick and then we turn it over and give another artist chance and you just wrote an article on on a.m. different perspectives and how part
should be shaped and how the experience should be shaped comment a bit on on what you wrote the
article I was responding to was a returning sir describe in a return to
the primacy of the object that something was lost in these kinds a participatory
experiences and really to me arm you know my
response and what I wrote for slate was really this idea that you one can have one without the other that
ultimately you are is an experience buchanan object is an experienced a very
personal relationship to an object museums can’t
afford either to be tone deaf to what culture is doing
right now in right now your culture is very much you know about
looking at yourself and self curate in your life in your facebook post your tweets answer
how you present yourself to the world in Rs are responding to that and also in some ways arm positing are
putting forward work that is a pushback to all that it’s a lot of the work is
very social ants relational static sets looking into the though a reserve are
they don’t see my car to a lot of a general audience one of the things I find to be very
interesting is the idea of the museum and its suppliers is a key as a catalyst and the works itself as as your paint but many I’ll museum directors CE see this is it differently how do you see the craft I love managing the museum presenting art a.m. a being an orchestrator how would you place from your perspective the terms and
being an executor actor an organization at the DeCordova that’s
really is a question I think for us in particular i cant core speak
to others and and how they’re passionate but for the
court over in particular really think my role there is to be an enabler an accomplice if you will to a talented
group of people who need to be pushed to take risks
coconspirator a coconspirator absolutely within pounds I un-indicted though I
would point out a unindicted coconspirator I’m but you
know were really there to push the boundaries and if the staff is not an
able to do that by having it made okay to make mistakes
with institution to trying to innovate and take some risks
some others will pay out some them or fail ought we were not going to ever succeed
if we only stick to what we know is gonna work has a contemporary institution in
particular I think we’re going to fail and I’ll so we’re really pushing hard to
try and break new ground in a lot at it right now to systematically but operationally and programmatically
in what we’re doing so an example I might use is we like many museums are being our heads
against the wall love the public school systems as schools have moved towards testiness
they have I’ll have limited funds for busing in all kinds a is your reasons the museum’s I had a
harder and harder time engaging with the public schools in a meaningful way and instead oster lamenting that state
and trying to throw more the same programs at this problem we decided to I essentially abolish all
of our survey existing school outreach programs
and start something new it’s what we decided to do is we we essentially partnered with the local
preschool we decide to try and catch these families and these kids before
they get in the public schools essentially to turn this problem on its
head innovating try something new and so
we’ve launched the first embedded preschool at a contemporary art
institution in the US and so these are kids we have sixty kids
were on campus all day every day five days a week throughout the school
year and their partners with the artists and the staff at the museum inserted advancing this idea that art
matters and that environment matters in learning and so we’re be it’s both a lovely rainbows and
unicorns can experiment in that it sounds charmaine but has some real meet behind in that we
are studying these kids were in restoring them over a decade with some party partners Lesley
University and project zero harbored to essentially track whether you can
demonstrate that these kids have a better take great on cultural pursuits me do they signed up for elective are
two there the more in tune with music are they I engage with the kind of cultural
options they have in their family has ten years down the road the kids who
didn’t come to this country program and went to the same public schools and I think that is a really interesting
experiment for a museum to undertake will it succeed in I believe it will but
it could panel and that’s probably going to be OK
to in some really were trying to push these bounds and make a right to to innovate I find
your description to be so interesting because in a sense what you’ve done p is you scrape the canvas you have
developed this approach you created this work and it’s not working at a certain point
so you go and you scrape the canvas and you start again your your reusing certain elements that what you’ve done
in the past but you have created a whole new work and you create a whole new partnerships
whole new model and you know that that second work that
you’ve done you painted over top of your your old
work might also not work during this great the canvas
adapter who’s paying for is paying for our
donors who are big believers in the fact that the institution has a
role love presenting this comes to innovation both
within the world in this critical project the schools and
within the roll over its life in the museum world and so there’s
a lot of interest in this project from both ends so they’re coconspirators to your
cockles I can dissolve them to BK coconspirators as well yes it’s an
ever-growing conspiracy and a corner and have the conspiracy crudely score a
birthday a funders and so on that’s right well up
to a point I think your institutions have to be willing to
find affected partners right and so we were not getting where
we needed to get with the local public school systems which are
fantastic schools i mean this is not the other you know an issue messages has wonderful
schools I’ll but we weren’t seeing the kind the
connection we needed to seize institution to address a problem that I think on
these hymns have share concern about which is where will our future audiences
come from there’s a great deal data that shows if if
children and families are exposed to a cultural early they will not become like to
purchase pens so if we’re being locked out the public schools as institutions and within across the
field as you know it’s our responsibility to
find a solution to that problem experiment in a min try and find another
path and so you know I’m proud to be a part of
trying to find their path whether or not our particular answer will be the path we all end up on his museums
twenty years now I don’t know I certainly hope it will be but were I think doing important work in
trying to help advance the field museum’s even as it’s
all in a very particular promise to courthouse were trying to think very
strategically across the field even as we as an
institution are doing things are mean for for us in our mission so you’re you
talked about one approach to education for children
talk about your education and public programming for
adults the programs that we have as let me back up
and say you know for adults we have some really
reengineer what cordoba has offered we r have offered to resign very similar
slate or you find a lock into birds tutions we have over the last few years brought
in some new educators who are thinking about what’s next in
museum education and so while I like many museums we use official
thinking strategies which is that tried-and-true twenty year plus method for engaging
audiences I think there’s a valid question yes
which is what snacks there that can’t be the and a museum education
and in and in 1978 and there will be nothing else
developing the next 100 years somebody will come up with what is next to to help grow from BTS and Patterson just
it’s not a replacement the growth from it and so with our adult programs and with
are us a regular visitation programs we’re
making is very customized to visit our needs very artist centric and so these are
providing ways for visitors to engage directly with the artists themselves so providing behind-the-scenes artist
insulation to ours we have an artist on the park for two or three weeks installing a huge project we don’t just
want them their work in a vacuum we’re bringing visitors to them and having the
visitors interact with that artist’s having them talk through the visitors
what their processes how they live is an artist what this project means to them and what
i mean sauces institution and so allowing the user to connect with
the artist they are in a very direct in different way I’m in each other programs are offering
to adults are very specific to those groups need so whether it’s us for
pioneering in trenton new methods in touch to rain for you serve sight impaired visitors I
do in Alzheimer’s tours doing enough in tours for you school kids they’re all
very uniquely tailored to those audiences needs and we’re really trying
to be responsive to the group for partnering with rather than offer its overrode menu
insane choose choose from the Chinese menu its you
know what are you is looking for as a a partner with us what
we provide to you that specific are contemporary artists involved in
shaping these programs as well as developing their art for the site or is this a situation
where the carriers have their role the artists have their role and and their near the twain shall meet it
depends on the artist summer they are is a very taken with those ideas and those models and they are very
active participants are even serve all injure themselves up to be participants another artist
would be happy to never have to deal with the public
and so we try to be very respectful all that regardless of what they are his
position is but there’s always a way to find to
connect the audience to what the artists are doing what they’re talking about so
we we tried through navigate that case by case and be very a specific in
serve our approach in will be used to being a not huge
institution is we can be very customizing in very serve responsive to
audience into artist and the specific situation
we find ourselves in and that’s I think the beauty of the
court it’s just big enough they can do some really important innovative work but small enough that we
don’t have a lot of the bureaucracy and a lot of the assertive inertia issues you have with
the huge institutions we can be pretty nimble on the stuff and that’s where I think what museums
will be looking at next is gonna come from Younan era where every audience member
expect to be able to curate their own experience curate their life customize was offered to them go and
seek what they want institutions are just offer up a
standardized menu are gonna I think hair very poorly I think ultimately
institutions that can be responsive in nimble and meet people
halfway in the best sense of that term will be
the ones that are gonna succeed so you’re not going to become a pander an
organization that is that is whiplash back and forth trying
to rush to to satisfy each your individual audience members on the
other hand you’re not going to become a distant and standoffish institution where the audience doesn’t matter you
present were you present making a common like it or lump it grope we will strike the perfect balance
things out now the oldest Saturday I very much so and I think you know the to not pander ya to have to have the
conference have your curatorial ambitions your territorial standards and
so as an institution what we show what we collect I continues
has elevated continues to elevate from where the court has sir historically been known to exist in
the art world very ambitious and what were showin I in
the kinds a presentation the products we’re
partnering on I’m example I might use is a were the first
organization to co produce a project with Madison Square
Garden New York this gigantic early gander installation that was in New York
this past summer is right this minute as we’re speaking
mean reinstall the DeCordova an entirely new a site-specific responsive then you will
live there for years old live through four seasons unlike in New York was justice a summer
installation it’s a huge undertaking it’s a %uh very
ambitious Wenger Charlie if that standard and the quality is
there in everything we do meeting on its halfway doesn’t imply any
kind of watering down that for quality love our mission it’s
how can you provide point2 engagement for those audiences let them understand that work in a more
meaningful way for them even as you’re pushing the boundaries of
how challenge in some that workers and contemporary art if it’s done well
should be challenging do you ever undertake a project that some people really hate yes we’ve done that I’m not sure I would
do it every day but we have undertaken project that I
think some components our audience have not been excited about and in fact I would say as a director if
I like everything we’re doing some things wrong even for me personally this is what I’ve
often said my board so the ball to rise things the you don’t like the I personally am not
it would not be my cup of tea but i’ve been convinced by maker
tutorial staff that for the reasons that they can articulate and
be very clear about that this is mean fall within the context of the sweep in
our history sweep bouts culture right now about
where sculptures going if if as an institution we can push the
boundaries person buttons we’re not doing something like losing
your own including my own and I think it would be a sad day when
you visit a museum or I like everything I you happy place you’re probably visit
paid a visit I would think every think you know it’s
it’s a kind of thing where if as is institution weekend healthy
dialogue about what art is and we’re always questions on our
own decisions and having to explain each other what
we’re doing and I think it leads to a really on pervasive sensitive optimism and
excitement for audiences Anya if they sense that the museum’s
board they’re gonna be bored if they sense it’s institution is
vibrant and having a dialogue with art in with itself I think they’re going to
really enjoy themselves makes me want to go right out and and is it is the DeCordova
sculpture garden museum that is quite thank you so much for
sharing your experience with us and thank you for your insights thank
you to pleasure the movie

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