Symbiosis and Collaboration: SFMOMA’s Open Space, A New Model for Art Museum and Publication

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An Interview with Claudia La Rocco, Open Space Editor-in-Chief by Cara Ober

I discovered SFMOMA’s Open Space, “a hybrid, interdisciplinary publishing platform for artists, writers, et al.” the way we make most of our discoveries these days—a friend shared a link to it on social media. Jessica Lynne, a founding editor at Arts.Black and a recent participant in BmoreArt’s ReModel speaker series announced that she would be participating with the publication as a guest columnist, like a writer-in-residence, and I immediately wanted to know more.

What I find most fascinating about this online magazine and forum for arts based writing is that it is housed within SFMOMA, a contemporary art museum with its own collection and agenda. The publication benefits from the institution’s reputation and resources, but is allowed almost complete freedom in the writing it publishes.

In an age where independent publications and arts writing are exponentially disappearing, it’s exciting to see a model that appears to be both sustainable and successful. Although it is officially part of the museum’s department of community engagement, Open Space does not exist to market or expand the museum’s content. Rather, it’s a forum for ideas, a space to unite creative thinkers, especially those from the San Francisco region, and an oblique opportunity for the museum to expand its audience by trusting the instincts of creative writers and makers (in addition to publishing all forms of writing, Open Space commissions artists of all disciplines and hosts live events).

I wanted to know more, so I reached out to Claudia La Rocco, the editor-in-chief of Open Space, and SFMOMA’s head of community engagement. How does an independent art publication function within the network of an institutional structure? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this symbiotic relationship? How has the publication fostered relationships and audience for art across the country? La Rocco responded enthusiastically and the following is an edited version of our phone conversation on January 23, 2018.

La Rocco’s hands with Open Space stamp from summer party

How did Open Space come about?

It was founded in 2008 as a joint effort between SFMOMA’s Education and Digital Departments. They were looking for ways to create greater visibility to the rich creative community here. Suzanne Stein was the founding editor and it exists largely because of her insistence on carving out a space for it.

It started as a straightforward blog, totally vertical, and, in the early days, it was more of a hybrid space: It was publishing its own content, but it was entangled with the daily workings of SFMOMA. Museum announcements and features on SFMOMA activity would go out on it, and it functioned partly as a voice for what was happening there. At the same time, Open Space always created content that was unexpected; it was intended as a place for people outside of the museum, especially in the regional arts community, to talk about what they were doing, and an opportunity for the museum to look outward.

Where in the museum is Open Space housed?

We are a part of community engagement, and the community that we are most involved with includes artists, thinkers, curators, and other cultural producers; local artists aren’t always seen and heard at the museum as much as they should be, and we want to make sure we’re supporting this rich and varied ecosystem.

How has Open Space evolved conceptually and in design since its inception?

In 2015 there was a redesign and it went from a blog to what it is now, a hybrid commissioning platform organized around three seasons. In addition to live events, each season includes a thematic magazine that unfolds over time; a cohort of columnists in residence (like Jessica Lynne) who are free to publish whatever they please; stand-alone art commissions in various disciplines and media; and writing that ranges from poetry to in-depth arts journalism. The current magazine just launched [January 22, 2018] and new pieces will occur throughout March. We want to take advantage of the Internet’s natural ability to allow for responsivity, so for certain issues we’ll have later contributors respond to earlier ones, allowing for a conversation to evolve.

How do you work with artists in addition to arts writers?

One example is Project Space, stand-alone art commissions that we offer as free downloads; we’ve had chap books, films, and posters… recently we had protest signs. Other than our live events and collaborations with outside organizations that yield objects, Project Space is the only way we are non-digital. It’s important that our content is made available digitally, creating access to the museum to those who don’t have it.

Open Space redesigned their home page for Visual AIDS’ Day Without Art, so that it would be taken over by the movie they produce each year. They’ve done this the past two years (link to the 2016 piece).

So, originally the blog functioned as part of marketing and PR, but it evolved into an independent entity?

We were never a part of marketing. It was more a way for the museum to talk about itself in a non-institutional way and to hear from others. Over time, SFMOMA redesigned its main website and now there is a ‘Projects and Perspectives’ section – and this features people from the museum talking about behind-the-scenes things, so we don’t need to do this at all any more. Now when we focus on the museum, which we do regularly, we try to do so in ways that aren’t possible on other channels.

How does Open Space work with the museum? Is it more collaborative or symbiotic?

We are connected to the museum and our resources come from it. We also collaborate frequently with our SFMOMA colleagues, whether commissioning writing from them, jointly publishing, or collaborating on live events such as our current Limited Edition performance program. Sometimes we’ll interview one of the curators about an aspect of a show, for example, or have people who work in less visible departments present on their independent artistic practices. We try to work in oblique ways; we’ll create content that doesn’t fit into their main website, and we always aim for writing that is personal and intimate and informal.

Can you talk about the voice you have cultivated in the publication and how it’s different than the museum’s voice?

We are focused foremost on interesting ideas from creative individuals, focusing more on the San Francisco Bay Area but commissioning regularly from around the United States and internationally. Sometimes this includes controversy, things people are talking about that there isn’t a place for anywhere else. We want issue- and idea-based writing that is experimental. Open Space is a place where people can be playful, and try things that fail. We make room for a lot of different voices, and try to avoid institutional and academic voices. We want our writers to speak as themselves, rather than representing an institution.

How does this work?! It seems that most museum institutions are protective, very heavy-handed in the way their content is portrayed, very risk averse. This flies in the face of everything I have seen in terms of museum publications.

Increasingly I think museums are seeing that there’s an implosion of arts journalism and with that, substantial arts coverage is all but gone from large swaths of the country. The smart institutions are saying, ‘We are a place for ideas and culture,’ and a large part of art includes the context around the art. I think the Walker Center’s Reader publication is a great example as well.

Open Space exists because of forward-thinking individuals, especially Suzanne Stein and her (now my) supervisor Chad Coerver, SFMOMA’s head of content strategy, understanding that we need a forum for people, especially artists, to honestly share their ideas and feeling about culture and other issues. We have been lucky to have smart people in the right places to defend and advocate for what we are doing.

Open Space Home Page

How many people work on Open Space and in what capacity?

We have two fulltime staff members, myself as editor-in-chief and Gordon Faylor as managing editor, plus an on-call editor, Grace Ambrose. We have SFMOMA’s design director Bosco Hernández to thank for our beautiful site, and the museum’s creative technologist Jay Mollica, is an invaluable member of our creative team. Then, we work with outside writers and artists in a variety of ways.

We also have the ongoing columnist program. Each publishing season we give three individuals $1500 and ask them to post four times over the course of the season. What they post about can be anything—short, long, experimental fiction, audio—it’s up to them. Other than copy editing, and making sure our copyright is in order, and in a few very rare instances involving content issues, we don’t exercise any editorial control over them. Also, once they’re worked with us, they can use their publishing access at any time and retain those publishing keys, so they can post after that, any time in the future. In this way, Open Space is something of an ever-growing collective, that makes sure our voice isn’t limited by our small staff.

It sounds like you have a structure that allows a lot of agency and freedom for writers.

I really love this program because, quite honestly, it always surprises me. Big institutions can be so closed off and have such strict controls. It’s so important for people to feel like they have ownership and freedom within this system.

Some writers do want editorial back and forth and it’s their call; we’ll work closely on certain pieces, and other pieces go up with no warning

How are your guest columnists selected? Are they mainly local but with a few voices from across the country?

There is no official geographical requirement, but we try to be at least 60/40 in commissioning those from the Bay Area and California. We always include national and international voices, because we’re all interconnected in the art world. It’s a funny thing to try and balance: what does it mean to be place-based in 2018 and also exist on the Internet?

A Project Space by Adee Roberson

I agree with you! How can you reflect a local audience, recognize the culture production being made locally, but also put it in the context of a national conversation?

Like you, I just did an Untitled panel, but at their SF-based fair. We discussed what it means to have international relevance but also to be based regionally. I hate that ‘either/or’ dialectic. I do feel that working more locally saves us from content that can grow stale and status quo, typical of the international art circuit. Part of Open Space’s mandate is to reflect the Bay Area, but also to be in conversation with people nationally and internationally… Artists are always in conversation with their peers around the world.

How long have you been doing this and what is your background in art writing?

I’ve been here two years. Prior to that, I was a freelance writer in New York. I worked for the NY Times, for WNYC, and the Associated Press, as well as magazines like Artforum, where I’m still happy to be a contributor (and hugely excited about incoming editor David Velasco, who is one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with). I was mostly a critic of live art—dance, performance, live performance art—and I supplemented my freelance hustle with teaching and grants for various performance and poetry gigs.

My freelance background is one main reason why I wanted the institution to become W.A.G.E. certified and meet fair pay standards for writers. We are the first museum department to become WAGE certified! It’s essential that we are paying writers equitably.

Can you talk a little more about SFMOMA’s department of community engagement and how Open Space works inside of this mission?

Within museums at this fraught moment in our country, ‘community engagement’ is a big question: how to form connections with audience and make our collections relevant. At SFMOMA, there are other departments that are similarly engaged in looking out, like the education department, which conducts a lot of public programs and dialogue. One current project that I think is particularly successful is a pop-up branch of the SF public library inside the museum; this is a lovely form of community engagement.

For Open Space, we are really thinking of ‘community’ in terms of thinkers, makers, and writers; individuals who are deeply dedicated to the arts in one way or another, and are typically frequent visitors to the museum. Much of this arts community is in crisis in the Bay Area, with runaway real estate inflation such that many people cannot afford to stay here and sell their home instead and move. The Bay area doesn’t have an art market the way NY or LA has, and given how the market commands attention these days, this absence can make artists feel marginalized, at the same time as it allows for different types of experimentation. We really see what we are doing at Open Space as creating a public forum and context around the art worlds that are right here—to remain legible, to make sure this place stays rich. There is incredible diversity and richness of artistic production here, but it can often seem invisible. We’re also committed to diversity of voices; over the last two years, for example, 55 percent of our contributors have been women, and 45 percent have been people of color.  

Can you talk about the type of language used by writers at Open Space and how this deviates from artspeak and museumspeak?

We are purposeful about language. We stress over and over that our writers are not representing an institution. We want honest and direct conversations and to avoid writing that comes off as promotional, institutional, or academic.

We want it to be personal, funny, critical; when approaching new contributors, we tend to use words like intimate and surprising. We encourage people to take more risks. I think people are hungry to write in this way.

How do you curate your content around thematic online magazine segments? Rather than an ongoing general archive, how does this thematic approach allow you to present content in ways that encourage connections?

Each online magazine is published around a specific theme. Last summer we released Issue 6, Standard Candle, which examined the ubiquity of consumerist technology, how we are mediating ourselves in ways we don’t even realize. Gordon was the head editor of this one and wanted to commission artists to work with ubiquitous daily fixtures like Skype, smart phones, etc. That magazine had a more porous theme, grouped more around ways of working to produce culture.

We published Issue 7 this past fall, ‘West coast is something nobody with sense would understand.’ We wanted to ask what it means to be in this place, and also to consider what place is: is it a blue corridor with rumors of secession from the US? Is it a bioregion? Is it a collection of overlapping but distinct places? We’re all online all the time and totally disembodied, too, and we wanted to ask people to consider the impact of physical place.

La Rocco giving a toast at this year’s summer party at Classic Cars West

Does Open Space host in-person and live events as well?

Yes! They run the gamut from an annual summer art party where we asked artists to make things and we gather for drinks and snacks, to more formal things. Right now we are doing a performance program called Limited Edition, which is a collaboration with five performance spaces in SF. We try to collaborate and support programming and we often focus on writing because, especially in the Bay Area, there are fewer spaces for the kind of writing we are doing.

Is it amazing to have museum resources and funding behind your content? What does the museum get out of this arrangement?

Yes.  We have a few outside funders, including the Davis/Dauray Family Fund and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, but we only exist because SFMOMA thinks it’s important for us to exist.

I think it’s smart strategy on the part of the museum.  We are no longer in an era when museums are temples where people come to look at great work in silence. How to be relevant is such a fraught and fraught conversation. Museums have to navigate how to be a part of a fractious culture. Our publication is one small answer but a good one.

What would you say to other museums and institutions, in terms of supporting independent publications and embracing the wildness that they can cultivate?

Most big institutions become protective and conservative and I understand why they can get scared of working with artists. My advice would be, to the extent that people can open their doors and relax their control mechanisms, it’s never a bad idea. The reason some institutional platforms seem so inert is because they’re coming from a position of worry, in terms of how their content will be received, instead of paying attention to others in our communities, listening to them and seeing how their message is received by the artists based here. The hiccups and controversies might seem scary, but are rarely worth worrying about. When you truly welcome people, the larger thing that is received is generosity and openness.

Top Image: A shot of the SF publication from which Open Space takes their name. You can read more at the Open Space About page.

Links: SFMOMA, Open Space, WAGE Certification, Walker Reader

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