Nothing made me happier than to walk into The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz on Friday night, May 17, after attending my MFA graduation ceremony moments earlier, to see groups of people already engaged in playing XOX! Share the Love® with each other.
Three years in the making and at different stages of progress, XOX! had carefully been taken into the public arena for testing — at a gallery event, several selective studio visits, on the street as part of an art event, in a restaurant with a friend, and of course, at Starbucks. In every case where XOX! Share the Love® was tested, it drew attention from many passersby. Consistently, in all of these scenarios, people had gathered around to witness what was happening and that encouraged them to join in as well. The work was received with a great deal of enthusiasm from everyone who engaged with it.
I already knew that many of the elements of this project were working. For instance, the wonky shapes and vibrant color scheme were appealing enough to draw people in. Many remarked about how the weight and feel of the X and O objects felt so good in their hands. I saw first-hand how players enjoyed the strategic thinking that was required and how much they enjoyed challenging themselves and others. I was thrilled to see that at the art galleries, people didn’t wander in to briefly look at the art objects, drink some wine, chat a little and leave. They stayed! And better yet, they engaged with each other! There was laughter, conversation and comfort ability amongst people who had just met each other. This was thrilling to me and what I didn’t know yet, and anxious to see, was what kind of experience would people have in an institutional museum setting.
Art museums, mostly quiet, reserved, corporate and often supercilious, are not places where people are encouraged to engage with each other. And we all know that touching art objects is generally not allowed. Getting too close to a painting or sculpture can earn you a reprimand from a museum docent or an embarrassing alarm from an electronic sensor. When we enter an art museum, we come with a subconscious sense that we are entering a sacred art temple where we can’t touch things, we keep our voices down, we have to behave like “intelligent” adults and we shouldn’t engage with other people. We are supposed to engage with the objects, videos and ideas from a distance. In other words, it’s generally a cold intellectual space and not a place for human-to-human connection.
What I also didn’t know yet was if this work needed my presence there to explain and to get the play started. I worked hard in advance to remove myself from the installation. I created a wall banner with a brief statement, rules and tips. I made brochures with the same information and put them on the tables. I created score sheets and scattered them along with bright colored pens on each of the tables. Everything was set and I had to let go.
Still, my expectations for the opening reception were that I most likely needed to be present to play with people. So when I walked into the museum that night and saw so many people playing with each other I realized I was never so happy not to be needed. Once again, people stayed and played until the museum closed. In fact people had to be escorted out as closing time had passed and many were not leaving.
At closing time, nothing made me happier than to get thrown out of The Dorsky Museum that evening!