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Professor Mark Allen Tapped to Alter the Hammer Museum Visitor Experience

Mark Allen, Pomona College Professor of Art

In June, The Hammer Museum in West Los Angeles announced that it had received $1 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation’s Innovation Fund to enable the Museum to create a new kind of interactive museum with “an artist-driven visitor engagement and education program that encourages daily contact among visitors, artists and Museum staff and activates the spaces, exhibitions and websites in imaginative ways.”

Pomona’s Mark Allen, professor of art and founder of the Los Angeles-based Machine Project, has been tapped as the program’s first artist innovator. He teaches courses at Pomona like “Digital Art” and “Electron Wrangling for Beginners,” and also recently joined the board of the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York. He told the New York Times his mandate at the Foundation is “to represent scrappy, storefront, noninstitutional institutional spaces,” much like his own Machine Project.

Machine Project, a storefront gallery and instructional space in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, collaborates with artists to produce site-specific work, provides educational resources to people working with technology and handcrafts, and promotes conversations between scientists, poets, technicians, performers, and the community of Los Angeles. Upcoming events include classes on soldering and making jam, a 4th of July celebration of American folk music, and a performance piece based on “found performances” from individuals on psychedelic substances.

Allen showed his prowess for altering a museum experience with the November 2008 event “A Machine Project’s Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” in which he led 35 artists in a day of performances, new installations and workshops. Experiences included artists Jessica Hutchins and Dawn Kaspar staging a 26-clue murder mystery that began with a female corpse found under an Alexander Calder mobile, a crochet workshop, the mapping of fruit in the museum’s collection by urban foraging group Fallen Fruit, and even a poem devoted to the ideas that didn’t come to fruition, like “Garden on top of the elevator.” The event received glowing reviews in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

In a recent KPCC Radio “Off Ramp” interview, Allen brainstormed a few ideas for his Hammer residency, like an event where children would visit the museum during the day and damage art works followed by an evening event when conservators could repair them in front of the public. (Ann Philbin, director of the Museum, can be heard laughing in the background.)

For Allen, “What’s so interesting about museums is that they’re like a giant iceberg of all these people doing these fascinating things underneath the surface of the water. Often the public gets to see is just this tiny little point that comes out. So, how are these amazing, beautiful works of art that have been around for a hundreds of years, how do we take care of them, how do we repair them if their damaged, how does the chemistry of all of that work. That seems like something I’d like to know more about and I bet others would as well.”

Other potential ideas mentioned by Allen include guide dogs that would take visitors to specific works of art and teaching visitors to create their own forgeries and then leading them on a treasure hunt to find one hidden among the Hammer’s masterpieces.

The goal of the new Hammer program will be increased visitor engagement and transparency of how artists and museums work. Guest artists will be invited for one-year terms to design and implement changes to visitor services and educational programs, working with the curatorial staff. Allen will be discussing ideas with the Museum this summer and begin his residency in September.

To read more about the Hammer's plans for its Irvine grant, visit the L.A. Times.

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