One Question with Keith Brown, Director of Education at the Evanston Art Center

Dialogic Communities

Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, writer, and researcher. In the past, Brown has been an editor and writer for the Illinois Art Education Association, Stockyard Institute, and the Critical Visual Art Education Club. His writing has appeared in two books and a handful of local, national, and international publications and writing projects. Since 2006, he has taught visual art and art history in Chicago schools and communities. He currently serves as Director of Education at the Evanston Art Center where he co-manages the artist-in-residence program, art school, community partnerships, and public education programs. Brown uses critical pedagogy, social justice, and education knowledge to expand his thinking on contemporary art history, theory, and criticism.

Neoteric Art: What is Dialogic Communities all about and how did it start?

W. Keith Brown: Dialogic Communities: Repairing the Social Bond is an experimental multi-month contemporary art discussion group that is free and open to the public. Discussion sessions meet one time per month for two-hours and run for a length of three months in the spring and fall. Evanston Art Center Director of Education W. Keith Brown and performance artist, writer, and lecturer Craig Harshaw select meeting times and locations, choose particular readings for the group, and facilitate the dialogues. All discussion dates and readings are promoted through email list-serves, Facebook, and other online entities. A sign-in sheet captures participant emails for further communication, which has resulted in online sharing.

History / Conception:
In the first month of my becoming the director of education at the Evanston Art Center, I organized and moderated a Chicago art criticism panel discussion around the New Art Examiner. We had two panels that day, one filled with art critics and artists from the NAE era and one panel filled with present-day art critics of a younger generation. The panels touched on many unresolved issues in criticism. The audience was extremely vocal and highly opinionated, which led me to believe that Evanston as a community has something to say about the art world. As someone new to Evanston, I was surprised by the level of debate that I witnessed. Many years ago, I imagined running a contemporary art discussion group in order to keep myself engaged in discourse and to see if I could influence strangers to gather around art readings and local discussions. Always keeping this idea in mind, I thought the Evanston Art Center might serve as a proper setting to attempt such discussions. With support from our organization and the name recognition of the center it seemed like a great moment to purpose Dialogic Communities: Repairing the Social Bond.

The title “Dialogic Communities” comes from the idea of teaching and learning in conversation. The dialogic is nothing new and goes back centuries in education (see Socratic Dialogues). It has recently become interesting for cognitive anthropology and other disciplines as it often gets linked to social transformations. When most people think of education they think of a very particular encounter. They imagine a teacher and a learner positioned in a room at some distance form one another. Most take for granted the fact that every time people interact with another human they are exchanging information (talking and listening). Of course day-to-day conversations at work and home revolve around banal topics: these conversations might entertain us, direct us, or serve personal relationships. Whatever the case may be, we do not typically think of a simple exchange such as asking a friend how her/his day was as an educational experience, but it most certainly is. A friend or spouse can provide a great deal of information, but we do not choose to view this as a pedagogical experience. Dialogic Communities asks that one view all types of exchanges as education. Any time we gather to share thoughts, feelings, or express the most insignificant or practical information, we are teaching and learning.

“Repairing the Social Bond” is a phrase that I am openly borrowing from the cultural philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Since the dawn of the new economy and new technological mediations, there has been a feeling that something is missing between humans and their access to the social. In the late 1990s this idea of “repairing” emerged so that we may become more conscious about social interaction and our human need to build community. The other thought connected here is that capitalism and its direct links to consumption has isolated us to some crucial point that causes us to long for more meaningful human experiences. In the art world, we are seeing more community gardens, artist meals, intentional communities, and artworks that engage the social body in a more intimate way that pushes the boundaries between maker and viewer (social practice). I align myself with much of this theory and see my role as an art educator fitting in with some of this thinking. Pedagogical projects and the social aspects of education, schooling, and dialogue heavily influence Dialogic Communities.

“Dialogic Communities” was conceived as an experimental public program that could inspire thoughtful dialogue, reinvigorate the spirit of community, and open up explorations in contemporary visual art all while serving as a productive social and informal public art education model. This casual discussion invites regional community members, scholars, and the public to discuss a range of topics in contemporary art (e.g. art worlds, the academy, contemporary art history, theory, criticism, unique artist projects, the everyday, and visual and material culture).

As a critical pedagogue, I personally feel that people learn best through discussion and the Socratic Seminar model of teaching and learning. My research is interested in settings that operate free of the institutional trappings of compulsory schooling (i.e. commodification/corporatization of education, education as economic driver and incentive, and the over-credentialization of the first-world). Dialogic Communities also seeks to liberate people from schools-based baggage (i.e. tuition costs, grades, professor authority) that I see as having negative control over some learners. The research explores art discussions as content in the context of public education. Through this research I hope to discover new ways of teaching and learning that benefit whole communities and inspires new public cultures. On September 25th, our group will transition from reading selected articles within the contemporary art world to a make-shift book club / reading group.

Shifting the Model:
This shift from article reading to book reading was a decision that was made to encourage a deeper level of interest and commitment from attendees. The hope was that we have more consistent turn-out and engagement. The one thing we noticed was that people would randomly show up based on the articles we promoted, once involved, we the facilitators would have to spend time rehashing past discussions in order to build context for new participants. Having folks commit to a book seemed like an excellent strategy to facilitate cohesion among the groups. We also found that some participants needed more resources on postmodern and contemporary art discourse and forms of art history. Arthur C. Danto’s acclaimed 1992 book Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective was selected for our fall 2013 session because it deals with Danto’s own struggle to appreciate works of art that fall outside of the traditional modes of making and thinking namely minimalism and Pop Art. The hope was that we could get conversations started so that we can put some of these anxieties behind us. By assigning a book and its chapters for meetings it helped to ensure that only those who purchased the book and come to the first meeting will continue through.

Beyond the Model:
We initially held discussions at the Evanston Art Center (2012) and then began holding them in a more central location at the Evanston Public Library (2013) in downtown Evanston. This space is great for those unfamiliar with Evanston and a library is an ideal space for a book club. The library has been more than accommodating to us. After reading Danto’s Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective we also read David Joselit’s After Art in the spring of 2014. After that we were contacted by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago to hold discussions in their galleries in conjunction with their 40th anniversary exhibitions. Beginning in October 2014 Dialogic Communities will read Joshua Decter’s latest book Art is a Problem at the Smart Museum. This discussion is open to people who have not read the book as well as our core audience. The hope is that even if one has not read Decter’s book, they will find the ideas easy enough to engage when we begin talking. We are now considering the possibility of going back to article reading to attract new participants and to stay on top of what is happening week-to-week in the art world.

More information on Dialogic Communities here.