Feasting in the Liminal Spaces: The Power and Politics of Interpretation

by Michael Christiano, Jason Pallas and Erika Dudley |

A Few Questions to Gnosh On

What happens when the museum itself works to trouble the traditions, politics, and biases found in its interpretive and display strategies? How do we foster agency for marginalized audiences to design museum experiences and recast the museum as an essential site of discourse for multiple publics? How can we embed the lessons learned from powerful but ephemeral creative interventions that surface these issues into sustained museum practice?

Setting the Table

This is the story of one museum’s effort to cultivate a different way of interpreting and interrogating how it is experienced (or not) by its publics. The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago has long considered itself “an engine of adventurous thinking” and over the past several years we’ve turned that motor over to actively and publicly reflect on the nature of our institutional practice. This effort has manifested in a number of ways but here we’d like to dig into the Smart’s Interpreter in Residence project as a program through which we’ve gnoshed on those critical issues facing our and other museums today.

The Interpreter in Residence is a yearlong program designed as a forum for Chicago-based artists with an interest in social engagement to engage with Smart Museum guests and staff. The Interpreter in Residence project has become a programmatic forum for us to identify issues and questions that are critical to our institutional practice and invite artists and creatives who approach similar sets of questions in their work. We hope that their engagement at the Museum offers an opportunity for sustained investigation into these questions that benefit both their and our practice.

Part 1 of this article will reflect on the Smart’s inaugural Interpreter in Residence year during which The Perch (Matt Austin) periodically occupied the liminal space of the Museum’s lobby to actively engage guests in questions of interpretation, experience, and authorship. This section will also detail how the Smart has developed an internal structure that allows our staff to consider ways to internalize new practice.

Part 2 features an interview with Erika Dudley, the Smart’s current Interpreter in Residence and Jason Pallas, the Museum’s new Manager of Community Engagement and Arts Learning. The dialogue highlights their interests, ambitions, and concerns around our current effort to re-position the Smart’s docent program into a platform of campus (the Smart is, after all a University art museum) and civic engagement. If The Perch took the lobby as its primary site of operation, this current effort is actively exploring how we can more intentionally navigate the space between the Museum and our surrounding communities.

Part 1: Enter the Lobby

A Radical Hospitality

Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art. The opening celebration was colossal! Hundreds upon hundreds of people streamed into the Museum to participate in the artist-orchestrated events offered that evening; eating Iraqi food served from Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (Food Truck) parked in the courtyard, listening to a live performance by Theaster Gates and the Black Monks of Mississippi, snatching a delicious morsel from Sonja Alhäuser’s Flying Feast, and more. These immersive experiences were an essential dimension of the exhibition, which was designed by the Smart to unfold across the entirety of our Museum–in our galleries, lobby, and courtyard–as well as in sites across Chicago.

Feast catalyzed an important series of internal conversations at the Smart around our own relationship to hospitality. We wondered together how we could embed a form of radical hospitality without it slipping into the generic and corporatized form used to sell products and hock services. We worked towards a philosophy that would inform all areas of our work; an ethos born of our values and interests while also being responsive to those of our guests. There were several practical outcomes of these conversations including the formation of a hospitality committee populated by staff members from across the Museum’s departments, and the development of a new interpretation strategy grounded in principles of hospitality.

Michael Rakowitz, Enemy Kitchen Food Truck

Michael Rakowitz, Enemy Kitchen Food Truck

We also realized that for any of the ideas and lessons gleaned from these efforts to truly take root across the breadth of our operation, we had to formalize systems of inter-departmental collaboration. For instance, several years ago the Smart formed a Program Council comprised of members from the curatorial, education, and registration teams. This group serves to collectively address strategic issues related to the Museum’s overall program and chart our creative vision. The Program Council provides the forum for us to surface those essential issues and questions that we can fold into our program, play with, and reflect on.

As Director of Education & Interpretation (and currently as Interim Senior Director of Museum Programs) I help to raise those issues that sit at the intersection of our departmental practice–which are often rooted in issues of interpretation and engagement–

facilitate conversation in response to those issues, and work with my colleagues to consider possible direction. These can be difficult, sometimes contentious, conversations as they compel us to examine the often implicit power dynamic between museum and visitor, and require us to navigate a decision-making process across a flattened hierarchical structure. What undergirds this approach is the Smart’s culture of supporting risk-taking projects and embracing collaborative processes, coupled with a rigorous criticality and deep curiosity shared by the group about the nature of our work.

Appetizers: Open Up

During Feast, we thought very carefully about the experience of entering the Smart Museum and the ways we welcomed people. This was foregrounded by The Greeting Committee, a project created by Ana Prvacki and situated in the Smart’s lobby between the official greeting desk and the gallery entrance. For one hour everyday, Smart staff activated The Greeting Committee by offering all those who entered a spoonful of slatko (Serbian jam). The work was inspired by a Serbian tradition where guests are offered slatko to, as the artist describes it, “sweeten the visit” but also to “sweeten your tongue;” in other words a form of bribe so guests speak well of their host.

This multi-layered social performance opens many nuanced questions about the duplicitous nature of hospitality and the role of both guest and host. The Greeting Committee performed a complicated power dynamic in the midst of our lobby, mirroring the embedded social structures and dynamics of the space itself. The museum is host and you, the visitor, are guest. Implicit in that social contract is the understanding that the host establishes the parameters of an experience and sets the rules and the guest abides. Of course the ambition of the museum is to provide the most compelling experience possible, but it still leaves to question how much agency a guest has within this structure and how her experience and perspective are valued in relationship to it.

Down the Hatch: Surprise!

The Greeting Committee also introduced another very important element into our lobby space–surprise. When I “staffed” The Greeting Committee I was met with genuine shock, curiosity, wonderment, and sometimes disdain when folks spied the installation and even more so when I offered people food. Receiving food from a stranger in a public space is an awkward and intimate experience. One that I found entirely disrupted people’s’ expectations for typical museum protocol and behavior. I had wonderful conversations with folks from all over the world resulting from that initial gesture of offering a spoonful of slatko. I have to imagine that this initial encounter in our lobby space charged the nature of their overall Museum experience. Perhaps it made it a bit more human, a bit slower, priming them for the variety of multivalent projects that they would encounter as they moved through the exhibition.  

Your Next Serving: The Perch

These food-based exchanges opened some interesting questions; how could we sustain a form of productive exchange and meaningful dialogue between museum and guest beyond the run of Feast? How can our lobby continue to serve as a site for unexpected encounters that, perhaps, enhance or challenge what you thought might happen that day. These questions ultimately led to the development of the Smart’s Interpreter in Residence program, which was launched in fall of 2013.

The Perch at the SMART Museum, Matt Austin

The Perch at the SMART Museum, Matt Austin

During our inaugural residency, Chicago-based artist Matt Austin brought a new iteration of his ongoing project, The Perch to the Smart. According to the artist “The Chicago Perch exists as a creative platform for free learning that connects people through sharing their ideas and stories.” The mission “is realized through book publishing, symposium dinners, and public educational programs, at no cost to any participant.” Matt and the Smart were eager to create an institutional platform for the Perch to build on its past work in ways that aerated issues that we all felt were important.


Austin created a temporary installation in the Smart’s lobby serving as a functioning office space for The Perch. The office was built out of reclaimed materials—shelves and cabinet panels that were formerly part of the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library. Matt held bi-monthly office hours at the Museum for which he erected the Perch Office at the far side of the lobby. He also designed unique notes, or prompts, that were distributed to visitors at the Museum’s front desk. An image of the first note, “Introductions,” is included here. Museum staff offered these notes to guests as they entered and invited them to consider the prompts, or not, as they moved from lobby into and through the galleries. Then, as guests exited the galleries they could choose to engage with Matt in the Perch, or not, to reflect on their response to the prompts, their experience at the Museum or, as was often the case, life in general. Those who chose to engage with Matt, often spoke at length about these things. I witnessed conversations lasting upwards of 45 minutes. I imagine that, like the slatko, the Perch ruptured the conventions of the space, affording an opportunity for Matt and the visitor to question how experience was formed at the Museum and who had agency in shaping it. The Perch also provided an opportunity to complicate the traditional flow of information from museum to guest, by layering in additional points of consideration that impact the formation and understanding of experience.  I’m sure it helped that the Perch office itself was quite cozy–somewhere between a library cubicle and confessional–and that Matt has the disarming charm of someone who actually really cares what you’re saying.

It was important to Matt that each person who visited the Perch engrave something into it using a large communal bowie knife that he provided–a lasting memento of their visit inscribed on the office. Matt also documented each of his interactions with guests through a variety of media–audio recording, sketches, photographs, notes–and is using these records as source material from which he is producing a book; an amalgamation of experience from those who visited the Museum over the course of that year.

In the simplest terms, Matt was there to talk to you but that subtle gesture revealed the complexities of the people who crossed our threshold, the lived experiences they carried with them, the relationship they had with the Museum, and their desire to engage and connect with a community of people.

Take a breath, sit back, stretch and get ready for the next course

While you’re stretching let me introduce you to Erika Dudley, the Smart’s 2015/16 Interpreter in Residence. Erika wears many hats, at the University of Chicago. She is the Civic Knowledge Project’s Senior Program Manager of the Odyssey Project, Progressive Conversations, and The Educating Community; as well as a professional chef; and a former community organizer. As part of her residency Erika is thinking about how to welcome guests from different walks of life to the Museum through a variety of different events, using food and drink to build a space where meaningful conversations around art, community, education, access, and other topics can happen.

In addition, Erika is working with the the Smart to recast an existing personnel structure–our docent program–into a platform for both campus and civic engagement. This initiative brings together University students and alumni of the South Side Odyssey Project program as paid educators. The Odyssey Project is a free, 36-week, college-credit granting humanities program for income-eligible adults with limited to no access to higher education.

Part 2: Potluck–What We all Bring to the Table

As we considered the ways to expand the networks of people who consider the Museum theirs, a set of questions began to emerge: How do we create opportunities to position the Smart as a critical and essential site for these multiple networks to do their work, to socialize, and to play? How do we create pathways for those who do not know us to cross the physical and psychological space in-between us? How do we move out from our physical site to better understand the place in which we do our work?

By re-designing the docent program, we endeavor to engage our publics–both campus and community–in the construction of experience at the Museum; to cultivate a sense of shared vision in how the Smart can become a more integral part of their lives and vice versa and build the agency to make it happen. Utilizing both arts-based pedagogy and community-building strategies, the cohort works together to design experiences—on-site and off—that engage with the interests of their peer networks. The admixture of University of Chicago students and Odyssey Project alumni yields a rich variety of perspectives, interests, and experiences that the Smart harnesses to build authentic relationships with our audiences.  

Erika recently sat down with the Smart’s Manager of Community Engagement and Arts Learning, Jason Pallas, to consider the complex and exciting notion of navigating the landscape between the Museum and its publics; how docents can help usher folks across that space; and how to deconstruct some of the perceptual and real barriers across that landscape. We’ve included a portion of that conversation here.

Jason Pallas: We’re dealing with the metaphorical extension of the galleries into the community or, I think perhaps even more interestingly, bringing the community (whatever that means to us) to impact what happens inside the museum and inside the galleries.  I guess a question for you, based on your experience and your expertise, might be, Why is that even a good strategy?

Erika Dudley: I imagine that the Docent program in general and the OP [Odyssey Project] participants in particular, their involvement highlights the notion that expertise is everywhere and there is knowledge everywhere.  When people engage with the collection and the works in the gallery in addition to the curator, there’s a sense that expertise is enhanced and there’s more of it on display because there are more voices, thinking about and talking about the place of the museum.  

The questions we ask of ourselves, in formal or informal settings, are the same questions that humans have always asked of themselves – – Who am i?  Why am i here?  What is the point of this?  Is there something more to this?  – – so all of those questions come to the surface when we look at works of art.

Museums are spaces that many people often feel uncomfortable being in.  For a lot of people, their only experience at a museum was a field trip when they were young, and it wasn’t necessarily positive.  I can imagine people carrying those experiences from their initial childhood into adulthood and feeling a sense of anxiety.  So how do we make these spaces more welcoming?  When you see someone who is specifically not the curator and does not present the part of “The Expert” walking around and talking about works of art…it has a sense of leveling the field and there’s a sense of “Oh, you’re like me, and you like art, but you aren’t necessarily going to lord it over me”.  

And then we encourage docents to bring in people that are important in their lives as a natural and sincere invitation to the museum…as opposed to the museum artificially reaching out to people they may not necessarily have a relationship with already.  

JP:   We flip from the idea of expertise then into an idea of, what does a curator really have, is she has expertise but she also has a credential.  But perhaps the more important credential for making art come alive is humanity, which we all have, inherently.  

ED: Being a university museum, we have some more traditional relationships that define who takes part, like curators, faculty, students.  I think it reinforces the model that the university is the bastion of knowledge with experts in the field, and the knowledge is housed here.  

JP: On the other side, there are positive aspects of being based in a university, where we have the leeway, the thrust to be experimental, the resources to do this kind of programming and support this kind of mindset.

ED: I agree with you there and I think another positive aspect is that the forces in play encourage education and approaches to education.  This is what people here are thinking about every day.  So some interesting models that might not happen elsewhere can happen here.  The Smart can take advantage of all of these resources and mindsets that make it much easier for these things to happen.

Whenever I’ve come to talks where the faculty come to talk about the exhibitions, almost every person there is part of the university.  And that’s an example of, on the good side, the Smart is seen as valued and valuable to the university community….

JP: Right, but you know, sometimes we talk about preaching to the choir – that’s almost like choir practice, choir rehearsals.  It’s not even preaching, it’s just like getting together and ringing the bells.  

ED: So why has that been the case?  It’s not a coincidence.  People need to feel that they’ve been invited.  

JP: Yeah, like I’ve never really been to a party that I wasn’t explicitly invited to.

ED: And more, sometimes I’m not sure how to separate these two words: welcome and entitled.  I have been with people in these kinds of place where they feel very uncomfortable, they don’t feel welcome, and they can’t participate completely.  It’s not enough to be invited, it’s not enough to go.  And I don’t know if that comes from having a long exposure to something, multiple entreaties, but ultimately, one feels comfortable and then once you’ve done it, you’ll feel entitled to come back and to participate.

JP: I like that you’re putting this word map in my mind….because now you have me thinking about authority and responsibility.  Going back to the party analogy, flawed as it may be, I’m thinking about….ok, I can go to a party and be there in the room.  And then there’s another level where I feel comfortable enough going up to someone to start a conversation, and another where I feel comfortable enough to dance….and then a whole other level where I feel I’ve become such a part of the community that, say, if the trash is piling up, I feel an impetus to do something about it, or if the music stops, I feel empowered enough to change it.  So in a museum, it’d be about feeling welcome, through all the little things and the tone, to step up and make it a better place that fits your needs and your community.

ED: There are many reasons why we want people to return to the Smart.  We don’t want to have just one encounter or one experience.  We want to intrigue people enough that they’ll come for multiple shows – so they’re not coming solely for the content of any particular show, but you’ve created a sense of connection and loyalty.  

JP: Yeah, I can see that, that there’s something beyond the content.  To be frank, I don’t always have an initial overriding connection or interest in some of the work we show, but that’s why I appreciate the docents so much, because they cause me to see it and make it relevant to my life in a whole new way.  

ED: We try to talk about a sense of engagement when people visit the museum, instead of just the metrics of how long they were there or other hard to define characteristics.  

JP: When we, generally in our field, talk about community engagement and organizational outreach, I can get frustrated because it can come across as a charitable act, or somehow infantilizing or condescending.  Like we’re [the museum] doing this for you.  Certainly no one I’ve dealt with, whether student or docent or otherwise, has been in the least bit of need of my hand holding at all.  

ED: It’s interesting to me, but I notice that anything related to Odyssey or low-income adults, it’s “Oh, that’s so great!”, there’s a sense of we’re being charitable.  And you used the word outreach.  But working at CKP [Civic Knowledge Project], we don’t say “outreach”.  Outreach suggests that you’re here and we’re reaching out, that there’s this imbalanced relationship….but that’s not what we do.  The Civic Knowledge Project believes in exchange, an exchange of knowledge, amongst all types of people.  I like the word exchange versus the word outreach, and the things that that naming can suggest.

JP: There’s something about getting over skepticism.  When I get an invite from the Smart, even if I don’t know what that thing is or if it’s up my alley, hopefully I’ve built up enough trust that I can sort of take that leap.  

ED: By and large, it’s been my experience, that when people come to the Smart, they come back.  So those that haven’t come, just haven’t come yet.


Michael Christiano, director of education & interpretation, is responsible for the Smart Museum of Art’s education programs for families, adults, university students, & K-12 communities. In collaboration with University departments & community partners, Christiano is exploring new models for how an urban research university can enhance K-12 arts education. He is also developing a Museum-wide interpretive plan—grounded in hospitality—to help audiences connect deeply with art & ideas. He received an M.A. in museum education from the University of the Arts.

Erika Dudley is the Civic Knowledge Project’s Senior Program Manager of the Odyssey Project, Progressive Conversations, and The Educating Community; a professional chef; and a former community organizer. She serves on the Smart Museum’s education advisory committee and, in 2012, she worked with Theater Gates and Michael Kornick to organize a series of soul food dinners at Dorchester Projects as part of the exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art.

J. Thomas Pallas received his MFA in Contemporary Art Theory and Practice from the University of Chicago. His studies focused on the dialectics of abstraction/representation, authenticity/appropriation, complicity/political activity, and ethics/aesthetics. He earned BA degrees in Studio Art/Art History and English from Rice University with a thesis focused on contemporary queer drama, and has also studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the European College of Liberal Arts (Berlin).