'Agents for Creative Change': Williams students serve art and brunch in 24-hour challenge

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WILLIAMSTOWN — It's 9:30 a.m. Saturday. You're a Williams College student with an interest in art, sitting at a conference with the trailblazing Adam Lerner, outgoing director and chief animator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and a few staff members at the Williams College Museum of Art. You've just met Lerner, and later you'll partner with an artist and a chef you've never met. At noon on Sunday, you will be presenting the two-hour public program, "Experiments with Art and Brunch," and you don't have a plan, yet.

But it's no sweat. You're part of the Agents for Creative Action, a group of 17 students picked and paid to learn about museum practice and creating original programs for the museum. You've totally got this.

Lerner, who said he's typically asked to consult with museums as opposed to working side-by-side with students, said he was pleasantly surprised with how this group began tackling the 24-hour challenge. "They're an exciting group to work with," he said a couple of hours into their collaboration. "They're creative, open and smart."

The creative process started with a workshop generating nearly two dozen ideas for the event which culminated in a picnic-style brunch featuring a baskets of breads, beverages and an exchange of ideas among strangers, barefoot and seated on blankets spread across the sunlit WCMA Rotunda floor.

Their local co-collaborators ended up being caterer and chef Daniel Drmacich-Flach, who helped devise a spread of Berkshire Mountain Bakery breads with local honey, butter, salt, coffee, tea and beer, and sound artist Joseph Boncardo, a Williams student who created a soundscape versus a jazz brunch soundtrack devised from the chef's describing the ingredients of the menu and pairings with the other offerings.

Over the past several months, Ingrid Song, a sophomore studying art history and economics, and her fellow Agents for Creative Action have been training in the field of museum studies with WCMA staff, along with the college's Design Thinker in Residence Richard Gref , to think about how to engage with WCMA's audiences and to pilot new approaches to the concept of a museum tour.

"It's really cool to see what current professionals in museum direction are doing," Song said. "To be able to have them in our space to work with is amazing."

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WCMA's interim Associate Director for Academic and Public Engagement Nina Pelaez has been working alongside Lerner through the Denver-based Animating Museums, a three-year program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to provide creative professional development for a select group of art museum employees nationwide. She said she felt he would be the perfect fit to not only deliver Saturday afternoon's "Envisioning Curatorial Practice Lecture," but also to guide students toward new ways of thinking in their own practice.

"In the museum practice of creative process, we usually don't create public programs in 24 hours. This [workshop] teaches us to flex our muscles in different ways," Pelaez said.

Lerner is best known for his unique approach to museum programming. His repertoire has included showcasing contemporary artists and their work alongside the nontraditional talents of mixologists, astrobiologists, shamans and pigeoneers. While working for the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar — aka "The Lab" — he became known for curating the "Mixed Taste" series of arts-oriented lectures paring two unrelated topics, leaving audiences to wonder how or how not topics like video art and migratory birds would intersect.

"You have to force your mind into these news places and break your patterns of thought, which is the essence of creativity," he told his roundtable of Agents for Creative Action during their Saturday morning planning session. "Some would even say that's the purpose of art."

During their planning workshop, both Song and senior Samuel "Sam" Grunebaum asked questions about how to involve audiences in the creative execution of museum programming and, generally speaking, how to create programs that get historically harder-to-reach audiences, like teenagers, through the door of an art museum.

"It's about approaching things with a kind of honesty," Lerner said.

He suggested that instead of trying to follow a typical "teen center" model, that curators go out and talk to local teens, see where they are in a city and learn what they like to do.

"No teen wants to go to a teen center," he said, "They want to go to a really cool place."


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