By Rob Hassler
If you choose to attend graduate school for a museum studies program, chances are you will eat, sleep, drink, and maybe even get headaches from museums. Hell, there is even a good chance that museums will consume you so much you can no longer enjoy stepping foot inside one (just kidding). It only makes sense then, within a museum studies program, to focus your thesis specifically on museums…right?
One thing that I’ve always been fascinated with in relation to museums, is how slowly they tend to adapt in regards to societal changes, technology, etc., compared to other fields. In particular, museums are historically, and for the most part remain heavily risk-averse institutions; in other words, places that are less willing to take risks. For this reason, I chose to focus my thesis on something outside of the traditional museum landscape, and found that topic in alternative art spaces.
In brief, characteristics of alternative art spaces consist of artist-run spaces that often take up former spaces that are no longer in use such as warehouses, storefronts, etc., and are thus turned into a collective environment to make art, use art to engage visitors, and are much more risk-taking than their traditional counterparts. The initial objective of my research, was to see if there were key relationships between museums and alternative spaces, and understand how they could co-exist and co-collaborate in the same world. In particular, Philadelphia served as great backdrop to examine alternative spaces given its flourishing art community.
Instead of searching to find the solution of how these types of places could work together, the challenge really became understanding the ways in which museums could understand alternative spaces in order to benefit themselves in a number of different ways. It was then that I understood museums are not expected, and should not attempt to become their alternative counterparts. However, by understanding the functioning structure of alternative spaces, traditional museums might move into a position of being able to associate their brand with more surprising and less predictably vetted work that would get at the welcoming and un-precious quality that alternatives have naturally.