Madison curator on curatorial problem solving

Kolb presenting in the Wriston Auditorium.
Photo by Georgia Greenberg.

Curator of Exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Leah Kolb came to Lawrence last week to deliver a talk about her recent sustainable art project and the processes and narrative that she and her collaborators built around it. Kolb is a well-known and respected curator in the art world and she specializes in contemporary artists using experimental techniques to tackle social issues. 

About a year ago Kolb started working with Meg Mitchell, an agricultural scientist, on a project involving crocheting and plants within industrial structures. They then moved on to creating aluminum trees up the sides of a building that plants could grow inside of. They wanted to connect the physical growth of these plants to the agricultural history of the community so as to engage in dialogue about food deserts, genetically modified plants and patented seeds, among other topics. Kolb talked through Mitchell’s doubts about the project and how they changed ideas. They moved on to develop a bean harvesting contraption that was meant to look modern but operated as an old industrial machine. The manual labor that goes into operating it was offset by its sleek design. 

Eventually they decided that they needed to start growing hops. All of this was still with the goal of engaging people in conversation about the politics and implications of food in the community. Kolb then went into a bit of hops history. Laboring families would travel to the countryside to become hop-pickers, which was seen as a desirable job considering it was well-paying. She wanted this history to spark discussion about how we as a society value human labor and how we evaluate power relationships and ownership of property. Mitchell’s and Kolb’s project was eventually titled “Tenacious Numismatic Hops Exchange (TNHE): A Hop Garden for Unyielding People.” They made hop coins that one could exchange for a bushel of hops and hoped to detail the socioeconomic history of hops, but on the day of the event in which they would unveil TNHE they were without the hops that they had started growing because they were not growing fast enough. Luckily, a friend had hops growing all along the side of their house that they were not going to use so they were able to quickly collect those and take them to the venue.

Unfortunately, the hired laborers were upset and people in general did not get the point of the installation. Kolb was not too worried about this, though, since to her, art is a means in which people can interact in a social context, so as long as people were interacting with each other, then she did not fail entirely. 

The artists then decided to make beer from the hops they had grown. They called it “Civic Exchange Society” and produced it in partnership with Octopi Brewing. Mitchell created her own language and put it on the top of the beer cans. They sold the beers in local grocery stores, but eventually the momentum behind their project was lost. Kolb was left struggling with the meaning of all of their hard work, and looked to us, the audience, for answers. People were glad to give suggestions of ways to improve engagement, but it sounded like there might not be any funding left for this project seeing as interest died out. It is good that Kolb could come to our school and talk through her projects, even the ones that are not all that successful, because it is good for students, particularly artists, to hear about passion projects that people work on and how they go about their creative processes and also how they deal with logistical issues like securing funding and operating large-scale installations. 

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