Guests carve the names of their first kisses into the wall of Matt Austin’s Perch during a February event at the Smart Museum. (Photgraphy by Joel Wintermantle)

Interpret station

An interpreter in residence holds “office hours” for visitors to the Smart Museum of Art.

With 30 pieces of particle board, 28 screws, a drill, and about 45 minutes, artist Matt Austin can create a temporary office big enough to accommodate himself and a guest.

His pop-up workspace materializes periodically in the lobby of the Smart Museum of Art, where Austin is the museum’s inaugural interpreter in residence. A yearlong position, paid with an honorarium, it is intended to provide a framework for artists—Austin is a photographer and bookmaker—to engage museum visitors and for visitors to have more dynamic give-and-take experiences with the Smart’s collections and with art in general. “There are people who already know the museum, who have a relationship with the museum and probably have a relationship with the works in the museum, and this is a way that we’re inviting them to see those works differently,” says Michael Christiano, the Smart’s director of education and interpretation. “And it also serves as an opportunity to invite new people into the conversation about those works.”

During periodic “office hours” and other museum events, Austin invites people to come talk to him about all kinds of things: who they are, why they’re there, their experiences with art, what they think about the artwork. On days when he’s there, visitors receive a printed card when they step into the museum, listing several open-ended questions and inviting them to talk to Austin before they leave. “What events and plans of your day have led you here?” one card asked. “Why right now? How much time do you have?” Also, “What experiences throughout your life have had an influence on the kind of art you are drawn to? Why do you think that is?”

Sometimes people come and talk to Austin for 20 minutes; usually they talk for longer. At the end of the conversation, he asks visitors to take a knife and carve something—anything—into the walls of his office, made from walnut-veneered panels salvaged from the recently renovated Special Collections Research Center at Regenstein Library. Among the carvings, which Austin calls “evolving signifiers of participation,” are a coffee cup with a balloon rising from it; a cursive “h”; “Harold at the beach”; an ampersand in a square; “Don’t forget about me.”

By appointing an interpreter in residence instead of the more obvious “artist in residence,” the Smart is examining the idea of interpretation itself, moving beyond the traditional explanatory text that accompanies a work of art, Christiano says, to also include more “ephemeral” interactions: things like museum-hosted parties, art-making programs, or conversations with the interpreter in residence. “We’re interpreting our role as an institution,” he says. “We want to experiment with what interpretation is and what it means to be an interpreter. The program provides a place for us to think a little more loosely about that.” The Smart’s program is part of a wider trend among museums—and among some individual artists rethinking their own creative practices—to explore new ways of engaging the public and offering them compelling, lasting experiences. This exploration is “in the air,” Christiano says, “and it’s manifesting differently at different institutions.”

The interpreter in residence program was born out of the 2012 exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, which orchestrated meals and participatory experiences to spark dialogue among museum goers. These were a hit, and they developed into monthly events called At the Threshold—evenings of conversation, cocktails, and music inspired by the museum’s current exhibits. The interpreter in residence program, which launched last August, was a way of formalizing this “yearlong adventure” that preceded it, Christiano says.

Austin, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, was an apt choice for the first interpreter in residence, he adds. He came recommended by artists Joseph Rynkiewicz and Graham Hogan, whose experimental project Hornswaggler Arts was instrumental in the At the Threshold events—Rynkiewicz and Hogan were the ones inventing and mixing those art-inspired cocktails. Austin has an art project of his own, called The Perch, which aims to engage people in much the same way that the Smart was hoping to do. Operated out of Austin’s apartment in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, The Perch is part printing press, part social forum, part experimental dinner party. During curated meals, Austin initiates conversation among his guests using prompts that ask them, for instance, to chart their artistic progress, discuss their creative practices, or describe their philanthropic projects as if delivering a eulogy. From his Perch outpost at the Smart, during office hours and At the Threshold events, Austin strikes up similar conversations.

There’s no formal system set up to evaluate Austin’s or the residency’s success—“it feels like we should go through this first year and see how it works”—but Christiano is pleased with the anecdotal evidence. “It’s really interesting to see people spend 15, 20, 30, 40 minutes talking with him,” he says. “And to me that suggests that there is a desire for that kind of human engagement. When Matt’s here, it does tend to inflect the space with a different sense of wonder and awe.” The museum is making plans for future interpreters in residence and how exhibits and events might be structured around collaboration with the artists who will inhabit the job. “We want to keep pushing the position even deeper into the institution,” Christiano says. “We’re even kind of shifting the nature of the work we have—not shifting the work in the collection but how we treat the work in the collection, how we position it, how we frame it. The more we look at it, the more we see this person really steering the ways we engage our visitors.”

Austin has been documenting his conversations with visitors over the year and plans to compile them into a handmade book, offering, he says, a poetic perspective on the visitor experience. “My only real goals in life are to keep doing things like this,” he says. “Talk to people about interesting ideas and challenge myself to do it better.”