Should Art Museums Go Interactive?

I was intrigued by two articles published this month in major media outlets that question from opposite points of view the primary purpose of art museums and the value of participatory museum experiences like The Wave.

The first, published on August 11, 2013 on the cover of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, was entitled “High Culture Goes Hands-On” and was written by Judith Dobrzynski, a freelance writer and former editor of the Times. Ms. Dobrznski states that “great museums are places of solace and inspiration,” and suggests that they are fundamentally changed when they respond to the current trend of incorporating interactive visitor experiences.  She sites numerous examples of this growing trend, including the 2011 participatory performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art entitled, “The Artist is Present,” during which thousands of museum visitors waited in long lines over the course of two months to sit across from the performance artist, Marina Abramovic, and engage in a moment of intense, silent connection.

Although the author doesn’t see the value of the Abramovic performance piece, it is a fact that many participants were moved to tears by the experience.  A documentary film, also called “The Artist is Present,” records the artist’s lengthy preparation for the project and the range of audience reactions. The Museum itself photographed the faces of the visitors each day in much the same way as we have photographed the “Faces of the Wave”at each of our installations.

 "The Artist is Present" Marina Abramovic and Visitor, 2011 Museum of Modern Art

“The Artist is Present”
Marina Abramovic and Ulay, 2011
Museum of Modern Art
Scott Rudd Photography

Incorporating a quote from a speech given by Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, in which he states that museums had to make a “shift away from passive experiences to interactive or participatory experiences, from art that is hanging on the wall to art that invites people to become a part of it,” Ms. Dobrznski is mourning the good old days when the art alone, the “masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making” were enough in themselves to delight the museum visitor.

The second opinion piece, “Why I Hate Museums,” by James Durston, published on August 22, 2013 on the CNN Travel Page of its website, has ignited a firestorm of responses on the site itself and in numerous on-line discussion groups for museum employees, consultants and devotees. Instead of seeing museums as places of ‘solace and inspiration’ as Ms. Dobrznski does, Durston refers to the vast majority of museums he has visited throughout the world as “cavernous rooms and deep corridors (that) reverberate with the soft, dead sounds of tourists shuffling and employees yawning” and in which there is “a climate of snobbery…” He asks, “Where’s the relevance? Why, in places designed to celebrate life and all of its variety, is there such a lack of vitality?” Mr. Durston concludes that museums should “stop relying on the supposed intrinsic value of their collections. Stop ‘presenting’ when you should be flaunting. Give me a story. Show, don’t tell.” Mr. Durston is begging for the kind of participatory experiences that Ms. Dobrzynski bemoans.

In a time when many art museums are down in attendance and looking for new ways to connect with audiences, these articles should be required reading. The first article takes the point of view of the elite, the visually literate who are able to enter these ‘hallowed’ spaces and find personal meaning in a work of art hanging before them. The operative term, “High Culture,” that is used in the title of this piece, offers an insight into why the ‘hands-on’ approach in museums is needed and is working. For many individuals, young and old, rich and poor, the thought of going into a traditional art museum to stare at paintings or sculptures with which they have no connection, is simply intimidating. They don’t have an understanding of the vocabulary and movements that comprise art history and like Mr. Durston, hate feeling like ‘ignoramuses.’

If the first goal of art museums is to get people in the door so that they can ultimately broaden their understanding and appreciation of art, then there is great value in engaging these visitors in ways that encourage them to show up.

As public artists currently bringing an interactive art installation to art museums nationwide, we have seen first-hand the simple joy that participants exude when they realize that they ‘get it’ because they ‘did it.’

 Young Man With His Piece of the Wave at the National Aquarium, 2013 Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman

Young Man Exuding Enthusiasm Holding His Piece of the Wave at the National Aquarium, 2013
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


The Wave on the Women’s Radio Network

Elena and I were interviewed recently for a half-hour radio show dedicated exclusively to The Wave. Susan Brender, the host of V is For Vitality, an internet radio program on the Women’s Radio Network, and a former television producer for CNBC and MSNBC, was especially interested in how the project came about and what impact it has on the participants who come to our sites.  She encouraged us to compare The Wave to other large scale, public art installations and challenged us to define why she and others like her should not be intimidated by art they do not initially understand. On the whole, the discussion was lively, thoughtful and far ranging.

Ms. Bender did pose one question, however, that gave me pause. Noting her understanding that the Wave was inspired by the 2011 earthquake and resulting Tsunami Wave originating in Japan, she asked me how the Japanese have responded to the project.  With a bit of hesitation and a chuckle, I answered that, so far, we haven’t heard of any reaction from Japan – not for lack of interest on their part, but because we ourselves have not yet reached out to identify a potential site that might host a Wave installation there.

 Tsunami Wave hitting Japan  Photograph from Mainichi Shimbun/Reuters Published March 15, 2011

Tsunami Wave Hitting Japan
Photograph from Mainichi Shimbun/Reuters
Published March 15, 2011

As it turns out, Ms. Bender has a number of close friends in Japan and expressed a desire to put together a second radio program on The Wave, for which she would invite us back, along with an environmental/water scientist and a Japanese scholar to discuss current global water issues and some perspectives from Japan two years after the Tsunami.

Stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can listen to the first broadcast on

Karen’s Wave

Karen Israel is an award-winning Connecticut pastel artist whose work is in the collections of The New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, CT), the Slater Memorial Museum (Norwich, CT), the CT Academy of Fine Arts (Mystic, CT) and the National Arts Club of NYC, among others.

Karen and I spent a day together recently at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, wandering through the galleries under the astute tutelage of our mutual friend, who is a docent there. Over lunch, I showed Karen some images of the recent Wave installation at The New Britain Museum.  Something about these images stirred her creative juices, because, this past week, Karen sent me a photo of her gorgeous pastel painting of The Wave, flying gloriously in the sky over the Museum.

Karen Israel

Karen Israel

Karen wrote the following words to express her inspiration for “Matinee,” her Wave painting.

I was intrigued by the movement of the colors and shapes created by the wind and the backdrop of the sky. I loved knowing that this installation was created as a community effort. I attempted to connect the ‘waves’ in my painting through color, line and form to symbolize this community creation. I have called this painting “Matinee” as it is what the public will be thrilled to attend in order to be awed, entertained and inspired.   There is a festive, upbeat feeling as I looked upon the Wave Installation. I hope I have communicated that feeling in my painting.

 "Matinee," Karen Israel, Pastel on Paper, 12" x 18," 2013

“Matinee,” Karen Israel, Pastel on Paper, 12″ x 18,” 2013

Elena and I are so pleased that our public art project, in addition to engaging individuals and communities on the topic of water, has also begun to stimulate new works of art based on its inherent beauty.


Rosie’s Wave

Meet Remarkable Rosie

Elena and I met Rosie Dubnansky on June 2 at the New Britain Museum of Art.  She is a lovely, dark-haired teenager from New Britain, CT who was participating in the Museum’s Family Day Wave-making Program.  In fact, we included a photo of Rosie at the event in our June 5, 2013 blog post entitled, ‘We Are All Connected: Faces of the Wave.”

 Rosie Dubnansky With Her Wave, June 2, 2011 at The New Britain Museum of American Art

Rosie Dubnansky With Her Pieces of The Wave, June 2, 2011 at The New Britain Museum of American Art

As it turns out, Rosie is enrolled in the Youth Drawing 101 class at the Museum and, to our great delight, completed a wonderful black and white pencil drawing of the Museum’s exterior that includes a portion of The Wave installation in full color flying over the outdoor terrace. Katy Matsuzaki, the Museum’s Coordinator of School and Family Programs, had given the class the assignment to create a line drawing of the museum, or as she called it, a ‘museumscape.’ Katy sent a photograph of Rosie’s drawing to me and suggested that we might want to include it along with the very gracious endorsement of The Wave that she wrote for us, but I thought it deserved its own blog post as the very first work of art inspired by The Wave.  I love how the delicate rendering of the leaves and The Wave contrast with the hard, rigid lines of the building and I am impressed with Rosie’s decision to limit the use of color only to The Wave in order to draw the viewer’s eye to that small area of the drawing.

WAVE by Rosie

“Exterior of The New Britain Museum of American Art With The Wave Installation,” Rosie Dubnansky, Pencil and Colored Pencil on Paper, 2013

What we didn’t know about Rosie until Katy sent me her ‘artist’s statement’ for this blog post was that she was born in Russia and that she is completely deaf.  Because she has two cochlear implants, Rosie is able to live both in the world of the hearing and the deaf. In addition to being a senior at Wethersfield High School and the Capital Region Education Council’s (CREC’s) Soundbridge Program, this remarkable young lady is studying jewelry and pottery at Wesleyan Potters in Middletown, CT, loves to create portraits, sketches and watercolor paintings and is hoping to become a professional artist. We think she has a very promising future in the field!

The Art of Water

Water as a Theme or Metaphor in the Arts

Visual artists, poets, novelists, composers, playwrights, filmmakers and choreographers have long been inspired by the inherent beauty, movement and sound of water.  The list of well-known paintings, prints, poems, novels, plays, songs, musical compositions and dances that incorporate water as a literal image, as a theme or as a metaphor is immense.

Gene Kelly in the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain

Gene Kelly in the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain

Here are just a few examples:

Who doesn’t feel the pure joy and playfulness exuding from Gene Kelly in love when he dances, sings, leaps and stomps to Singing in the Rain in spite of the gloomy downpour and wet puddles? Or the power and force of nature portrayed in Frederick Church’s magnificent 1867 painting, Niagra Falls? In describing what he was trying to accomplish with his Water Lily paintings, Claude Monet wrote that they were “the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” Handel’s 1717 commission to compose a concert for King George and his party as they sailed on the River Thames became his Water Music, a ‘flood’ of melodies, fittingly majestic and spectacular. And in his last play, The TempestWilliam Shakespeare uses the violent storm as a catalyst that dramatically affects the lives and actions of all his characters.

 The Tempest by John William Waterhouse, 1916

The Tempest by John William Waterhouse, 1916
Based on William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest

Water Across the Academic Disciplines

When we go to elementary, middle or high schools to work with students on a Wave installation, Elena and I encourage teachers to incorporate The Wave and its theme of water across academic disciplines, to tap into the poetry, novels, plays, music and dances that have already been created by singing songs, reading books, writing new stories and choreographing new dances in conjunction with The Wave installation. We also suggest that they conduct a water conservation awareness project in their local community, monitor their own water usage or research global water issues, etc.  To promote interdisciplinary learning on water, we are posting lessons on our website that teachers we have worked with have developed. We have also included a page of links on the website highlighting major national and international organizations that have created curricula on water, water conservation, water shortage around the world, water purification, water desalination and many other topics.

Poetry on Water

Relating to the topic of creative outpourings on water, I came across a poem recently that beautifully describes how water has no real shape of its own and, therefore, adapts efficiently to its environment.  The poem, “Be Like Water” was written by wellness advocate, Jason Wachob to Bruce Lee, the Chinese American martial artist.  Here it is:

Bruce Lee: Be Like Water

Be like water making its way through cracks.  Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

“Be Like Water” instigated a delightful discussion between Elena and me on our favorite poems related to water in all of its iterations (ice, snow, ocean, brook, river, lake, stream, storm, rain, sleet, pool, well, etc.,etc.).  I’ll start with Elena’s favorite, called “Marina” written by the Russian/Soviet poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) and translated by Elena herself.

by Marina Tsvetaeva

Some people are fashioned
Of clay and of ashes,
But I am all glittering freedom!
My name is Marina.
I act on my passions.
I’m ocean froth destined to perish.

 The Waves 'Frothing' Philbin Beach, Martha's Vineyard Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

The Waves ‘Frothing’
Philbin Beach, Martha’s Vineyard, 2008
Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

I have many favorite poems with a water theme: Water by Ralph Waldo Emerson; Going For Water by Robert Frost; Water is Taught by Thirst by Emily Dickinson; All Day I Hear the Noise of Waters by James Joyce and a special favorite from my childhood, Spring Morning by A.A. Milne. The Frost and Milne poems are included below.

Going for Water
by Robert Frost

The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;

Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.

We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.

But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.

Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.

A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.

 Brook, 2012 Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

Brook, 2012
Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

Spring Morning
by A.A. Milne

Where am I going? I don’t quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow-
Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow-
Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.

Where am I going? The clouds sail by,
Little ones, baby ones, over the sky.
Where am I going? The shadows pass,
Little ones, baby ones, over the grass.

If you were a cloud, and sailed up there,
You’d sail on water as blue as air,
And you’d see me here in the fields and say:
“Doesn’t the sky look green today?”

Where am I going? The high rooks call:
“It’s awful fun to be born at all.”
Where am I going? The ring-doves coo:
“We do have beautiful things to do.”

If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You’d lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You’d say to the wind when it took you away:
“That’s where I wanted to go today!”

Where am I going? I don’t quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow-
Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.

What are your favorite poems on water, snow, the ocean, etc? Or, for that matter, do you have favorite paintings, songs, films, operas, ballets, etc. that incorporate the theme of water? We’d love to hear about them.

Public Art as Community Building

The Purposes of Public Art

Historically, public art in the form of monuments, equestrian statues and sculptures in plazas or parks has been commissioned or built to commemorate individuals or events, emphasize the stature of governments and corporations and embellish and beautify public spaces.

There is another kind of public art, however, that has emerged in the last four decades, whose purpose is to engage individuals in ‘building community’ while they are creating works of art with the help of artists serving as their ‘mentors’ or ‘facilitators.’  Suzanne Lacy, in her 1995 book, Mapping the Terrain coined a new term for this type of community building public art: she calls it ‘new genre public art.’  It fosters connections among the participants and also develops in them a sense of personal pride as well as a common purpose and new appreciation for their local, state, national or international communities.

Lily Yeh: Transforming Communities Through Art

Lily Yeh is my personal hero. Her work exemplifies public art that is community building. She is an inspiring public artist who, though the power of art, is transforming communities and motivating individuals around the world. In 2002, Lily, a native of China and a long-time resident of Philadelphia, created Barefoot Artists, an organization dedicated to “training and empowering local residents, organizing communities, and taking action for a more compassionate, just, and sustainable future.”  Lily has worked with students, teachers, local elders, victims of genocide and children and adults suffering from trauma, pain and poverty in Rwanda, China, Ecuador, Haiti, Ghana, Syria, Italy and the U.S.  The methods she uses to engage communities and create stunning works of art are described in Awakening Creativity, a book she published in 2011. In it, she eloquently documents the journey she and the students and staff of The Dandelion School underwent to physically and spiritually transform their school, and in the process, their lives. The Dandelion School is located in an impoverished neighborhood populated by rural migrants in Beijing, China.  A documentary film on Lily’s work and life is currently in post-production.

 The Dandelion School Project, Courtesy of Lily Yeh

The Dandelion School Project
Photograph Courtesy of Lily Yeh

The Wave as Community Building

The Wave also falls into the category of ‘community building’ public art. Visitors to our Wave installations feel a sense of pride when they add their own pieces to The Wave which is growing and growing as it travels from community to community. They feel a sense of pride that their community has joined with others to create a work of art that is glorious as it glimmers and shimmers in the sun. Children and adults alike want to see where their pieces ultimately end up in the installation and how they are connected to the whole, just as they are connected to each other by their mutual need for water, the most fundamental requirement for life on this planet.


Young Participants at The Wave Installation
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, 2011
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein


Participants at The Wave Installation
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, 2011
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein


Participants at The Wave Installation
Connecticut Office of the Arts, HOT Schools Summer Institute, 2012
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein


Participants at The Wave Installation
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, 2011
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein



The Snow Wave

Snow as a Medium for Public Art

Although water is a substance found almost everywhere on Earth, snow, its frozen equivalent, is not.  Those of us who live or have lived where snow makes its presence felt every winter, have all created public art with this medium at some point during our lives: snow people of all sizes and shapes, snow castles, snow totems, snow forts and other more elaborate snow carvings. A number of contemporary artists use snow to express their awe of nature, the vastness of a pristine, snow-covered landscape or simply the intrinsic beauty of the material. French artist, Simon Beck, fabricates enormous, complex patterns in the snow by stomping in snow shoes over his ‘canvas.’


Snow Art by Simon Beck
Photograph Courtesy of Simon Beck

Simon Beck's Wave

Snow Art by Simon Beck
Photograph Courtesy of Simon Beck

The Snow Wave

On February 8 and 9, 2013, Blizzard Charlotte, a storm of historic proportions, dumped almost three feet of snow in my figurative and literal backyard.  Using the white material as a ‘canvas’ of our own, Elena and I created a Wave installation in the snow. All of the pieces that have been created to date by visitors at Wave sites, minus the ones currently hanging at the Gaffney Elementary School in New Britain, CT, went into the sculpture that cascaded down the side of the house, meandered into and over the brook and flowed around the garden plantings.  We were exhausted from tromping through knee-deep snow for three hours, but gratified by the results.


The Snow Wave, 2013 by Susan Hoffman Fishman and Elena Kalman
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


The Snow Wave, 2013 by Susan Hoffman Fishman and Elena Kalman
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


The Snow Wave, 2013 by Susan Hoffman Fishman and Elena Kalman
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


The Snow Wave, 2013 by Susan Hoffman Fishman and Elena Kalman
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


Why The Wave?

The Wave-Kennedy Greenway,Boston

The Wave Installation
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston, MA, 2011
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein

A Water Event of Global Proportions

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.03 earthquake, centered east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku in Japan, triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 133 feet, moved portions of Japan by as much as 7.9 feet and shifted the Earth on its axis a distance estimated at between 4 and 10 inches.  Further magnifying the damage caused by the earthquake itself, the ensuing tsunami devastated the island country, leaving millions of people without homes, electricity and clean water and triggering nuclear meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In response to the tsunami, warnings were issued over the entire Pacific Ocean, including the coastal areas in most of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and western Alaska. Infrastructure damage and destruction from waves caused by the tsunami totaled hundreds of millions of dollars in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Papua, New Guinea and in Hawaii.  The impact from the 2011 tsunami is still being felt right now, in February of 2013, almost two years from the date of the original event. Recent aerial photographs taken along the coast of Alaska reveal evidence of widespread debris washing ashore from the Japanese tsunami and posing an environmental hazard of significant proportions.


Debris Off the Coast of Alaska from Japanese Tsunami, 2013

Conceiving The Wave

Here, in Connecticut, my fellow artist, Elena, and I were literally ‘struck’ by our own visual images (a frequent occurrence for artists) of how that 2011 tsunami in Japan literally ‘connected’ us all to one another: this enormous wave originating across the world and traveling from continent to continent before washing up on own ‘front door.’ We talked about developing a project that would visually represent how dramatically we are all connected, regardless of our nationality, religious preferences, race or other artificial divisions, by our mutual dependence on water, one of the fundamental requirements for life on Earth.

During our conversations, we also discussed an appropriate medium for the project, which we eventually dubbed, The Wave. (Catchy, don’t you think?) Because we wanted to emphasize the universal nature of water, our individual and community responsibility to protect this vital resource and the theme of our ‘connectedness,’ we felt very strongly that it needed to be a community engagement, interactive, public art program.

The Function of Interactive Public Art

Public art is generally described as any work that is exhibited, and sometimes created, in public spaces so that it is accessible to the general public, not just those who frequent galleries and museums. We chose to create a public art project because, by it’s very purpose, public art is meant to enrich communities, provoke discussion and heighten awareness of significant public issues and events. An interactive, public art project enables members of the community, not just the artists, to participate in the creation of the work of art itself.  Interactive, public art inspires creativity among participants around a specific topic, generates community pride and fosters connections among the participants.

The Wave Design

We designed The Wave with these goals in mind. Because the material we use is especially unusual, enticing and beautiful and because it is so easy to simply cut a piece of it that evokes ‘wave’ according to the visitor’s interpretation, each individual coming to a Wave site can feel successful.  Children as young as five, entire school communities including parents, staff, teachers and students of all abilities and ages, adults who are normally intimidated by making art and seniors have all embraced the opportunity to ‘connect’ their pieces to the growing, glowing and undulating Wave that we hope will ‘roll’ right across the country and beyond. Since September of 2011, we have created seven installations in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York museums/galleries, parks and schools in the vicinity of water. People have asked us why we join the pieces with black parachute cord that shows so prominently as an integral part of the installation.  Why not use transparent fishing wire or some other invisible material? And, of course, that is the point. We are using the black cord to emphasize how this Wave is being created, piece by piece, connecting individuals, communities, states and hopefully, an entire nation, to one another.

The Wave, Kennedy Greenway, Boston2

Participants at The Wave Installation
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston, MA, 2011
Photograph Courtesy of Lena Stein

The Wave Blog: On Water and Public Art

Now that the project is gaining momentum and many new sites are being planned as we speak, we are taking this opportunity to initiate a blog on water and public art.  We’ll be posting stories, information and news that we find interesting and provocative on water issues and events, on other public art projects, on our experiences as we engage communities at Wave sites and on the progress of The Wave itself.  We welcome your comments, your personal water stories and your participation.