Denise Gray: MOCA Education Department

DailyServing’s Sasha Lee recently had the chance to sit down with Denise Gray of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Education department to discuss her role as an educator, both as an individual scholar in the field and also within the MOCA’s philosophy. Denise, along with others in her field, are extraordinary examples of a vibrant voice shaping how we understand contemporary art today. Whether organizing special events, or working with the fantastic MOCA apprentice program, Denise’s hard efforts are all conducted in the name of inspiring passion for art in others, and lending the public tools to appreciate art. Denise’s educational philosophy begins not with a lecture, but what the participants themselves know and have experienced. In light of the recent events surrounding MOCA–Denise’s interview reminds us the invaluable resource that the museum & educators such as Denise provide.

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DailyServing: Can you talk a little bit about your position at the MOCA and the various projects you oversee, maybe your favorites?

Denise Gray: There’s one particularly that comes to mind, and that is the high school apprenticeship program. The program has been around since the 90’s, it started out because we originally had a high school program for students interested in having conversations about art with their peers. It ended up being successful and students wanted to continue the dialogue, so MOCA decided to formalize that program, resulting in the MOCA apprenticeship program. We conduct a pretty vigorous interview process–with anywhere from 80 applicants for 12 spots usually. Its highly competitive; consisting of students who have identified themselves as interested in pursuing a career in the arts, whether as a curator or as an artist or educator. The program is great because its very hands on. We use downtown as a resource, so for example today we’re going to the art walk. We use the library at REDCAT and visit exhibitions and attend events related to art, so as to compare and contrast the different kinds of art that’s out there. Sometimes, we’ll even have artists who are exhibiting at the MOCA or invite other artists to do special programs with MOCA apprentices.

The apprentices also host events. In 2009, we’re going to have our seventh annual teen night. It’s an amazing opportunity for the apprentices to take the lead and create events for their peers. Usually there’s a student art exhibition that they curate, they bring out live entertainment, along with other activities. It’s like this big art party for teens; we don’t turn away the adults but it’s definitely designed for teens–creating a real ownership for them over the event. Last year, related to the Takashi Murakami exhibition, we collaborated with TOKYOPOP [publishers and distributors of Manga] to hone in on the Japanese pop culture connection–we had a photo booth, young performers, etc. The event was called Eye Candy.

Last year they actually had a slumber party at MOCA! This group had bonded so much that they wanted to have a sleep over at the MOCA. They were hanging out at 2am in the gallery–and the challenge was intentional insomnia–so to stay awake, we hung out with security and explored behind the scenes of MOCA.

DailyServing: That sounds like everybody’s dream, right? A night at the museum, and its great that MOCA is still youthful and trusting enough to allow your apprentices to literally spend the night there.

Denise Gray: Yeah, they definitely had a lot of fun. It’s funny because a lot of the students now involved in the MOCA apprentices were former art students from our MOCA Maniacs program [designed for pre-teens and younger elementary students to participate in summer art classes at the museum] who also wanted to continue on at the MOCA. So, I have actually been working with some of the students for quite some time.

But that entire group had such a positive experience with the museum and such a tight bond with each other they wanted to culminate their learning experience with a fun event like that.

DailyServing: From my own experience [as a former intern via the Getty Multicultural Internships in the Education Department], I’d definitely say that MOCA has that power to draw people in and make them lifelong supporters.

Denise Gray: Definitely, that is the hope, maybe because we’re not positioning ourselves as a “huge giant institution”–we’re large physically, but not too big, Its all about relationship building too, we want to connect one on one. We’re all about reaching with people, it’s about communication. We love when former students call back and stop by to visit and keep in touch. And a lot of us [the staff] do stay on for a long time–I’ve been here for 11 years, most of us have been here for at least 5, maybe 10 years. So I think it says a lot about how much we want to be here. And, a lot of us in education are involved with the museum education dialogue across the country, even internationally. Again, the practice itself of education is a field, and all the practice is very informed on a particular philosophy – student centered, participant centered. We want to engage people in a dialogue, not just teach what we think, but we want to hear what you think. And we start with what you think, what you believe, your experience–because only in that way will we make those connection and will you learn.

Anyways, back to the teens. Its about making connections, demystifying the contemporary art world. Especially since a lot teens are interested in pursuing careers in the arts, we introduce them to careers beyond just being an artist. That’s pretty huge for them; if they want to get out and raise money, or write grants, there are multiple ways for them to get involved with the creative community.

DailyServing: I think that’s very true from my experience with MOCA education. I know that when I was 19 or 20, I was an art student and wasn’t sure what potential there was within a creative field or what else I could do with my degree. But I did that internship and came back and realized–wow, actually there’s a lot that I can do; you can do a lot with a creative degree. You can do education, communications, or design. It kind of re-energized my idea of a creative career.

Denise Gray: Definitely–how to energize people’s creativity, not just through art practice, but how to think, or talk, or look at the objects in our world. That’s what museums also do; is offer different perspectives. Its much more engaging when you go back and forth and learn from each other, its very powerful.

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DailyServing: That’s awesome. So how did you get into education? Earlier you mentioned a lot of people are surprised when they discover this is a viable route within creative careers, were you one of those?

Denise Gray: I was an art student early on as a senior in high school, but I think I was always interested in art history too. Junior high is when I dove into the big monographic books; like a lot of teens that’s when I learned about Impressionism and the Renaissance, your typical movements. I majored in art history at U North and worked at the art museum which is ranked number two for liberal arts colleges. It has a really great art collection. I was in the education department at the time, so I was already being trained how to gear towards and talk about art.

DailyServing: So you were already involved within education as an undergrad.

Denise Gray: Yeah, as a student managing the student docents. Then I interned at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. It was probably at that point I realized I was interested in modern and contemporary art as well; an area that I related to because there was a real diversity of people being portrayed, rather than the typical movements I had learned about in junior high.

DailyServing: So who were some of those first artists that you fell in love with from the contemporary arena?

Denise Gray: I don’t know if I can exactly answer that, but I can think of the direct contact with artists who came to speak; because they tended to be more conceptual and performative, sociopolitical that was interesting to me. Direct contact was really what sparked it; it made me realize there was something behind what was on display. And to hear the artist professors was inspiring in some way.

DailyServing: I was reading through the MOCA website and saw that you had done a broad cross section of various projects and seminars with a great group of contemporary artists. For example, Liz Craft did a sculpture workshop, and so on. That must have fit right in with your gravitation towards working with the artists behind the works of art?

Denise Gray: Yes definitely. I did a number of projects where MOCA would invite artists to come in and work. With Liz Craft, she actually worked with Marshall high school and did a week-long project with the students, which were then on display.

DailyServing: Can you talk about one or two examples of projects you’ve worked on that have been the highlights?

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Denise Gray: Pervasive Persuasion I did earlier in the year in conjunction with the Takashi Murakami exhibit. It was a great opportunity to talk about the connection between art and commerce; and having Murakami there for the event was great. What I wanted to do was focus on L.A. for the event, because it’s such a rich environment for creative expression. We began by putting together a panel. From there we decided to do a collaborative mural that people worked on for an hour. Gary Baseman painted alongside Buto dancers. What made this event one of the highlights of my careers was the community, everyone there was from such a broad cross section.

It brought in about 500 people; the little marketing that we were able to do was great.

The one a year before was related to WACK! Art and the Feminist Revoution, with Suzanne Lacy. We brought about 14 woman’s groups; you can still look it up on the MOCA website. That was pretty incredible, working with these woman’s groups and communities from woman’s bike messengers to domestic groups, to healthcare providers, nurses. We had a culminating celebratory dinner at the end, which was amazing. But its fun having the range of different projects that we do. I think that’s what we’re lucky to have at MOCA, a really broad range of exhibitions and the programs.

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DailyServing: Can you walk us through the process of beginning a project such as Pervasive Persuasion, from the inception of the idea to the finished event?

Denise Gray: It was related to this huge blockbuster show, that was the start. No one anticipated how much it would be. But we started by sitting around a table with Takashi Murakami and the curator of the show, Paul Schimmel. We asked Takashi if he wanted to do anything, and I think he was thinking maybe someone from his studio could do something. It didn’t pan out, but even at that time I had ideas of what I wanted to do.

DailyServing: So what were some of those ideas?

Denise Gray: Well actually it was inviting Eric Nakamura from Giant Robot as a consultant and coming up with a plan. I definitely knew that I wanted him to be the lead, especially since he had covered Murakami pretty much since the first Murakami curated show in the US.

DailyServing: That was a pretty important show; I remember it being a paradigm shift in the way a lot of people thought about art.

Denise Gray: Definitely, introducing Japanese culture and such. Because he had a relationship related to Murakami and had conducted interviews with him already; I figured lets have him help out. He ended up being the moderator and lots of ideas happened. A lot of those ideas sort of got weeded out, whether because it was something that had been done or didn’t come back to the premise of the show itself. My core idea was to recruit artists from the LA art community to create an event.

DailyServing: So then you went about securing artists–What was the criteria you took into account when curating your group for the event?

Denise Gray: The selection process was people who were based in L.A. and who were involved with the dialogue between art and commerce; and people who had cited as being directly influenced by Murakami; so people who had specific personal connections with his work.

So after that I had a few email conversations and phone conversations individually with each of the artists. Then the entire group met once on December 18th, and around that time Eric came up with the title: Pervasive Persuasion. So around the holidays we designed the postcard and did all of the PR.

DailyServing: So how did you liase with the PR department for this event?

Denise Gray: The event ended up being January 12th. Around that time I think I had actually met with you and we were discussing online PR and in particular blogging, and how it has become such a huge mechanism for disseminating information to audiences these days. And I think that’s what really happened; the three artists in particular went out and sent out e-blasts or wrote on their blogs about this particular event, and that’s what actually brought on the hundreds of people despite the short time period.

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Actually, one of the things I didn’t mention was that the Buto dance group was actually a big component of the event. I organized this component of the event with Hirokazu Kosaka. He’s the Artistic Director of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center and also a performance artist, he does different community projects locally and internationally. But he’s also a Zen Buddhist priest, so originally he was asked to bless the Murakami works, though that later fell through.

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DailyServing: He sounds like a totally righteous dude!

Denise Gray: Definitely, whenever I meet with him I feel like the loudest person on earth because he’s extremely mellow and contemplative.

Anyways, although that fell through [the idea to have him bless the works] I still wanted to have a performative aspect to the event. So I thought to do a paper scroll, collaborative drawing/painting live session and give away the work from that performance.

I met with him about giving away these boxes full of art. Well he had the idea: “Well what if someone painted on me!” For some people, it may have been bizarre, but to me it was a spectacular event, and you could see that the people watching were so intrigued. I don’t know if you know Buto but they move very slowly, and they can twist themselves in these extreme postures. It has a quietness in this weird way.

What was so great was watching Gary Baseman paint, go to watch the dancer, and then go back to paint. In the video that we produced, he talked a little bit about how it was akin to painting on platform toys, which a lot of the artists had done too. So that particular performance happened, they finished painting him, and then four other dancers in a kimono, mad scientist, and sailor suit, came out really slowly and started distributing the boxes of art.

DailyServing: Its almost like a performance work where you were the artist orchestrating, or a play which you enlisted the actors to do an improvisation with some guidelines?

Denise Gray: It really was; I think it was such a highlight for me because it involved the formal talk about art and commerce, very traditional, Powerpoint slide, etc and then this collaborative community art thing and then a performance with this special souvenir that took place at the end. I wanted it that way in that neat package instead of people going crazy and tearing apart this mural, not a free for all; I wanted it structured and special. Although you saw people who were tearing off pieces early or guarding pieces early!

Visually it was spectacular on a number of different levels and I think in some ways we definitely recognized Los Angeles-based artists. I loved the blurring of the boundaries like that anyways.

DailyServing: So for someone, maybe interested in getting into a career like yours, what recommendations can you give to them?

Denise Gray: I would say explore as much as you can. If you’re really interested in museums, visit lots of different museums and figure out what kind of museum you’d like to work with; because every museum is a different animal. It depends on the mission statement, the philosophy of the place. With MOCA, for example, we tend to be very artist centered.

Also, I think it’s really important to be out in the world, going to different galleries, and openings, which represent art that may never get into the museum. Just to be up on the conversation, which is very divergent, and it’s really interesting to see the various tiers and not be elitist in a way.

I don’t know that anyone can expect to major in art or art history and really obtain a museum job just out of school, because it is a saturated field. And MOCA is a non-profit, so you’re not going to get the lucrative earnings you would if you were in investment banking. A lot of us in the field of art or education do it for a different kind of passion; and for me it is about connecting with different communities and getting them enthusiastic about something I personally love. When they will pass it on to other people, its very endearing to see them go full circle.

DailyServing: As far as your overarching approach towards education, maybe as an individual but also within MOCA’s own philosophy, what would you say your three top missions or goals are?

Denise Gray: I feel like I wrote my masters thesis on this actually! It’s sort of bi-pronged, where it is about audience, so this constructivist approach starting with the audience as the basis; talking about what they know. Talking about objects specifically, and the idea. So a concept based dialogue, through conversation, but also hands on and more participatory modes, so whether that’s drawing, exercises, etc–because we all learn different ways.

DailyServing: So fostering the seed of knowledge they may have and furthering it.

Denise Gray: Exactly. Going back to the teens, I am always floored by what they have to say about work they don’t necessarily know, but based on the kinds of questions we ask them they’re able to figure it out. It’s by asking the right kind of questions in order for them to see what’s there, and also talking with each other so they can learn from each other.

DailyServing: A Socratic approach.

Denise Gray: Definitely, I’m constantly amazed. For example, we did this writing activity related to Louise Bourgeois, then had them share last week. We started with a brainstorming activity, had them read about Bourgeois, then brainstorm words that came to mind from what they saw in the gallery. We made little magnetic type poetry poems, and then they went out and journalled, then shared what they wrote.

What amazed me was that they all got the emotional intensity of Bourgeois, and her own biography, and personally connected to her work in some way.

It was really powerful. I got choked up because one, they were sharing, and two, they just got it. We didn’t have to lecture at them. They had already developed the tools to look at the art and think about in a sophisticated way.

And I think that’s also our job as museum educators; we’re trying to guide them to think about and converse about contemporary art.

DailyServing: That’s really interesting because I feel that’s an age old struggle with art; it’s propensity to be elitist. And an idea that many scholars, curators etc try to reinforce that if you don’t have a pricey art history degree then you can’t understand all the references or complexities. But what you’re saying is sort of the opposite, right, if you’re given a few simple tools to think about art you can “get it.”

Denise Gray: Definitely. It’s about conversation and being open to it, and getting over your fear of sharing your ideas. And also to accept and explore more the questions you inherently explore when you look at art.

Art–even when challenging, doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience.

DailyServing: Well I think that sums up my line of questioning–were there any last things you wanted to say about your position at the MOCA?

Denise Gray: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love this kind of job. I even get like teachers, regular classroom teachers who say: you must love what you do.

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