Community-Made Art: Inside Vizcaya’s Public Participatory Art Programs

By Rebecca Peterson

 

Inspiration

In 2015, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens held a symposium on American artist Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872 – 1930). Chanler was one of several contemporary artists commissioned to create work for the estate. He produced an “undersea fantasy” fresco for the ceiling of Vizcaya’s swimming pool and a folding screen that adorns the patron’s office.

As Vizcaya staff began to design the symposium around Chanler’s work and contribution to Vizcaya, we also thought about how we could include the general public since the symposium had an almost-exclusively academic and professional audience.

During a research trip to learn more about Chanler, Vizcaya’s former Curator Gina Wouters visited Chanler’s family home in New York where his niece still lived and had a thriving art practice of her own. She and her partner worked exclusively in the realm of Public Art, enlisting community volunteers to create the art the artists envisioned. They did this through a series of workshops where volunteers came together to make art through a process of blind collaboration.

Processional Arts Workshop (PAW) is an ensemble of performing artists and theatrical technicians best known for creating the large-scale puppet performances that lead New York’s Village Halloween Parade. The group relies on local, community participation. More than just helping to create the artworks, community involvement enhances the work itself, as well as how the work is received once it is displayed.

Vizcaya staff decided it was the perfect opportunity to share the work happening at the Chanler symposium with a more general audience, so we invited PAW to propose a project that would bring awareness of Chanler and his works at Vizcaya to a broader audience.

It was important to us, though, that community members be involved in the creative process as well; to give them  opportunity to find their own connection to the work and the place. These hopes resulted in Whirl, which was unlike anything the museum had done before and, would come to find, was unlike anything our community had seen. It brought, quite literally, a new light to the estate. You can see that video here.

Collaboration begins…

Over the course of a week, 300 volunteers came together to create human-sized lanterns from different Chanler works. During those workshops, participants contributed in a way that felt right to them: from building the structures or wiring lights for those with more technical interests, to choosing colors and layering styles for people who wanted to express themselves in more traditional artistic ways. There was something for everyone, and no skill or prior experience was required. The artists were there to support and troubleshoot and guide as necessary. It was an incredibly empowering experience.

Once the workshops were complete, those lanterns were used in a performance for 300 in Vizcaya’s gardens. Feedback was unprecedented. In our quest to bridge audience gaps, we stumbled on something that did much more. It gave agency to the community, supporting our goal of “many voices” at the museum; it brought different people together for shared experiences, which supported Vizcaya’s identity as a community hub. It fed a hunger we didn’t know existed, and, quite frankly, we wondered how to do it again.

 

….and continues.

In 2017, we invited PAW back, this time to tell the story of Vizcaya Village, which supported the domestic functions of the estate 100 years ago. The Village was not yet open to the public but was critical to telling a more complete story. PAW dug into our archives to learn about the Village; how it was critical to supporting the estate, and the people who lived and worked there. They identified several dozen icons that supported that multi-faceted story and made sketches for Bloom as it was called.

As workshops got underway, participants asked for more information – not because it was critical to making the art but because they wanted to learn more. As they formed the shell of a bell pepper, they wanted to know what kinds of crops were grown on site. As they puzzled through the mechanics of gravity, they wanted to see the weathervane that still adorns the Dairy – a cow jumping over the moon.

We were finding that volunteers registered for one workshop, but after participating in one, decided to return for other sessions. During those sessions, participants started pairing up with people they met at the workshops – familiar faces embarking on a shared journey. They were connecting with art, with artists, with Vizcaya, with each other.

Bloom followed exactly the same model as Whirl. A week of workshops, 300 people, to make 20-35 lanterns that would be used in a final performance for 300. We sold 300 tickets to the final performance in a single day. We increased capacity and sold 400, then 500. 700 and then finally 1,000.

The performance was in Vizcaya Village, which invited locals to explore a side of the estate previously unknown. The lanterns illuminated the Village, lending extra magic to the night. As I wandered around, I saw the same awe in participant faces at Bloom as at Whirl the year before.

Attendees to the performance wondered at the connection of the pieces to the site. Why is there a giant milk bottle? What’s the car about? Is that a monkey?

These questions gave us the opportunity for further engagement – a milk bottle because this building was the dairy, where milk was stored, butter churned, ice cream kept. The car is here because that building was the Garage. Yes, it’s a monkey, because monkeys were kept on site, along with many other animals. Each of those answers allowed us a segue for deeper story telling – about food production; innovation and technology; about leisure and development.

In 2018, we again invited PAW back and this time, they proposed changing the exploratory nature of the final performance, suggesting instead to make it a parade. Float tracked the journey from agricultural heartland, where Vizcaya’s patron made his money, to the shores of Biscayne Bay where Vizcaya is built. The parade followed the same path, from Vizcaya Village, where its farm was, to the Main House for a culminating moment at the waterfront.

That night, 1,000 people started in the Village and crossed over South Miami Avenue, a major thoroughfare that bisects the estate, traveled through the Rockland Hammock native forest, past the Main House and down to the shoreline, where floating caravels, a symbol of the estate, were set free into the waters of Biscayne Bay.

Over time, we wanted to incorporate participant feedback into the final videos, so we tasked our videographers with getting some testimonials throughout the evening. We did that in 2019’s Weave piece, and those testimonials confirmed what we knew: these programs created community and were a highly anticipated annual event.

 

Reflection

We’d done four years with PAW and started thinking about how community-built-and-performed art could be different. What if it wasn’t lanterns, or a parade or visual art? How do we preserve the magic of this annual event but also keep it fresh?  What do we offer people who are interested in other art forms?

The pandemic provided the perfect opportunity for this deliberation. We took 2020 as a hiatus to regroup and work our way through some questions. If we couldn’t hold this in person, could it be virtual? How do we foster co-creation among artists and community members virtually? How do those moments of community happen if we’re all separate?

We opted to maintain these experiences as in-person events, which meant that we would develop them for implementation when it was safe to do so. It’s worth noting that Vizcaya has acres and acres of outdoor space, which put us at an advantage in a pandemic. It meant we could host workshops outside. It also meant that locals were flocking to the estate in numbers not seen for more than a decade, eager to be outside. For the 2021 project, we chose to work with a local artist to envision a brand-new community-built-and-performed artwork, Spectral Vizcaya.

Spectral Vizcaya held on to light as a key activator, but that was essentially all that was in common visually with the projects created with PAW. The workshops were still critical to the piece but were less community-oriented because of social distance requirements. The final show was stunning – here’s a video – but the pandemic experience cemented the pillars we’d championed over the years.

Connection

Workshops allowed for people to work together – successful workshops allowed people to work closely together. And it was that collaboration, and that co-creation, that fostered community. During the final performance, we saw and heard the same comments: “I made those!” or “I painted that!” Contributing to the artworks was important, but in some ways, it took a backseat to making and sharing with others.

The 2022 performance came back to its pre-pandemic model. In-person workshops that serve 30 people each, creating alongside each other and the artist. This year’s installation is a Collective from the outset. We’ve partnered with a local classical music organization, IlluminArts, who sought out 3 different artists: Kunya Rowley, a singer, Arsimmer McCoy, a spoken word artist, and Pangea Kali Virga, a fashion designer and fiber artist. The project is a direct response to what’s happening in the world and is called In YOUnison and explores what it means to feel welcome.

It brings together different kinds of people to build and deepen community. It, like Vizcaya, is the product of hundreds of people working together toward a common goal. We make awesome art together; but more than that, we forge relationships that strengthen our community – and it’s needed now more than ever.

Click below to relive the one-night program and subscribe to our email list to learn more about upcoming programs at Vizcaya.