What is an “Interpreter in Residence?” Interview with Michael Christiano

Michael Christiano is the Interim Senior Director of Museum Programs at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. In this role he develops strategies and programs that reflect on the nature of the Museum’s institutional practice, with a particular focus on education, interpretation, engagement, hospitality, installation strategy, and other key issues.


Michael Christiano

When visiting the Smart Museum, I was very impressed by your Interpreter in Residence program. Can you tell us about this program – what it is and how it started?

The Interpreter in Residence is a year-long program through which we engage artists and other creative people with an interest in creating participatory and socially engaged projects in collaboration with our publics at the Smart.

The program grew in out of a 2012 exhibition entitled “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art.” Because this was an exhibition about artists exploring notions of hospitality within their work, we began to question our institutional sense of hospitality, and our relationship with our guests. We wanted to think about sustaining an investigation into our own institutional practice of hospitality, engagement, and interpretation.

In 2013, we created a program with the group, “Hornswaggler Arts,” by two artists, Graham Hogan and Joseph Rynkiewicz. These artists would set up guerilla bars at Chicago art events, sell drinks, keep half the proceeds, use these proceeds to purchase art from that event to support artists and amass a collection of art funded by the bar. We engaged Hornswaggler Arts to do a monthly program at the Smart, during which they would set up their bar, design activities, and serve amazing cocktails. At the close of the year we realized that we had, without setting out to do so, established a residency program.


Hornswaggler Arts at the Smart Museum – Graham and Joe tending bar.

One of the interesting things about working with Hornswaggler Arts was the way in which their work informed how we thought about things at the museum, while the museum also informed their work. They helped us to clarify how we think about the role experience plays in our lobby, because all of our programming happens in our lobby. It became clear that programming could charge the lobby with an energy that people would carry with them as they walked into the galleries. It changed how people entered the gallery space.

Hornswaggler Arts also engaged a variety of artists and thinkers for these events. It became clear that part of what a residency could do was to create space for artists to engage artists. It was a way of expanding our network.

What is the format of your Interpreter in Residence Program?

We start with the questions we are grappling with. For us it’s important as an institution to think about what questions we are engaging in, so we can engage someone else to play with them in a public way. We identify and work with artists and others interested in similar questions to the ones we are interested in.  In order to be a genuine investigation we had to all be interested in the same questions, and potential for us all to learn from the partnership. We can then embed new ideas into our practice – the results of the residency enter our core work.

It’s an Interpreter in Residence program because we want to think about the intersection of creative practice and pedagogy. We don’t think about interpretation strictly as didactics. We think more holistically about the form of experience we are creating for our visitors, within which they will experience the art.

We’ve had Matt Austin, 500 Clown, and, most recently, Erika Dudley in residence through this program.

Tell me more about your most recent collaboration, with Erika Dudley.

We engaged Erika because we were interested in transforming our docent program into a platform for campus and civic engagement. Historically, the docent program consisted of University of Chicago students who facilitated a multi-visit program we used to offer. That program ended, so we had university students who now had the time and capacity to do something different.

While thinking about this, I was also talking to Erika, a community organizer who works in the Civic Knowledge Department of the University of Chicago. Erika manages the Odyssey Project program, which provides free university coursework in the humanities to adults living at or below poverty level. She was working with project alumni to find arts- and humanities-based jobs in which they could leverage their new expertise. Three years ago we created a program in which the Smart Museum would hire program alumni as paid docents, trained to facilitate tours alongside of the University of Chicago students.

This past year I wanted to think more intentionally about how we train our docents. How do we train and empower them not just to facilitate tours, but to design experiences more autonomously, responding to both the museum collection and the interests of their peer networks. We want to see our docents as a cohort of individuals with different life experiences, and to think about how we might leverage this to work with different audiences.

Through the Interpreter in Residence program, Erika is thinking about how a museum can be more reflective of the needs and interests of its community. Together we are recasting our docent training to embed both inquiry-based pedagogy and community organizing tactics. We are thinking not just about who was a docent, but about what a docent is.


Erika Dudley (third from right, with clasped hands) hosting a Welcome Table event during her residency.

Now docents still lead tours, and those tours feel similar to how they’ve always felt. But the docent core has a different sense of agency within the institution. Ideas flow from the docent core to the museum, not just the other way around. Docents are bringing groups into the museum that we have never historically engaged with. For instance, one of our docents works with a youth center that provides experiences for youth recently released from juvenile detention. She was able to see the connections that could be made between the museum and the youth center, connections that had significant value, and through her management could be sustained. We trust our docents to build and sustain relationships.

What’s next?

We are thinking right now about belonging. Two years ago, the Smart Museum decided to reinstall our permanent collection entirely once a year. A portion of the collection is reinstalled under a curatorial thematic that allows us to put work together we wouldn’t normally see together. This year’s theme is belonging.

Over the course of the summer we turned one of our central galleries into a kind of residency and workshop space, through which we engaged four core partners to work with us to investigate belonging. This program was called In Anticipation of Belonging. The partners were: The Teen Arts Council from the Arts + Public Life Initiative; the Odyssey Institute scholars;  an artist’s group called Stockyard Institute doing critical and radical pedagogy work; and Red Line Service, led by two artists who work with adult Chicagoans experiencing housing transition. Each group conducted a two-week residency in the space, responding to the collection and engaging with questions: What does it mean to belong? How does the Smart Museum become a site of belonging?


The Teen Arts Council learning how to construct temporary structures as inspiration for designing sites of belonging with guest artist Faheem Majeed. Image courtesy Marya Spont-Lemus.

This program created powerful experiences, but it was clear that there was more work to do. Now we are talking to each of our partners about ways that we can sustain our engagement with them as an Interpreter in Residence collective, who will design programs with us to continue to investigate the question of how a cultural institution can become a site of belonging.


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