Breaking the Museum-Going Mold: A Q&A With the Hammer Museum's Allison Agsten

Game Room, 2012
(Photo by Marianne Williams)

LOS ANGELES — Allison Agsten, the dynamic and intrepid curator of Public Engagement at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, has built her department from scratch. After three years spent designing and refining the Public Engagement department’s infrastructure and mission, she is now poised to make a real impact in a field that is still new and innovative in the museum world. Agsten talks with ARTINFO’s Yasmine Mohseni about her unorthodox career path, her passion for gaming, and which L.A. artist she’s dying to work with.

You have had an atypical and non-traditional career trajectory for someone in the curatorial field. Tell me a bit about your background.


I interned at CNN during college and they offered me a job – it was a different time when you could actually have a job lined up after college – and I worked my way to being a producer. Most people [in Los Angeles] were covering movies and television, but I was especially interested in the arts, so I was able to carve out a little niche for myself. I got to do some really great stories on museums, the symphony and the theatre, and I spent a week doing a big production at LACMA in 2005 when their King Tut show was on [“Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs”]. Then LACMA had a job opening as Communications Manager, and they knew me, they knew my work ethic, and it’s not terribly uncommon for journalists to make the switch from journalism to PR. I’d always longed to be even more immersed in the arts than I already was. Michael Govan came on board shortly after I was hired — he’s such an incredible visionary and force, and under his leadership, I was able to explore and to do some things museums weren’t really doing yet, especially digitally. Things that, five years ago, felt very provocative. I initiated Twitter at the museum and the first Spanish language Twitter account for a museum. So we had the first bilingual Twitter account, in English and Spanish. 

How did the Hammer position come about?

When the position [of curator of Public Engagement] became open, I think that the Hammer was probably looking for someone with a traditional curatorial background. But somebody with that background maybe didn’t have some of the administrative experience or production background that I had. All of these things coalesced to make me a candidate that fit. It seems atypical or unusual on paper, but I know how to work within a museum and I understand that structure pretty well. I actually think that [my production background] is the most helpful for making things happen.

 Your mandate is public engagement — what does that mean?

In 2009, when we got the Irvine Foundation Grant [which led to the founding of the Public Engagement department], it was to create a new kind of visitor experience that included not just artists’ projects, but starting a visitor’s services department. I think this is another reason why I probably ultimately got the job — the person needed to not just have curatorial skills but to have a level of administrative savvy and understanding to create this department from scratch. [At the beginning, my job] was hiring a staff, creating a manual, figuring out what credit card machines would synch with our bank, money handling procedure — I mean, everything! So, when we originally were thinking about working with artists, the idea was to bring artists in to help us think through important decisions. We found with our first artist residency, “Machine Project,” that as much as we thought artists wanted to help us solve our problems, they actually wanted to complicate the problems or examine other problems entirely. I think that we had maybe overprescribed what we thought the boundaries of their work would be. Over time, it has evolved. I would say that now all of the public engagement we present values exchange between the visitor and the museum and the visitor and the artist.

What is striking is the massive learning curve you had – not only did you start a new job, but also a new department and a new iteration of the artist-museum-visitor exchange.

And for so much of the work there is no precedent. There’s nobody I can call to say, “I’m working with this artist [Lisa Anne Auerbach, “United We Stand,” 2012], who wants to put sequins on the backs of the blazers of our security guards. Do you have any idea who can do the sequins? What do your guards think when you want to sequin their blazers?” There’s not a lot of reference for this exact kind of work within museums. There are artists who have been doing incredible work in the realm of social practice for a long time, but many museums haven’t exercised this muscle a lot, including ours.

The 2010 collaboration with Machine Projectwas your department’s first major project. What was that like?

It’s the most intensive residency that we’ve had in Public Engagement so far. We did 80 programs or so in a year. Things like micro concerts, five-minute live concerts held in the coatroom, were totally easy and ran themselves because we did them so extensively. With many of them, though, it feels like you’re reinventing the wheel. It ranged from music – like a live personal soundtrack where you could check out a guitarist who would walk you through the galleries – to a sleepover at the museum. We had a “Microscope Day” where we got access to the newest model of microscopes not released to the market yet.

Do your programs relate to the museum’s exhibitions or are they free-standing?

Most are free-standing and not in the galleries. Once you enter the galleries, there’s a whole separate set of considerations. But we did a piece with Charles Long for “All of This And Nothing” [2011, the sixth Hammer Museum’s biennial invitational exhibition series]. Charles was familiar with all the artists in the show, so we approached him to see if he wanted to do anything. He set up a vitrine outside of the gallery [filled with leaves stamped with thought-provoking phrases]. Before you came in, you could scoop up a few leaves and walk through the galleries, reading the prompts stamped on them. One of my favorites is “Spend some time experiencing the qualities of this artwork that cannot be photographed or described.” 

What have you found people react to and what engages them the most?

Music, for sure. Music is across the board something our visitors really appreciate. We find that even if we don’t give them much context, they love it. Even when we’re experimenting with music, it somehow doesn’t alienate people, whereas I think when you see work that feels very experimental in the visual arts, it can feel very alienating.

How do you engage the general audience without dumbing down the content?

I think it’s carefully selecting the projects; it’s a fine line. Some of them exceed our expectations, and other times it doesn’t work as well. There are a couple of things that I’ve been sure would be hits and they were, but a lot of the time, I just don’t know.

Can you give me an example of one you knew would be a hit?

“Libros Schmibros” [a nonprofit lending library and used-book shop in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, which was set up in the Hammer Museum’s lobby gallery in 2011]. That one really challenged what we as a museum put in a gallery. It took a lot of internal discussion. But the great thing about Libros Schmibros was that because I had seen it and experienced it in Boyle Heights, I didn’t have to imagine what it could be. I could walk in that space and feel this vibration that I knew without a doubt would translate anytime, any place, anywhere.

Tell me about Game Room,” the current project you opened on December 1. 

Around this time last year, I was talking to Eddo Stern [artist, game designer and professor at UCLA’s Design Media Arts] about the big change in gaming culture that’s come about in the last five years. If you and I were talking five years ago and I said, ‘How many games do we have between the two of us?’ we would’ve probably said none. But now I’m looking at your iPhone and my iPhone, and maybe we have 10 games between the two of us. There’s an ubiquity in game play as never before in our history, but we’re also playing games so differently, because we can be separated by continents and still play [digitally]. The touch aspect of it is gone unless you think about our screens, and so is the eye contact, the human part of it. It got me thinking. And when I was at CNN I somehow ended up on the gaming beat, so I had an interest and a base understanding of that culture. A year later, we have “Game Room,”which is an installation of art works [by seven artists] that all happen to be games, all analog and all playable by visitors. 

How are you able to engage an audience on a national and international level?

I think that we engage on that level not through experience but through storytelling. Particularly with Machine Project, some of the projects are so incredible; they’ve kind of taken on a life of their own. I don’t curate projects so they will create their own little mythology and go out into the world. But that’s how it works with some of these things, and so on that level, I think we do have that presence. Last week I was asked to be the 2013 educator-in-residence at the Aspen Art Museum, and a few days later, the Gardner Museum in Boston asked if I could come speak to their board about this work. I don’t know if we’re making an impact internationally. I want us to get this work outside of the museum, but right now, I am focused on Los Angeles and how we can find ways to facilitate work like this outside of our four walls. That’s a goal of mine and of my colleagues for the next year.

You’re working primarily with Los Angeles artists?

I am. I work with artists from elsewhere but, even if you put the money and consideration aside, when we work with Los Angeles artists, often they’ve spent a lot of time at the Hammer already and they can embed here in a unique way.

Are there any particular L.A. artists you’d like to work with?

Yes, there’s definitely an artist I’m super interested in, Olga Koumoundouros. She did the “Notorious Possession project” [a 2012 social sculpture when the artist occupied an abandoned home in Los Angeles], and I would love to spend time with her and learn more about her work. 

To see images from recent Public Engagement projects at the Hammer Museum, click on the slideshow.