Today I’m thrilled to welcome Jenny Watts from the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens to the LAIP. Jenny shares information and insight with us about the /five series, a contemporary arts initiative designed to engage artists and the wider community with the Huntington’s collections in interesting ways. Enjoy! ~Laura

Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): For those of us who aren’t familiar with the Huntington already, please introduce yourself and this institution!

Jenny Watts (JW): Founded in 1919 by Henry E. Huntington and his wife, Arabella, The Huntington is really three institutions rolled into one.  It’s a research library and art collection surrounded by 220-acres of botanical gardens containing plants from around the world – all perfectly situated under the Southern California sun. To learn more about this multi-faceted institution and its events, exhibitions, collections, and founders, visit our website at www.huntington.org

Oh, and I’m Jenny Watts, Curator of Photography and Visual Culture at The Huntington, where I’ve worked since 1991 overseeing a collection of about a million photographs.

LAIP: What’s the elevator speech about /five? What was the impetus for the initiative?

JW: /five is a contemporary arts initiative centered on five year-long collaborations between The Huntington and a variety of arts and cultural organizations. The aim is to engage the institution’s rich library, garden, and art collections in new and thought-provoking ways. Outcomes can include site-specific installations, educational programming, performance pieces, sound work, film, and myriad other art forms.

The idea for /five began with a substantial gift from a private donor with an agenda that was stunningly open-ended. She wanted a project – any project, really – that involved collaboration across the Huntington’s three divisions and, more significantly, attracted new audiences (read younger and more diverse).  

Chief Curator of European Art, Catherine Hess, and I had been talking for several years about highlighting contemporary art and art practices in a more programmatic way, so we leapt at this opportunity. We established a small “dream team” of colleagues from across the institution and were off and running. 

LAIP: I see that /five is in its second year at the Huntington. In year one the /five partner was JPL/NASA. Can you tell us a little bit about how the first year went, and the piece that was created through that initial partnership?

JW: Our first year was a bit of an anomaly. The /five team decided early on that there would be two guidelines for the artwork: it needed to create thoughtful engagement with some aspect of The Huntington’s collections and be accessible to the public.  Put another way, works would be collections based, site specific, and created explicitly for this initiative.  

“Orbit Pavilion” came to the Huntington fully formed, the brainchild of Dan Goods and David Delgado who are employed by JPL as “visual strategists.” The nautilus-shell-shaped pavilion had premiered at the World Science Festival in New York City in 2016. Even so, we saw this as an opportunity to highlight our spectacular history of science materials in a counterintuitive way while kicking off this new initiative in spectacular fashion. Orbit is, after all, a very large shiny object placed at the entrance to our gardens. It’s impossible to miss!  You can see more about it here: http://www.huntington1.com/five/2016

LAIP: Can you tell us a little bit about what’s been happening so far with this year’s partner organization, the Women’s Center for Creative Work, and what’s on the docket for the rest of 2017? 

JW: This year – which is the initiative’s first full year – has been energizing and exciting – and will become even more so as we begin to roll out some of the artist programs that culminate in an exhibition opening in November. 

We chose the theme of “collecting” and “collections” for 2017 and felt that WCCW, a Los Angeles-based organization that cultivates feminist creative practices and communities, would be the perfect collaborator to tackle this topic. They did not disappoint. They sent out a call for proposals and received over 100 applications. Together we chose 7 artists to immerse themselves in one of our three collecting areas: library, art, and botanical. 

It’s been incredible to see what these seven talented women have conceptualized through the lens of our collection: everything from the hidden work of women related to Sèvres porcelain and 17th-century French tapestries; to 19th-century queer performance and a participatory archive inspired by the writings of Sappho; to the (im)migration “stories” of plants and the concept of cultivated spaces and wildness; to the correspondence of 18th-century British literary salonista, Elizabeth Montagu, and its relevance to the bodies of 21st-century feminists.

We will be rolling out a series of events from September through January as well as the exhibition mentioned above. The Huntington and WCCW have been documenting artists’ processes through our social and digital media channels. For a further glimpse into /five  2017 thus far, you can see www.huntington.org/five

LAIP: How do you determine which organizations you will partner with for /five?

JW: The /five team first sits down with a list of (mostly local) organizations that have a solid track record of collaborating with contemporary artists. We look at the organization’s mission, audience, past projects, capacity (staffing wise) and whether or not we see a potential “fit” with our team. We whittle the list down and meet with one or two organizations to feel out the process. Then we put our feelers out into the community and ask the most important question of all (which is something of a deal breaker depending on the answer): how is the organization to work with?

LAIP: For libraries who may be interested in piloting a similar program at their institutions, what advice or suggestions do you have, based on your experience with /five so far?

JW: Go for it!  The process will give you insight into your collections in ways that you never, ever anticipated. It’s a lot of work and time (way more than you think), but it’s a ton of fun too. 

It will light up whole areas of your brain that you didn’t know existed. Not everyone in your institution will “get it” at first, but it’s your challenge to bring them along for the ride. Those who are willing and open to the experience will be grateful that you did.

Pin It