MCA's Adam Lerner on Risks, Failure, Creativity and Animating Museums

Chance-taking at MCA Denver.
Chance-taking at MCA Denver.
From the Hip Photo/MCA Denver.
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The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver’s Adam Lerner doesn’t simply direct the museum he’s led since 2009; rather, he animates it, drawing artists and non-artists alike into the MCA with party-like openings and offbeat programs like Mixed Taste, a series pairing lectures on unrelated topics. Denverites who've come to appreciate the MCA’s different way of doing things already live in a beautiful bubble, but thanks to a newly announced $400,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Lerner will soon be sharing his crowd-drawing secrets with museum professionals from across the nation. Animating Museums, a three-year leadership program with annual residencies, culminating with a group project utilizing Lerner’s unorthodox and risky tools of the trade, is now accepting applications from prospective fellows; the deadline is March 31.

Why should other museums drop their stodgy old habits and try Lerner’s way instead? We thought we’d ask him that, plus a few more questions. Here are his answers.

Chance-taking at MCA Denver.EXPAND
Chance-taking at MCA Denver.
From the Hip Photo/MCA Denver.

Westword: When and why did this idea start to percolate?

Adam Lerner: It’s been a dream of mine, but I never imagined it would be a priority for the institution to fundraise for. When Mellon asked us, that all of sudden made it possible for me realize that dream.

I also think there’s something really unique about Denver's openness. The people who support the museum give us the instruction: “We want you to be as interesting as you can be.” They’re not telling us how to run a museum, which is the more typical message museum employees get in more traditional situations. In Denver, people said, “Be interesting, be impactful. We want you to be serious, but we also want you to risk failure. Your impact on this city is not about doing things the right way.” I heard that message so clearly, and I was able to rally my team and have them work with me to have programming like that. I feel very proud.

Have you had requests for something like this from other museum professionals?

People were already coming here to study what we do. I really love having the opportunity to be able to share that and to have our staff see that what they're doing is special enough to warrant people coming here from all over and looking to us for leadership. I think we’re unique, and that’s something they should be proud of. But most important, people in Denver who love art already have a good sense of what we're doing at the museum. To be able to have the Mellon foundation recognize that we have a national leadership role to fulfill should make Denver proud of what we're doing here.

The Mellon Foundation usually gives money to what my father would call “real” museums. To choose an organization as small as we are and trust that we can teach other people takes us to a new level. When I began at the Lab at Belmar in 2004, there were foundations who thought there was something suspicious about it. Now the same foundations are championing ways to have more serious conversations.

Why is your style of innovation so important for the art-museum biz?

When I came to Denver in 2001, people here were asking, “How can we bring to Denver all the best things out there in the art world?" But I wasn’t thinking that way at all. My idea was more like, "Why don't we create the best things ever right here, and then export it out there?”

It might not look that way when you read the news, but I feel that our culture has changed because of the work artists do. Now businesspeople are asking, “How can I find my own inner voice and do something creative and instructive, too?” The model of art is now a model of useful information on how
to find your own inner voice. You can model yourself after artists, just like I've done.

Our Mellon Foundation grant is about advancing innovation. MCA has always said that we are not just a platform for others to be artists. Our path is to learn from artists how we can be more creative ourselves, and that’s what we’ve always tried to do — use institutional creativity to help people connect to their own creative selves. That's partly why our openings are so crowded.  This is about creativity that anyone can participate in. People can feel that as audience members, they are creative, too.

Why are other museums having such a hard time getting it?

Most museums say they're interested in innovation, but they don’t know how much they must be willing to give up to have it. If you do something really different that’s never been done before, there will be forces that work against you.

It’s true we are basically trying to get people to get outside of the way they think about traditional subject matter, and that will make some people uncomfortable, and they might resist you. When doing something new, genuinely new, there will be resistance, and most foundations don't want to risk it.

For instance, when we introduced our Failure Lab, we knew we would alienate traditional funders. But you have to be willing to risk losing some funders. To them, we don't smell like anything else that exists. We basically have had luck being able to say, “Okay, we can prove that these creative programs have impact,” and some foundations have been supportive of our innovations.

How can you turn the tide and change that point of view?

When creative efforts are funded by an outside source, they're protected. That helps institutions get over the initial risk. It takes courage to do anything interesting. I do it because I feel the fear. There’s a natural tendency of being afraid of being humiliated, and I want to lead into that.

For our Basquiat exhibit, we needed a team of lawyers to do an exhibition like that, and I realized that was something new: We’re basically doing an exhibition without authorization from the artist. Then I know we're doing something new. That is exactly the practice of making art: leading into that fear of creating something new in the world.

That’s the double nature of art: to create things so genuinely new that when we connect to them, there’s a sense of discomfort that might even approach fear. We work to create that kind of connection. That’s the social purpose of our museum — to encourage people to get comfortable with things they're not familiar with. The nature of our work is about innovation: How can we as an institution promote artists if not do it ourselves?

When in the world are you going to write a book?

I was writing a book for a while. I even had a New York literary agent pick it up and start to find a publisher for me. I called it The Artistics. But then I decided that at least for right now, I want to channel my energy into doing, not telling. For now, I’d rather be more action-oriented.

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