by Lauren Kingsley (MA, 2016)
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present an excerpt from alumna Lauren Kingsley’s master’s capstone paper on how museums in San Francisco can address the issue of homelessness in our community. To read her paper in full, click here. Lauren currently works full-time in the Director’s Office at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
A museum is a public institution—its driving force is to serve the community by presenting thought-provoking and impactful exhibitions that have the potential to alter the ways in which we interpret the world around us. However, the community defined by cultural institutions is often exclusive. Museums are sometimes criticized for being elitist institutions that are not accessible to marginalized populations. But what if museums embraced their capacity to bring people from diverse backgrounds together, create a convening site for dialogue about the issues facing our society, and ignite a sense of agency in all of us to take action to make the world a better place?
Therein lies the essence of my master’s capstone project—Through the Eyes of our Neighbors: A collaborative model for cultural, educational, and community organizations to meaningfully address homelessness in San Francisco. Across the United States alone, homelessness is a matter of severity faced by millions of people. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Homelessness occurs when people or households are unable to acquire and/or maintain housing they can afford.” The Alliance reported that 564,708 people were homeless on an average night in the United States as of January 2015. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that, on an annual basis, between 2.5 to 3.5 million people sleep in “shelters, transitional housing, and public places not meant for human habitation.” It is difficult to document and track homeless populations, so the data available is often inconsistent. However, regardless of the specific methods used to track this data, homelessness is a disturbing reality facing many people in our nation today.
A broad range of influences and determining factors have the potential to lead people into homeless circumstances. People might assume that the primary causes of homelessness are the lack of affordable housing and financial circumstances. However, these situations can be worsened by a variety of economic and social forces including an unstable housing market leading, flaws in the healthcare system, lack of job opportunities, domestic violence, mental illness, and drug/alcohol abuse and addiction.
People who are experiencing homelessness are rejected by the mainstream and forced to live with the realization that they exist apart from or away from that which is normal. They are evicted, relocated, shunned, scorned, and otherwise excluded from many of the places, experiences, and joys that the rest of us are accustomed to.
Through my research, I determined that there has been increasing level of dialogue in academic and institutional circles regarding the topic of museums and community outreach, specifically with regard to marginalized groups and the direct engagement of homeless populations in a museum setting. I documented examples of organizations that are doing exemplary work in this regard, such as The Old Town Museum in Lyngby, Denmark that exhibited a re-creation of a homeless person’s dwellings in an effort to raise awareness regarding the issue of homelessness. Another model is San Francisco’s Sixth Street Photography Workshop. Its founder and artistic director, Tom Ferentz, has exhibited widely and previously taught photography at University of San Francisco. Since 1991, this community arts organization has provided free photographic training to the city’s homeless and low-income community, recruiting participants from shelters, residential hotels, social service agencies and community organizations.
Despite these model efforts, few museums have been able or willing to address this admittedly-complex issue head-on through programming and initiatives. I, thus, designed a detailed model and project plan for an exhibition and public program series, as a joint venture between the Sixth Street Photography Workshop; a major arts presenting venue; and the University of San Francisco to address the issue of homelessness in a meaningful way with long-term impact. The project seeks to involve the homeless, specifically artists and activists, in the life of a museum by inviting them to share their work through a professional exhibition. The exhibition would contain two major components: photography featuring the work of artists who have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness, and an architecture and design exhibition featuring proposed solutions to homelessness configured by emerging firms or individuals as well as university students. Furthermore, through a dynamic series of public programs and educational outreach initiatives, new audiences would be engaged and provided with the opportunity to access the resources that the museum has to offer.
From the outset, I endeavored to provide a programming model that has the capacity to be replicated elsewhere. Homelessness, while widely recognized as a significant challenge in the Bay Area and in other regions of California, is an issue in countless communities across our country. Given the current, turbulent political climate and an uncertain future of funding for social welfare, health and human services, and education programs in the United States, I believe that the work of museums to bridge the gaps between the fortunate few and the marginalized masses is more relevant than ever before. I also sought to develop a program that would push the boundaries of traditional museums to expand their programming to include all members of their community, and bring people together who might otherwise go separate ways.
Our communities depend on museums to remain relevant to increasingly diverse audiences and to embrace the opportunity to connect members of our community with a common purpose. My goal is to inspire people to embrace projects with the capacity not only to alter perceptions but to ultimately change minds, and have a lasting impact on the field of museums and social justice.
To read Lauren’s capstone in its entirety, click here.
For more information on the University of San Francisco’s Museum Studies program, click here.