Elsewhere and the Museum as Commons

by George Scheer |

Consider a store, filled to the brink with consumables, one day decides that its inventories are collections, its merchandise is no longer for purchase, and instead it will practice as a museum. Everything else remains the same; visitors may browse, touch, and play, but they just can’t take things with them. What values change in that not so subtle shift between people, things, and the common space shared between them? Since 2003, Elsewhere Collaborative has been exploring the role that collaboration plays at the intersection of the store and museum through its living museum and international residency program set in a former thrift store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina.

My grandmother, Sylvia Gray, was both proprietress and collector, amassing a vast inventory of things at her store from 1939-1997. Her business, and ours, has always been about surplus. The business began with Sylvia and her husband buying repossessed furniture from NY during the Great Depression. They sold army surplus in catalog sales to boy scouts. After her husband’s sudden death in 1955, and with three children to raise, my grandmother grew the store, purchasing the ends of fabric bolts and ribbons from local mills, secondhand clothing, toys, dishwares, books, and an assortment of knickknacks to sell. After her passing in 1997 the building remained shut, filled to the brim with things knotted, tied, and bagged in chaotic organization.

In 2003, my collaborator Stephanie and I began an excavation, declaring nothing for sale. Our archeology did not aim to uncover the hidden voice of my grandmother, but instead to begin an ongoing practice of recreation. Over the past seven years, this exploration has been undertaken by a staff of artists and more than 35 creators each year participating in our residency program. Over time the movement and arrangement of things trails a layered aesthetic that convey histories and narratives of changing communities passing through this unfolding three-story artwork. Elsewhere’s Living Museum, open daily, offers audiences (average 300/week) an exploratory environment to play within and a site where creative practice is made public and the artwork and museum are themselves in a constant state of flux. By calling ourselves a museum, we respond to those cultural institutions that have separated practice from production, exhibition from process, and work from play.

Elsewhere’s story is written in attics across the country, pieced together bit-by-bit in distribution centers—thrift/antique/junk shops—and holed up in buildings ready to be dispersed. America’s overabundance, a diagnosed case of cultural hoarding, has left us all in possession of stuff, collections with no other future but to watch them decompose, critically or materially. At Elsewhere, however, the intervention of things into daily life has a profound effect on creative practice of both artists and publics. Resource, production, and exhibition meld within this site-specific environment, and cultural and personal histories intersect with those of a changing artist community to form a layered aesthetic of social and creative exchanges over time.

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One of the first discoveries audiences make at Elsewhere is a giant toy bin, chest height, with mounds of plastic toys that extend beyond the fingers like an oversized sandbox. People dig in, exchanging treasures with one another like tactile memories, constituting the personal as part of a public commons. Often people exclaim, “I had this,” laying claim to a personal memory contained in a mass-produced object while relating the infinitely distributable value of storytelling. Whenever we show and tell, we pass things between us, and in this model of sharing values we may begin to understand how museums are trusted with public commons as much as they are with public meaning.

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Elsewhere’s challenge today is how to continue modeling the public commons by practicing social exchanges through our set of things. A back alley garden and performances in our storefront are just a few ways we are reaching publics that might not otherwise adventure into a thrift store-turned-museum. With a large refugee population in Greensboro’s outskirts and a quickly gentrifying downtown environment, the challenge persists to determine how our site, concept, and collection can produce both artwork and cultural transformation. Our most recent model for exploring outreach possibilities surrounded the recently commissioned project of textile artist Frau Fiber. Drawing from her interest in materials and textile histories, we brought together third generation mill village families, textile industry professionals, and Latina women seeking basic sewing and mending skills. Through interactive quilting, skill share workshops, and the creation of a new sewing facility we were able to create a network of individuals that brought historical, economic, social service, and artistic interests to bare on Elsewhere’s textile collection.

Through the generative potential for use and re-use of things, Elsewhere has arranged a public commons in the form of a shared resource. By positing ourselves as a museum, the resource becomes part of a collection and therefore must express forms of care and generosity in its handling. The great challenge is how to build reciprocity in all social relations and ensure that we are both serving and developing the values of our community of artists and publics. Time and again we discover that in the collection of things, with their inherent array of perspectives, interest and references, we have both the source and resource to continually arrange and re-model the museum as a public commons between people.

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Elsewhere
606 South Elm Street
Greensboro, NC 27406
museum@goelsewhere.org

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George Scheer’s theoretical and artistic projects explore creative communities as political constituencies. He is a co-founder and Collaborative Director of Elsewhere, a living museum, international residency program, and educational laboratory set within a former thrift store. George is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication/Performance Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, and holds an MA in Critical Theory and Visual Culture from Duke University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in Political Communications. His current research explores the aesthetic context for social change and political practice.

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