Two tactics have been dominant in the field of artist–institution relationships over the past five decades. While some artists have chosen to create works of institutional critique that put pressure on an institution’s structures and ideologies from within, others have stepped outside existing frameworks to build institutions that correct perceived shortcomings in traditional institutional protocols. Caroline Woolard’s work is in dialogue with both of these traditions. However Woolard expands upon the practices of institutional critique and alternative institution building by mapping a unique third course — one that is guided by an investment in what she calls “institutional possibility.” What distinguishes her strategy is the deliberateness with which she creates new institutions that have the potential to operate both independently and in partnership with other parties: Woolard’s institutional projects are designed to be embedded, scaled, and/or reproduced.
Take The Study Center for Group Work. According to a timeline on the institution’s webpage, Woolard developed the idea for the project in 2013 and immediately began conversations to find a “partner” organization to support its realization in New York City. Three years later, Woolard collaborated with curator Stamatina Gregory to bring the institution to life at Cooper Union’s 41 Cooper Gallery in the form of an exhibition called WOUND: The Study Center for Group Work. Since 2016, Woolard and a number of collaborators have continued to run this institution in several different forms and contexts, including through short-term installations and activations of The Study Center’s collections within institutional spaces and via the continuous maintenance of the institution’s website as a resource-sharing platform.
In steering The Study Center’s trajectory from its conception through to its functional forms, Woolard has located spaces of institutional possibility within and outside of established institutions. The original iteration of The Study Center as a temporary institutional presence embedded within the larger institution of Cooper Union demonstrated the feasibility of using an existing entity as a launchpad for an independent initiative. Here Woolard utilized the resources available for the exhibition to facilitate the development of The Study Center’s collection of artistic practices and associated objects, and she harnessed the visibility associated with staging an exhibition within a prestigious school’s gallery in order to bring a broad public into contact with these offerings.
Building on the momentum gained during the exhibition’s run—the involvement of artists who contributed objects and led public workshops outlining their practices, the critical praise voiced in exhibition reviews, and the interest of audiences who visited WOUND — Woolard was then able to secure additional streams of support for the institution. The subsequent iterations of The Study Center reveal the institution’s ability to function on varying scales within different physical spaces and organizational infrastructures. Whether a viewer encounters The Study Center’s collection of objects (in full or in part) in a physical space or they download PDFs outlining individual artistic practices from www.studycollaboration.org, the institution continues to serve its aim of calling attention to and encouraging experimentation with tools that foster collaborative working methods. And across all of its forms, The Study Center’s focus on artistic practices — exercises that are meant to be enacted time and time again with the aim of refining a particular skill or set of skills — defines the institution’s commitment to reproducibility: to engage with The Study Center is to learn tools that are by their very nature intended for application across contexts.
With The Study Center, as with her other institutional initiatives, Woolard productively collapses the distance between institution-critical strategies and the efforts of institutional formation. The result is an extensive field of possibility in which artists can test new modes of interacting with institutions.
Alison Burstein is the Curator of Media and Engagement at The Kitchen in New York. As an independent curator, she has curated exhibitions or programs for institutions including Tenthaus (Oslo), Mana Contemporary (Jersey City), The Luminary (St. Louis), Knockdown Center (Queens), Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles), and NURTUREart (Brooklyn).