In September 2016 the Block Museum was thrilled to welcome Lauren Cochard Watkins into the role of Engagement Manager. Lauren brings over 10 years of experience connecting art and programming to Chicago’s cultural audiences, most recently as Programmer of Education at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. After overseeing an amazing Fall lineup of events, partnerships, and docent training, Lauren sat down to talk with us about her background.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you find your way to museum education and engagement?
When I went off to college I had no idea what I was going to study or do. I took a Buddhist Art class on a whim because it sounded fascinating and unlike anything I had ever learned before. That was my introduction to art history as a discipline, and I was hooked. I quickly realized I wanted to integrate my newfound love of art history with my longstanding interest in working with kids and young people. I thought for a time that I might want to become a classroom teacher, but then I discovered museum education and engagement.
Looking back, this was actually a moment of re-discovery – I had unknowingly been involved in this work before. When I was a teenager my first ‘real’ job was at a museum, then the world’s first museum dedicated to the news. It was a brand new institution at the time and located in my hometown, Arlington, Virginia, and I sought out work there because I thought I wanted to be a journalist. That career aspiration faded fast, but museums stuck with me.
You’ve had a great cultural career in Chicago. What particularly stands out to you about this city?
I’ve lived in Chicago for over 10 years now. Professionally, I’ve split that time between working in an organization dedicated to architecture and design, the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), and then in a contemporary art institution, the MCA Chicago, before coming to the Block a few months ago. Through this, I’ve gotten a window into two endeavors that I think are quite distinctive in Chicago: place-making and teaching artistry. At CAF I got to work with people who were passionate about the city and how it has come to be, but who were also committed to actively re-thinking how we use design to solve problems in the places where we live. At the MCA, all of the programs I oversaw were led by practicing artists who see their artistic practice and their teaching practice both as critical, creative endeavors that fuel and inform one another. The talented, tireless designers, artists and educators I worked with in both places went far beyond the content of their daily work – designing or interpreting buildings and making or interpreting art – to drive at how to make a deeper impact in their city and make better experiences for diverse groups of learners. The other quality that I think is really special to Chicago is the spirit of collaboration. Among practitioners here across disciplines there is a drive to include others and make space for people to think and make and create change together that has been really galvanizing for me.
Can you tell us about some of your previous engagement projects?
I have designed and led programs for a whole host of constituencies and communities, from families and kids, to teenagers and teachers. I helped launch a new family program at CAF and at the MCA programmed our monthly Family Days that engaged young kids and their adult caregivers in playful, authentic, interactive contemporary art experiences. I managed a suite of professional development programs for educators, working closely with classroom teachers to build communities of practice to re-think how and what they teach. I oversaw an incredible creative youth development program called the Teen Creative Agency, a dynamic collective of 25 young creative thinkers and 2 artist mentors who are transforming the way that people think about art and museums. I have had an incredible education through all of this work.
What drew you to the Block Museum mission, exhibition, and programs?
I am passionate about making museums be places of vitality, of vital use to the communities of which they are a part, and I see that in the Block’s mission and how it goes about its work. I got a real sense of the institution’s commitment to building partnerships that go deep and to extending an invitation to people – students, faculty, staff, citizens – to use the museum as a place to learn, to think, to test out ideas, to relax, to connect, to contribute, and to participate. I am thrilled to be a part of this important endeavor.
What exhibitions or programs (outside the Block) have inspired you lately?
I recently learned about the Laundromat Project and was really struck by its simple yet potent mission, vision, and model. They seek to “amplify the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, solve problems, and enhance our sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow.” The project positions everyday spaces as hubs where people (artists, neighbors, adults, children), art, and ideas can come together.