Interviewsand Articles


Outside the Box, Inside the Cubicle

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 30, 2010



There are certain kinds of creative, off beat ideas that are simply obvious when you hear them. Tarak Shah and Sabina Nieto came up with one. With the economic downturn, every office building in the country probably has unrecognized resources: vacant cubicles. No doubt many are utilized as storage spaces for disabled copy machines, extra office supplies and the like, but here's an inspired possibility: how about the vacant cubicle as art gallery? Now after you read that last sentence, didn't you immediately smile? 
     What's not to like? First of all, what better way to help build community among the employees? Here's a way of sharing that goes far beyond office chitchat. And there's an egalitarian premise built in. A vacant cubicle is so clearly not the precious white sanctuary of an uptown gallery that it just naturally opens itself to all. In an odd way, the vacant cubicle may have the potential of becoming a tiny commons of the inner life among office workers toiling away across the country, a space for a modicum of refreshment and moments of deeper human connection. Moreover, it could help dispel some of the uneasiness and self-abnegation the artworld fosters in the minds of all of us when it comes to looking at our own creative expressions. Not only would there be the complete absence of intimidation at the threshold of the cubicle gallery, but thanks to the sharing of the artworks of office mates, one might experience the rebirth of a feeling for one's own creative potential. 
    Shah envisions something like that. Since the building he works in-and where Mauve? gallery exists (it was Shah's old cubicle)-houses UC Berkeley offices, an immediate thought was that it could serve as an exhibit space for other UC Berkeley staff, as well as for undergraduate and graduate students. And it would be a way for people to take more ownership of the space they work in. This has taken place to some extent. A basic aim remains that of supporting local artists. But when you've entered new territory why not be open to whatever possibilities appear? Several of the exhibitors have come as a result of connections co-founder Sabina Nieto established in other places on her journey in architecture. This has resulted in some surprises. For instance, there's been an exhibit of photos from Collectivo BolaExtra based in the Basque area of Spain. 
     As a central curatorial theme, Shah and Nieto, agreed upon "home" as a conceptual jumping off point. It's a theme that has been explored in many of their shows-place and home, a rich subject, and one well suited to promoting convivial exchange. 
     And here I can't help but recall one of my favorite quotes. It's from Joseph Bueys: "Creativity isn't the monopoly of artists, this is the crucial fact I've come to realize, and this broader concept of creativity is my concept of art. When I say everybody is an artist, I mean everybody can determine the context of life in his particular sphere. All around us the fundamentals of life are crying out to be shaped or created. But our idea of culture is severely restricted." --Richard Whittaker
Shah and Nieto write:
Mauve? Gallery sits in an office building not unlike any other office building, anywhere. Floor upon floor is laid out with rows of nearly identical modules known as cubicles, little boxes where work happens. Amidst this sea of cubes, there is one whose walls and open spaces have been dedicated to bringing art to the office. Every month, this cubicle unveils a new show of works by a different artist, with the unveiling generating a small buzz throughout the building of people discussing their thoughts about the artwork in hallways, stairwells, and break rooms. 
     Each show stays up for four weeks, allowing everyone a good chance to study and appreciate the work, and often people in the office are so interested in what they've seen that they're inspired to seek more of the artists' works online and in other places.
     Aside from our homes, our cubicles are one of the few spaces most of us have to decorate or personalize as we see fit (without getting arrested for vandalism). And, unlike our homes, the cubicle is more open to the public, with co-workers and other office inhabitants passing by regularly. People's cubes take on various personalities; some people decorate with pictures of family and pets, some will post up graphs, keyboard shortcuts, workflow charts and other work-related items, and some will leave their walls completely bare. 
     It occurred to us to use this space where we spend so much of our day to make the world just a tiny bit brighter and more interesting. And although the people who work in this office-researchers, data analysts, I.T. workers, and the like-do not seem at first like the stereotypical audience for new art, as it turns out, art practice and art appreciation is everywhere! 
     Since we started curating cubicle shows, co-workers have stopped by not only to admire the work, but to tell us about their own side-projects: painting, drawing, singing, printmaking. 
    As Mauve? continues to grow in reputation, we hope not only to attract artists to show their work in this humble space, but also to inspire other cubicle workers in other offices to do something similar. And hopefully, over time, as office landscapes get dotted with cubicle galleries, we can make office buildings acceptable venues for artwork beyond the commissioned lobby sculptures and motivational posters seen in hallways.   
    Meanwhile, artists from near and far who have heard about our little gallery have been thrilled at the opportunity to share their work with an audience they might otherwise not have reached, and to connect with people in the course of their everyday lives. It has been incredibly fulfilling to be involved in bringing these artists' work to people we work alongside every day. 
Mauve? Gallery is looking for work that's modest in scale, equipped with careful hanging tectonics. "Office-ready" content is given priority. There's an open call for proposals with a site visit to follow selection. Contact:

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.


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