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Interview with the Museum of Pocket Art’s Executive Director, Robert Jackson Harrington

By Phillip Townsend, Neon Queen Collective

Photo Credit: Amanda Winkles

PT: Hi Robert. It’s so great to see you.

RJH: You too.

PT: So, can you tell me a little bit about MoPA, its conception and its mission.

RJH: Okay. The Museum of Pocket Art, otherwise known as MoPA started in 2004, in my hometown of El Paso, Texas. It was while I was an Undergrad and meeting all the other artists who were studying there when I realized there wasn’t really a space to show in El Paso. At that time we had the El Paso Museum of Art and then there was the university exhibition space. The only time you got to show there was during the student show. Their missions where to bring other artists to El Paso and provide exposure to established artists work. So there were no real opportunities for local artists to show. I wanted to show people and I wanted to have exhibitions spaces for artists that I felt needed it. So being poor and lacking funds, I decided to create this alternative platform where I could share art from other artists. In a way that could subvert those expectations, like having to be in a gallery space or needing all those brick and mortar aspects of it. With MoPA there is no rent and overhead, etcetera. MoPA is more of a conceptual framework. Spaces exist where we make it. And so that’s the conception behind the Museum of Pocket Art. Its mission initially was to expose artists that were underexposed, emerging artists, who needed a broader platform. That’s basically it. I’m trying to show work of people that I like who I feel aren’t getting the love that they deserve.

PT: There seems to be an element of miniaturization going on here. Is that solely because the work has to fit in your pocket?

RJH: I don’t know if I’m comfortable with the word miniaturization.

PT: Ooh, let’s talk about it.

RJH: Miniaturization makes it sound like it’s taking something and made it smaller. But in the Museum of Pocket Art the artwork is the work and isn’t reconfigured to be small. It’s not taking or resizing an existing artwork or a scaled down version like a model of something bigger. That’s one thing I always try to emphasize. The work has to be the original art work and I want the artists to consider the space. I don’t want them, to take a photo of their painting and then shrink it down. I don’t want any of the work in the museum to be a reproduction, I want it be the work. And I think that’s what makes the Museum of Pocket Art special. You’re looking at the artwork and you get to interact really intimately with it. Whether it’s by flipping through the gallery or actually holding the sculptures. That’s something that never happens in traditional institutions. You can never touch, I mean I understand why. You don’t want the thing to disintegrate, but there’s an ethos of permanency and that’s really a fallacy…nothing’s permanent. At the museum’s core is institutional critique.

PT: When I first visited the MoPA, the work was in a wallet. On view were these amazing embroidered vintage photographs. Is that typically how you show the work?

RJH: It depends on the artist. Most 2-D work defaults to something like that. We’ve had sculptures. We’ve had one performance piece. It’s really any fine art. The wallet is the default gallery space. It’s a practical way of displaying multiple 2-D works. The artist that you saw was Elaine Bradford and that show was ‘Ties That Bind’.

PT: It seems like with MoPA there’s this hyper engagement with art that is outside the traditional practices of contemporary gallery and museum spaces.

RJH: For sure.

PT: Ok. So let’s go back to this thing about performance. How in the world do you keep a performance in your pocket?

RJH: We worked with Russell Etchen, an artist now based in Los Angeles (LA). His concept behind the show was that he was a time traveler from the future. After an apocalyptic collapse, he traveled back to this time period in order to buy used junk art and engaged in a public 30 minute manic diatribe. The way we tied MoPA into the space was that I essentially was the performance holding area. So I held the business cards of his project. I also had swag, giveaway items like stickers and pens that he claimed to be filled with ink of the blood of a future dead artist. And then there was a scene that went along with it. And so he would just set up the space and I would be nearby. As he did the speech, I would hand out all the paraphernalia that went along with it.

PT: So you talked a little bit about the way that MoPA makes work accessible in ways that are different from a traditional museum or gallery. What role do you see technology playing in the future of art. Do you think we’re destined to move away from brick and mortar galleries and art institutions? How do you see MoPA taking shape in the future? Is MoPA destined to have other sites?

RJH: Well, first let me be clear. I don’t claim to own the idea. I encourage others to start their own museums. I mean, the Blanton isn’t the only full-scale university museum. I just had that idea and I encourage others to create their own iterations. As far as the future of this work, I am not sure. Because the work is so small, it also travels. Like right now, the show that opened at Fusebox isn’t here right now, it’s on its way to North Carolina.

PT: Wait, the Justin Favela show?

RJH: Yeah. I don’t have it on me, it’s in transit to North Carolina. It will open at an art school out there. The director already knows how they’re supposed to engage the audience with the work. We’ve shown globally using that strategy. We’ve shipped past shows to Argentina, Egypt, and all over Europe. How it works is that someone who knows what I’m doing, either I know them or they’re traveling from here, they take MoPA with them and they go to art spaces. Usually it’s art spaces because we know we’ll find an audience that’s receptive to these kinds of ideas. I’ve tried taking it to a grocery store and I quickly found out that some people just don’t care. That’s why I default to art spaces. The ultimate goal is the demystification of art. When I bring MoPA to various places it helps break down that notion of “I don’t have the education to access art.” With me being the executive director and approaching someone, there’s this caring. I am the docent, I’m the director, I’m able to walk you through the work right then and there and it makes the work totally accessible because they can appreciate it in different ways. I can read the person and say which direction or which things about the work or about the project that I can lead them down and open up their experience.

PT: Who functions as the curator? How does it work in terms of curating at the museum?

RJH: It’s mostly me approaching artists that I really like and then trusting them. So it’s like, I love your work. This is my space. Are you interested? I leave it up to you.

PT: It must be a challenge for artists to conceptualize how their practice is going to fit into that space. Truly, it really is an unconventional space when you think about showing work.

RJH: As an artist, I would love to have a show in MoPA, but I think it would cheapen it if I curated myself into my own space. So I’m not ever going to do that. But yeah, I’m always surprised by what an artist comes to me with. Ernesto Walker in a previous show showed up with holograms.

PT: So, what happens to the work after the show closes?

RJH: I give as much autonomy to the artists as possible. So I always asked them, “if you want your work back, I’ll send it back. You want me to sell it? I’ll sell it, you keep 100 percent. Or I would love to hold onto it.” So it depends on the artist. Elaine wanted her show back. Two of the works sold from that show. I leave it up to the artist however they want. And then we figure it out from there.

PT: Do you have to ever pay any fees? Like to get work commission?

RJH: No, usually it’s always, “hey, I like your work.” Galveston invited us down to do one of their art openings and they gave me money to do that. So I split it with one of the artists that was showing with us. Fusebox gave me money so I’m going to share that with Justin. If I get money from institutions, I spread it. I will probably focus more on grant writing to acquire funds so I can cover costs like shipping and website fees and pay the artists out of respect for their work.

PT: Who’s on view right now?

RJH: MoPA is currently exhibting Justin Favela. His exhibition is titled ‘Flaming Hot.’ Justin felt like the flavor of those Frito-Lay® Flamin’ Hot® snacks were being marketed towards a Latinx audience. He loved this idea that the flavor wasn’t generated by scientists at the company’s labs, but by a Mexican American janitor who worked there. I don’t know how it got into the production system, but essentially it was a, uh, a flavor of the people. So Justin enjoys sharing his culture, talking about his culture, and one major access point is through food. What better way to start a conversation and hold a dialog than over food? I love it because it’s this great examination of pop culture, of how we understand Mexican culture through a thing like a piñata. The way he’s taken this humorous sculptural interpretation of these snack foods is just funny. I think it’s a funny exhibition. People have loved it, especially our Latinx audiences. They really identify with it. There’s a sense of pride and ownership, I guess. Like “yes, this is my culture.”

PT: How long will it be up?

RJH: It’s up until the fall. I usually just do two shows a year. Once in the fall and once in the spring. It’s not a hard schedule, very flexible. It helps me not go insane with constantly curating or for example doing admin work for the space such as updating the website, updating the social media accounts, documenting the work, documenting the showing of the work, etcetera. All the admin duties of any art space really. It keeps my life manageable without it taking over my life.

PT: Robert, thank you for your time.

RJH: Of course. It was my pleasure and thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate your interest in the space.

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