Across and In Between Disciplines: Making Interdisciplinary Practice Sustainable

If you’re an artist working within some of the many different types of institutions in the US, chances are that you go by a number of titles: educator, curator, administrator, maybe even librarian or organizer. As businesses and organizations adapt to the growing needs of the art economy and community, artists are increasingly asked to fill different roles. Sheetal Prajapati, with fifteen years of experience as an artist, arts educator, and administrator, is one of these people with a hybrid of titles. She has learned to think strategically about how to position herself in different environments, developing a practice of using her multiple skills to serve the changing arts institution, and even starting a business to encourage multidisciplinary collaboration across departments. In a new pair of programs—a free conversation between herself and Creative Capital Awardee Pablo Helguera, as well as an online workshop—she will discuss her method of using interdisciplinary practice to build on new career opportunities inside and outside arts institutions.

We spoke to Prajapati about the evolving institutional landscape, and what to expect in her upcoming workshop and conversation.

Alex Teplitzky—Tell me about the workshop and the conversation. What will you be discussing?

Sheetal Prajapati—It’s a two-part series exploring the nature and possibilities of interdisciplinary practice in the arts. I say “interdisciplinary” as a broad term, and I think of it in a multitude of ways. On a practical level, people who are working creatively in the arts are doing so in a number of capacities, and it’s becoming increasingly common for a number of reasons. The first one being a basic level economic sustainability. Also, as we move into post-COVID, but even before that, contemporary practice in the arts has begun to blur. This is true especially in media, but also in how we work the jobs that sustain our studio practice—artists are working as curators, or educators working as administrators.

So, the workshop is really about helping people who have already been working organically like this to think about it in a more intentional and strategic way. Pablo Helguera and I have been talking about how we have been able to creatively leverage our interdisciplinary nature and skill sets of working over the years. Our interests and curiosity is essential to our artist mindset, and it has allowed us to do more than make art. That conversation is based on our shared experience of being public programmers and organizers for the past 15 to 25 years each. As artists we’re not only producing programs, but conceptualizing them with curators, administrators, scholars. More and more, our job is to bring all of these perspectives together for public engagement.

Being in that role requires you to be what I call a “generalist,” as opposed to a specialist. I revel in those interdisciplinary roles, and found myself most interested in that space within museums as a reflection of the way we work outside of that role. Leaving institutions became a space for me to work not just in a wider range of capacities, but in deeper ways of fulfilling those capacities. It allowed me to recognize that working in various ways helps me be better at each singular thing that I do.

In this workshop, I want to challenge the basic premise that you can’t be good at a bunch of things, or the idea of being a generalist isn’t necessarily as valuable as being a specialist.

So, how do you be intentional and strategic about that? Artists often have to work with other groups of people, other types of workers, and they can develop skills on the ground as they work. But how do they do that strategically? How can they not just take every opportunity that comes to them? Artists should be applying to things that make sense for what they want to do. It can be a murky space to say that you are an artist and something else. Often people don’t understand what that is, so part of the workshop will be to be able to define yourself by a set of skills as opposed to one particular identity, and how to talk about who you are and what you do, and how to pursue a career in this space without having to commit to any of one thing. You should recognize that the value of doing all of those things is the sum of something bigger than any one hat that you wear.

Something I talk about a lot even in my artist talks, is that there’s a way in which you can approach this kind of work where you can be building skills for one identity by working toward another. There are really clear examples in my career of that. I feel like now I understand better how to do that intentionally. I think there is a lot of value in talking about that.

The last thing that the workshop will touch on is valuing yourself. Often when people are working in interdisciplinary spaces, they’re working as contractors, freelancers, or independently in some way, not tied to one institution. I’ve been thinking about how we value ourselves and our time. How much do you charge people? How do you even calculate that time? That is a conversation I have had with a lot of contractors over the last two or three years. I have a loose system that I use for charging fees, and I feel like it’s worth not just sharing it but talking about how I came to it in a workshop setting.

Alex—I think the perception with someone who is a generalist is that they do so many things, but never have time to do any of them really well because they’re moving on to the next thing. What do you say to someone who says they are seeking a specialist in one particular area, instead of an artist generalist?

Sheetal—In this workshop, I want to challenge the basic premise that you can’t be good at a bunch of things, or the idea of being a generalist isn’t necessarily as valuable as being a specialist. Within the art world, I think we can all agree that that’s still a prevailing part of the culture in terms of getting jobs or grants. People want you to be one thing. There’s this assumption that if you do too many things, then you can’t possibly be good at any of them. Right?

Part of this workshop and this conversation Pablo and I will have is challenging that basic premise as a starting point. To me, that’s the problem. People who are working this way are challenging that just by doing this work. The workshop is how to be more intentional because there is no one way to do it.

If you want to be a museum director you can find a pretty direct pathway to get there. But to do what I do, or what Pablo does, or what a lot of people are doing in the arts, there is no one way to do it. There’s not even five ways to do it. So part of the workshop will show tools to develop your own path to success. That second part that is also a challenge and something I am addressing is that working in this space requires you to define success for yourselves. That can be really challenging.

Alex—I might even say that there was one pathway to being a museum director in the old days, but more people are realizing now that museums need directors to be more flexible and sensitive to the many cultural issues a museum deals with. The old pathway allowed only for more rigid or strict types of directors, whereas now we need directors that do have a multitude of titles.

Sheetal—Exactly, and it’s changing but even still a lot of artists don’t see that as a possibility for themselves. Look at Recess Art, for instance, with Shaun Leonardo becoming a co-director. He’s an artist—so, what are his skill sets that allowed him to become a co-director? If you look at his practice you realize that he’s done more than just be an artist for his entire career. The sum of the things he’s done have allowed him to move into this position as the structures of institutions have changed.

Alex—He’s great at communicating ideas that tend to be more obscure or abstract for performance and social engagement. He does a great job of breaking the ideas down into really clear parts. He works well with teens and even adults in the same way. He illuminates the complex and nuanced issues that others struggle to do.

Sheetal—Right, and it requires a skill set outside of a traditional studio practice that he’s developed over years through doing things that aren’t necessarily related to his being an “artist.”

Alex—I’m glad you brought that up because I was wondering if you could bring up some concrete examples of what you’re talking about in terms of your own background and history.

Sheetal—One of the first opportunities I had to do something outside of being a museum educator was related to volunteer work with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). They were looking for young professionals in different regions to start a kind of a social peer group with other young people in the arts. I volunteered to start an emerging museum professionals group in Chicago, where I was at the time. Through that organizing I met people around my age working in every major institution in Chicago. I also developed a relationship with the AAM, and through that relationship, I got my first speaking engagements.

My first speaking engagements were not about museum education, they were about something I had been talking to my colleagues about, which was being in middle management. AAM asked me to do a talk on managing from the middle. It had nothing to do with my job description, but it was part of the work I was doing. It was after I came out of grad school, and I was approaching my work in education through that administrator’s lens. That was when I first realized that speaking is actually an effective communication style for me. That propelled me to seek out new speaking engagements, thinking more seriously about my ideas about working in museums beyond education. It opened the door to me starting to develop another identity in the arts beyond just the place that I worked.

That was really organic—I couldn’t have necessarily planned that, but I will say that approaching my job as a museum educator from an administrator’s standpoint was really key in thinking more broadly about what I do in the arts.

Pioneer Works was also a really important experience from me, coming out of MoMA where I had worked in museums for 15 years. Working at Pioneer Works was an opportunity for me to think about various disciplines of the arts on a horizontal scale. That was a rich time where I got to meet a whole bunch of interdisciplinary practitioners, all around me. I was working with artists who worked in technology and sculpture, or artists who worked in sound and painting.

Pioneer Works welcomes that kind of practice, artistically, but all of these people because of the nature of what they did were also doing other things. They were doing fellowships, research, and community organizing. For me, that’s where everything I had been doing started to click. I realized I could do that too in my own way. There’s a path to this that can be really successful if you understand what your goals are.

Read more about Sheetal’s upcoming workshop and conversation on our calendar.

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