For Paul Ha, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s List Visual Arts Center, the role of MIT’s contemporary art museum is to function like a laboratory— producing experimental and timely exhibitions for students and visitors.

Paul Ha (Liz Linder)

As part of his duties, Ha also runs MIT’s Percent-for-Art program, which commissions public installations for the university and maintains over 3,500 works in its permanent collection. In 2015, he was the commissioner and co-curator of the United States Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, presenting the multimedia performance artist Joan Jonas in They Come To Us Without A Word, called by New York Times critic, Roberta Smith, “one of the best solo shows to represent the United States at the Biennale in over a decade.” Previous to the List, Ha was the founding director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

In this conversation with Smithsonian Second Opinion, Ha expounds upon the idea of the campus museum as a laboratory for experimentation, and discusses a range of topics, including how artists leave behind a kind of historic record and why having our phones out in museums may help people connect with art and each other.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Let’s start with the big question: why do the arts matter?

I’m going to start off by saying that I’m someone who takes for granted that the arts matter. When I think about art in a very large sense, I think about our society. I think about history. I think about humanity and what remains. When you look back at all the different cultures that came before us, and what evidence they leave behind for us to study, it is culture, architecture, and the arts.

So why do the arts matter? Because artists are the voice of their generation. They’re the ones who have the desire and the conviction to speak out— and to leave the evidence of what was going on then.

And I do think the artist in the 21st century is more important than ever. A lot of people who are not true artists have stopped making art to go into other fields to survive. But those who remain to leave their voice, and to portray what exists today, are people who are compelled to make these objects. They have no choice but to do this. A thousand years from now, two thousand years from now, ten thousand years from now, they will be the voice of what’s going on right now.

So for you, contemporary art is a type of historical record the same way one might think of an archeological site?

A Monet or a van Gogh doesn’t appear to be an archeological dig, but in a sense, culturally, it is. You get to see what Parisian cafe life was. You get to see what the haystack looked like in certain daylight, what the farmers did to make a living. Artists have always used technology as a tool, and artists are always first to experiment with what becomes available to them.

Did MIT always have this strong commitment to art?

People are surprised sometimes that there’s a contemporary museum at MIT because they associate MIT with physics and engineering. It all started in the ’60s with this visionary president that the school had, Julius Stratton. He felt strongly that as a school of engineering, science, and math, it was also very important to have a strong presence of humanities on campus. To that end, he created a taskforce, which was successful in getting Mr. and Mrs Eugene McDermott to donate a major named Alexander Calder’s sculpture to MIT, who was then a contemporary artist. They visited Calder’s studio and commissioned the first piece of art on campus in 1965. And from then, they went on placing more sculptures.

On the MIT campus, there are thousands of laboratories doing research in different fields, whether it’s robotics or artificial skin or wearable technology. We at the museum consider ourselves a laboratory for contemporary art. But what the general public might not realize is that a laboratory— and that could be Bells Labs or IBM— does thousands of projects that will not come to fruition. There is a lot of research and development. Thousands of projects will simply fail. But those failures will help for the thousandth and first project. That is the one that becomes the success.

I’m not saying we’re going to show a thousand artworks and none will end up at [the Museum of Modern Art] one day. I think my record is better than that. The idea is that you have to make mistakes; you have to experiment; you have to present things; you have to take risks.

Is that the goal of a contemporary art museum on a university campus— to show students how to take risks?

One analogy I like to make about art museums is that we are really closer to zoos than anything else. The animals that you see out there reflect thousands of hours of research, thousands of hours of scientists’ thinking and then presenting it to the general audience. The audience at our museum is experiencing the end of result of thousands of hours of curators’ thinking and research.

My philosophy on exhibition space is that you should connect locally but be recognized internationally. We do want to be part of a larger conversation. On campus, we want to connect with students and visitors to say, “This is what’s going on in contemporary art today.” It’s not quite valid yet. It’s not in the art history books. But this is what’s going on in the artist studios and this is one of the many things that we believe deserves additional looking.

I tell people when they visit MIT’s exhibitions: our record is pretty good. What you are seeing is an idea—a kernel, a gesture— and it’s not quite there, but it’s interesting enough, different enough that we’re all thinking about it, and we’re coming to a conclusion together about what will happen to this idea and this artist. To me, what’s most exciting is that I’m part of something that may become history or maybe it didn’t quite measure up.

Are you concerned that people’s phone use in museums detracts from their ability to look carefully at those ideas or gestures?

As someone working on the MIT campus, it would be hypocritical of me to say fight technology. Innovation is going to continue. It’s how we harness technology that is important.

As a museum director, my ultimate goal is to open more doors for people so they are face-to-face and confronted with an object, so they have this solitary quiet moment to be with something that they can think about. Where technology helps is that it sends these visuals so quickly to so many individuals through an Instagram or Facebook post who might say, “I’ve never seen that piece. That’s an interesting thing.” Ultimately, I hope that social media sort of pokes them to come see what has caught their eye in real life.

Ironically enough, not that long, maybe 20 or 25 years ago, most of what the public got to see was only very famous art. If an artwork got to be really well-known, it was placed on mugs and umbrellas and tote bags, then mousepads. Now, people post images of art they encounter every day to thousands of followers. Anyone can have access to an undiscovered piece of art and decide for themselves if it’s worth seeking out in person. For artists, this also levels the playing field a bit and they can put their own work out directly to the public without an intermediary.

I do think, especially with new technology, the world has gotten a lot smaller. Whereas before, not long ago, we really wouldn’t know what was happening on a different continent— we instantly know. Conversely, they instantly know what’s happening here. Utilizing art to have a shared conversation is a fantastic thing.

All these people using Google’s Arts & Culture App recently is a perfect example, where you could upload a photo of yourself, and it would match up with a portrait in their massive collection of images. This was a very simple platform Google launched, and it became a phenomenon: again, proof that art can be used as conversation piece, dialogue, and connection.

Does that mean it’s of particular importance to highlight artists who use technology in their practice?

Not necessarily. Because we’re located at MIT, people sometimes think we’re only about technology, but that’s absolutely not true. If you look at what we exhibit, it’s painting and sculpture and digital imagery. I’m a firm believer that artists will use any technology to get their message and vision across. That could be a pencil line on a paper or a multimedia installation.

For instance, this summer, we have an exhibition of Carissa Rodriguez and are showing a beautiful video that she shot. It will be an immersive atmosphere. At the same time, we also have on view a new series by painter Allison Katz. These are very large-scale canvases. Then, in the fall, we have a retrospective of Tony Conrad who was known as a downtown scene-maker with music, but he also did fantastic visual artwork. We are equally excited about showing all different mediums that artists use.

In a time of historic division for the country, is there a particular role can art play?

Obviously, different artists have different content in their work. But I think for the viewer, whether the piece is political or just purely visual, it provides an open forum where they can share their thoughts and ideas. And so I do think art can be used as a respite or a jumping-off-point to discuss other things in a more circuitous way about the current situation.

(Banner image: Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist)