Art Works Blog

Art & Inquiry at the Exploratorium

Nancy Rodgers © Exploratorium

Physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer founded the Exploratorium in 1969 as a museum of art, science, and human perception. A hybrid between a laboratory and a public museum, the Exploratorium’s roots lie in an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the world. At its inception the Exploratorium modeled a new form of public learning environment. Today it is considered to be one of the first postwar science museums.

The Exploratorium’s doors first opened with Cybernetic Serendipity, the seminal exhibition of art, science, and technology curated by Jasia Reichardt for the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. By the early 70’s the Exploratorium had established the reputation as fertile experimentation ground for a burgeoning counter-cultural art scene. Interesting to note: Sun Painting, the Exploratorium’s first Artist-in-Residence project by Bob Miller was funded by the NEA through the encouragement of former NEA Director of the Visual Arts Program, Brian O’Doherty (artist and author of the book Inside The White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space). Since the beginning artists have played a vital role in shaping the Exploratorium’s exhibit development process, museum methodologies, and public experiences - in a distinctly different context than a white cube.

Currently the Exploratorium is preparing for a move to two piers on San Francisco’s downtown waterfront in Spring 2013. The move has compelled us to re-examine our history in the arts and to study the contemporary landscape in order to inspire new directions forward.  As part of this process we recently organized the conference Art as a Way of Knowing to better understand the role of aesthetic inquiry in public interdisciplinary learning environments. In organizing Art as a Way of Knowing we wanted to avoid the usual discussion about the commonalities and differences between art & science culture. Instead we wanted to focus on art as a way of knowing and method of inquiry towards the understanding of the natural and social world. The conference with sponsorship from the National Science Foundation brought together a rich mix of artists, scientists, educators and museum curators to examine historical precedents; to explore the nature of learning through the arts; and to study compelling contemporary models for the arts in interdisciplinary contexts.

The process of organizing the conference has helped us to refine our vision for the arts at the Exploratorium and to renew our conviction as advocates for the importance of art as a form of inquiry. Inquiry, the learning approach espoused by John Dewey animated Oppenheimer’s vision for the Exploratorium its underlying learning philosophy. Historically, this approach has centered around the processes involved in scientific inquiry, but how does art constitute a serious form of research and practice into that natural world, that leads to new insights - not only for professional artists, but for six-year-olds as well?

Lawrence Weschler who spoke at the Art as a Way of Knowing conference has written two invaluable books on aesthetic inquiry: Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin; and True To Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney (both published in 2008 as expanded editions). These books are rare longitudinal studies that describe what it means to passionately and idiosyncratically pursue questions, explore curiosities, make observations, and develop hypotheses over the course of one’s lifetime as an artist. More research and writing is needed to document and effectively advocate for art as an essential aspect of learning.

As part of our move to the Piers we are founding a new forum to further our work in the arts - the Center for Art & Inquiry. The Center will oversee our long-running Artist-in-Residence program, host research fellows, and convene conversations and conferences for the field. We are also launching a new suite of arts programs that will provide great opportunities to present the work of a special breed of artists engaged with science, culture and some of the most compelling questions of our times.

Frank Oppenheimer created the Exploratorium in the wake of World War II after having worked on the Manhattan Project. His ideal was an empowered public. By fostering greater public understanding of science Oppenheimer hoped that the Exploratorium would help people to make more informed decisions towards the betterment of society. Forty-three years later the world has become a more complex place and the need for an informed public only more important. Cross-disciplinary approaches to asking questions are vital as are the contributions of artists for contemporary society.

If you’re interested in learning more about how the NEA can support art/science projects in the future please join our art/science mailing list by emailing us at We would be happy to forward information related to our upcoming Art Works application deadline on August 9th.

In the coming months we will also host a webinar highlighting NEA’s funding opportunities and application process to provide further information on how art/science projects can be supported across all agency disciplines via our existing agency funding programs and mechanisms. We hope you’ll join us for these conversations.



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