Paul Farber on the Monument Lab and public art

The Penn alum and co-founder of Monument Lab offers a behind-the-scenes look at the new public art installation curated by Monument Lab on the National Mall.

Paul Farber has been fascinated by cultural memory and civic engagement since he was a child growing up in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. Now the senior research scholar at the Center for Public Art and Space at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design, he co-founded Monument Lab with artist and writer Ken Lum, the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Professor and chair of fine arts, in 2012. The public art and history studio has, over the last decade, curated exhibitions across the country that amplify local artists’ efforts to engage with cultural memory and civic identity. This fall, as director of Monument Lab, Farber co-curates with Salamishah Tillet “Beyond Granite: Pulling Together,” the first public exhibition of its kind on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Paul Farber.
Paul M. Farber is the director of Monument Lab and senior research scholar at the Center for Public Art & Space at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. (Image: Courtesy of the Weitzman School)

In a Q & A, Farber discusses Beyond Granite, the aims and experiments of Monument Lab, and what, exactly, a monument even is.

“I met Ken Lum when we both began teaching at Penn, him in fine arts and me in urban studies,” Farber says. “We realized we share values and visions and public art teaching and engagement. We had talked so much about history in holistic terms, and what would happen if we inverted the narrative and looked at history as needing repair. We want to unfreeze monuments and utilize them to take on social and political issues that are grounded in challenges of the past, present, and future. Monument Lab became a framework for that.”

“The first iteration was an exploratory exhibition in 2015 featuring the late Penn professor and artist Terry Adkins. It just changed our whole trajectory: We went from being a classroom experiment to being an upstart public project to a passion project, and more recently, a nonprofit organization. We work on projects with municipal partners, agencies, and institutions. We work to build the field of monument changemakers with artists and grassroots organizers. We function as a bridge.”

Farber describes his approach to the evolving concept of monuments. “In the monument landscape, there is such a range of ways we imprint memory and keep it forward. So the goal is to instead say: ‘Well, the people on the ground who are working intergenerationally, intersectionally in coalitions—what do they already know?’ It’s about learning from, resourcing, and spotlighting the people already doing the work. We have just launched a second open call this fall, as this initiative continues to grow.”

Beyond Granite is an example of a creation in a hugely symbolic place that is reinterpreted and reimagined for a more “fuller democracy,” says Farber. “Monument Lab was invited last year to be curators for the first exhibition of a new initiative, a project about collaboration between federal agencies and nonprofits and artists’ organizations—but especially with a group of six artists who have risen to the occasion and provided six distinct approaches to the way we can imagine the future of monuments as one that’s unfolding right in front of us. It’s the first curated public exhibition on the Mall, in a place in which artistic expression and protests have already been imprinted in this space.”

This story is by Jesse Dorris. Read more at the Weitzman School.