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Social Practice Lab Awarded $500,000 Mellon Grant to Advance Artistic Research Programs

When Research Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies Pedro Lasch inaugurated the Social Practice Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute in the fall of 2016, social practice art — a socially interactive medium that engages and interrogates notions of “artist,” “audience,” “participation” and their ethical entanglements with and within political and social systems — while well-established in gallery and museum-adjacent contexts, was still an under-connected concept within the research university. Working as a creative scholar, educator, digital education innovator, and as a social practice artist himself, Lasch sought to integrate the practice and concept — alternately termed participatory art, relational aesthetics, and socially engaged art — into Duke’s interdisciplinary intellectual and creative life. He knew Duke’s academic infrastructure could better foreground social practice art’s complex methods and aims for educators, students, and arts audiences alike, and in turn work to develop a more “socially engaged humanities.”

Seven years later, Lasch’s and his collaborators’ work within the Social Practice Lab is now a standard-bearer for the productive enmeshment of arts and humanities scholarship, practice, and education. This semester, Lasch and his team were awarded a $500,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to both continue and significantly expand the Lab’s work over the next three years. (Concluding in Winter 2026, the grant will mark the Social Practice Lab’s first decade of work at Duke and beyond.)

As one of FHI’s many Humanities Labs, the Social Practice Lab (SPL) operates through multi-year signature projects and smaller-scale, single-year or single-semester collaborations between Duke students, faculty, and guest artists, scholars, and practitioners. The SPL’s history and sequence of projects are comprehensively documented on its website, including a massive online course series with 65,000 enrolled participants in 134 countries, a “post-pandemic” dance party in a baroque convent in Bogotá, a work staged in Bologna’s historic Anatomical Theater, and a fire performance and a candle vigil on skates in homage to Heather Heyer at a now-demolished ice rink in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lasch sees the Mellon award in part as confirmation that the Lab’s project is “already working” – a stamp on the Lab’s sustainability, and an opening toward new possibilities. “This opportunity lets me formalize things that we’ve already been doing for six years and put them within the granting structure of the Mellon Foundation,” he said. One example is the Lab’s Artistic Research Initiative Fellows Program, a new initiative that will bring together artists, curators, scholars, and activists within a unique organizational structure Lasch devised composed of “tracks,” “modalities,” and “production packages.” The aim is to create a modular engagement system that opens SPL’s projects up to a broader range of local, national, and international fellows while foregrounding sustainability and intentionality of practice. The Mellon funds will enable artists, scholars, and activists who are visiting campus to not only offer talks and workshops but also to intensively create new work and research while at Duke; the track-modality-production package structure will also allow artists farther from Duke to take on longer-term, larger-scale projects with shorter, more targeted on-campus visits. In addition to supporting individual artists and scholars in their own work, the Artistic Research Initiative Fellows Program will inject new energy into SPL’s Signature Projects by collaborating with multiple fellows in each production and expanding their scope beyond social practice.

The Grant took effect on January 1, 2023, and the Social Practice Lab is already off and running with events this semester in conjunction with the Artistic Research Initiative Fellows Program. Lasch and his team have been busy confirming the inaugural group of 2023 Fellows, an exciting list of artists, curators, and scholars that now includes Rashida Bumbray, Paloma Gómez Puente, Ariana Curtis, Nick Mirzoeff, Wanda Nanibush, Sydney Reede, Sherrill Roland, Nzinga Simmons, Leonid Tsvetkov, and Nathan Wright. Stay tuned for more dispatches as this important and evocative work unfolds over the next three years.