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engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists

Case Study: Museum of Contemporary Art, Bella Room Commission

Susannah Thorne, Bella Program Coordinator
Georgia Close, Manager, Student & Teacher Engagement

Georgia Close and Susannah Thorne outline the Bella Room Commission and Bella Program, which involves active gallery explorations of MCA exhibitions and hands-on art-making experiences in the creative spaces of our learning centre. Each year, a new artist is invited to create an interactive artwork for the Commission which enables audiences with specific needs, including physical, intellectual, behavioural or sensory disability, to engage with contemporary art through sensory experience.

Cite this article

Georgia Close and Susannah Thorne
Case Study: Museum of Contemporary Art, Bella Room Commission
engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists
Editor: Barbara Dougan
Spring 2016
Published by engage, London

‘Have you tried strawberries in the bath?’ writes Thomas in a letter to Teena, the larger than life sausage dog at the heart of artist David Capra’s interactive installation Teena’s Bathtime, housed in the creative learning centre of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). Responding on Teena’s behalf, the artist confirms that he hasn’t considered strawberries although he might just give it a try! This inspired dialogue is an example of the level of rapport created between an artist and a young visitor to a cultural organisation through the commissioning of an artwork.


David Capra and his sausage dog Teena in the 2015 Bella Room Commission: David Capra, Teena's Bathtime, 2015, 3-channel video, sound, synthetic fur, vinyl, scent, bubbles, rubber flooring, cardboard, wood, foam, wire, found objects, commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia for the Jackson Bella Room, 2015, image courtesy and © the artist, photograph: Anna Kucera

Thomas is a participant in the MCA’s Bella Program, a longstanding learning program for children, young people and adults with specific needs. Teena is the hero of the 2015 Bella Room Commission, an interactive artwork which invites audiences to consider issues of anxiety by seeking their assistance to help Teena overcome her fear of baths. Led by video appearances from the artist, Bella participants support Teena through her bath time, providing comfort in the form of patting, brushing, lullaby singing, scented shampoo and words of encouragement whispered into her oversized ears.

Emily Floyd, The Garden (here small gestures make complex structures) 2012, recycled timbers, wool felt, beeswax, fabric, baked ink, commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia for the Jackson Bella Room, 2012, image courtesy and © the artist.

The Bella Room Commission is central to the experience of the Bella Program, which involves active gallery explorations of MCA exhibitions and hands-on art-making experiences in the creative spaces of our learning centre. Each year, a new artist is invited to create an interactive artwork for the Commission which enables audiences with specific needs, including physical, intellectual, behavioural or sensory disability, to engage with contemporary art through sensory experience. Since its establishment in 2012, the Bella Room Commission has been reimagined by four Australian artists – David Capra, Emily Floyd, Hiromi Tango and performance collective Brown Council.

The Bella Room Commission represents a significant collaboration between the MCA’s curatorial and learning departments. Each commission is a negotiated process, carefully balancing the needs of the audience with the vision of the artist, in consultation with program stakeholders both within and beyond the Museum. The artist works closely with the Bella Program Coordinator and the whole Learning Team to gain detailed insight into the role of the Bella Commission and how it could be used to generate creative learning experiences for Bella audiences.

This process often represents a steep learning curve for artists who may have little or no previous experience of working with people with specific needs. Through an onsite residency at the Museum during the development phase, the artist is supported and encouraged to gain understanding about the diverse needs of Bella Program participants by interacting and engaging in programs and working closely with the MCA Learning Team. The artist also has opportunity to meet with a cross section of invited stakeholders who provide important input into the final development stages of the work. These actions support the artist to successfully address the commission brief and realise their artistic vision, with consideration of the needs of audiences with specific needs placed firmly at the forefront of the creative process.

Once the work is finalised, experiences of the Commission are facilitated by the specially trained Artist Educators who deliver the Bella Program. Key to the process is a development workshop where the Commission artist joins the Artist Educators to explore ideas for creative learning strategies that will support Bella audiences to engage with the work, and generate approaches to art-making activities that respond to these experiences.

The Bella Room Commission has created rich opportunities for learning – for the MCA, for commissioned artists and for our audiences. For the Learning Team, working with each new commission brings fresh understanding about the ways in which audiences can engage with contemporary art and the power and impact of that experience. Over the course of the Commission year, our connection to and knowledge of the work increases and we build an extensive collection of related learning resources and programming ideas. The brief is reviewed annually and developed in response to our increased learning and experience, and the role of the artist continues to evolve.

Some learnings have had very practical applications for the commission brief. While our inaugural Bella Room Commission in 2012 directed a focus on the needs of children and young people with vision impairment, the brief has broadened in subsequent years. We now suggest less focus on one area of need and greater emphasis on interactivity and opportunities for multi-sensory engagement, with the realisation that this has a broader impact and relevance for Bella audiences. Through working with the multi-coloured soft sculptural forest created in Hiromi Tango’s installation Dance, 2013, we recognised the importance of having components to the work that could be moved outside the walls of the Bella Room, allowing the artwork to be introduced in stages to participants who might be overwhelmed by the complete sensory experience of the work. While some works offered very focused avenues for audience interaction and participation, others have invited more open-ended opportunities for engagement, meaning that each visitor could connect with the work on their own level and within the bounds of their physical ability – an important consideration for artists when thinking about how their work could be as accessible as possible to audiences with diverse needs.



Bella Participants with artists Hiromi Tango. Featured: Hiromi Tango, Dance 2013, fabric, wool, neon, digital media, commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, for the Jackson Bella Room, 2013, © the artist.

Each commission has helped us discover new ways of working within the Bella Program, through experiences informed by the artists’ practice and the diverse content of each work. Emily Floyd’s The Garden (here small gestures make complex structures, 2012, supported individual and small-group storytelling and creative play, invited through the placement and rearrangement of small sculptural objects made from wood and felt in an ever-changing constellation. The performance-based practice of Brown Council led to a year of low-fi costume creations and explorations of individual and collaborative performance-making, while the soft-sculptural forms of Hiromi Tango’s work invited wrapping, weaving and communal art-making experiences.



Students from Blacktown West Public School, Bella Program 2014. Featured: Brown Council, Performance Art, installation view, MCA, 2014, 3-channel video, sound, synthetic polymer paint on wall, carpet, commissioned by the MCA for the Jackson Bella Room, 2014, image courtesy and © the artists, photograph: James Brown.

The layered elements of Teena’s Bathtime in 2015 have expanded our understanding of the possibilities of engagement with the Bella Room Commission once again, offering a multitude of access points and opportunities (some anticipated, others more unexpected), including physical interaction, personal storytelling, social awareness of difference, issues surrounding mental health and the place of pets and assistance animals in contemporary life.

While the experience of Teena’s Bathtime is centred around physical interaction with a giant, furry, sculptural representation of Teena amid Andy Warhol inspired wallpaper and floating bubbles, additional elements include a ‘variety-style’ TV Show, in which the artist and Teena meet a range of people who share their stories of dogs, anxiety and difference. Stars of the film include artist Dawn Leong-Joy who identifies as a person with autism, and her companion greyhound and Service Dog Lucy. Through an informal interview with the artist, Dawn shares important insight into how she experiences the world and the role Lucy plays in her life.

For Bella audiences, engaging with Teena, in both a physical and narrative sense has led to the development of a range of learning experiences within Bella Programs. From the creation of furry ambassadors to accompany gallery explorations, group performances of lullabies, and the writing of letters of support and advice to Teena, a key driver in engagement has been the opportunity for participants to make a personal connection to Teena through reflection on their own experiences and a desire to help Teena overcome her bath time anxiety. Teachers and facilitators have often expressed surprise that even participants who can often be non-verbal will open up in new ways to Teena.

One Bella participant writes: Dear David and Teena, I have a dog named Will Loftis. He is little and round also sweet. I think Teena and Will be friends. Will Loftis loves taking a bath. Maybe Teena can use soap that smells good? Best wishes, Emma’.

The TV Show component of the work inspired new ways of working within our Bella Plus Connect Program – a monthly drop-in program for adults with specific needs focused on building opportunities for social interaction through activities centred around contemporary art. In an art-making experience titled ‘Teena’s TV Talk Show Time’, emulating the artists informal interviews within the Commission, Bella Plus Participants were interviewed by MCA Artist Educators, with the TV show streamed to public areas of the Museum. Being a guest on ‘Teena’s TV Talk Show Time’, provided opportunity for participants to voice their experiences of living with disability and what opportunities to connect with contemporary art and art-making mean to them. David, a Bella Plus Connect participant shared: ‘These places that are available now, 30 years ago it wasn’t around for disabilities and that, it’s really good to have activities like this to go to’.

Another important learning over the 4 years of the commission has been understanding how the appeal of the Bella Room extends beyond the Bella Program to engage broader MCA audiences, with each year unveiling a new discovery. We have now come to see the Bella Room Commission as relating to the universal model of inclusion, recognising that the benefits offered by the commission for audiences with specific needs can be shared by wider audiences.

Early in the process, the Learning Team recognised the rich opportunities the work provided through its interactive and multi-sensory nature, to facilitate new ways of engaging with our early childhood audience. The Bella Room became the catalyst for the development of our successful ArtPlay program, a weekly drop-in experience for children aged 0-5 and their parents. The Museum’s new Art and Dementia Program will also make use of the Bella Room for audiences of more advanced years. For school students, the Commission provides an opportunity to experience an installation, explore what it means to create a work based around audience interaction, and investigate the commissioning process. Consideration of the needs of broader audiences has increasingly become part of the brief, and is also one of the great opportunities created by the Commission for artists, having to extend or challenge their practice in new ways.

The Commission provides an important springboard for a range of related learning and awareness raising activities with each artist invited to participate in a number of events throughout the duration of the commission year. In 2015, this included engaging with teachers of students with specific needs in an annual two-day forum presented in partnership with the Sydney Opera House, exploring approaches to supporting student achievement through rich creative arts experiences. 2015 commission artist David Capra delivered a workshop for teaching offering insight into his practice and outlining the process for developing and realising the commission. In a practical workshop drawing on his use of performance and community collaboration, 40 teachers dressed as a giant sausage dog carefully made their way through Sydney’s crowded Circular Quay to the Sydney Opera House – an experience which offered new ways of thinking about art-making experiences and collaborative ways to engage students with specific needs.


Sausage dog procession, led by artist David Capra as part of the Engaging Students with Disability Forum, 2015, photograph: Daniel Boud.

In addition, we have explored ways that access to the Bella Room can be opened up to general MCA visitors beyond our targeted programs. Each new commission is eagerly anticipated and welcomed every year with a celebration launch and official opening by the Museum’s Director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor OBE. This event is attended by special guests and stakeholders, including Bella Program participants, representatives from the disability sector and MCA supporters. The launch is followed by a community open day, where members of the general public are invited to experience the new artwork and meet the Commission artist. In 2015, Teena’s Bathtime provided inspiration for an afternoon of fun and activities, including a Doggie film festival, art-making activities and experiences, including making no-bake dog treats, and a doggie meet and greet and pooch parade led by artist Anastasia Klose.

An important outcome presented by the 2015 Commission was the range of opportunities Teena’s Bathtime presented to explore issues surrounding mental health and inspire further engagement with new audiences. David Capra and the real-life Teena were special guests at the MCA’s annual Mental Health Awareness Month event. This event included open conversations about lived experiences of mental health, with special guest speakers presented in conversation with the artist. The focus of the work on helping Teena overcome her bath time fears provided context for further informal discussion about the management of anxiety over a cup of tea and biscuits. This event was promoted as part of the MCA’s Lights on Later program, which extends the opening hours of the Museum to late evening one night per week, inviting and engaging new audiences.

For artist David Capra, the process of the Commission has offered new insight into the potential of his work to have significant impact and resonance with audiences.

When you make a work and present it to an audience, you can’t be sure how it will be received. Although the idea of giving Teena my dog a bath is quite playful, I wasn’t prepared for an audience to connect as deeply to the work as they have, empathising with Teena and her foreboding nature. Teena has done such a good job at lending her doggie ear to those that want to talk about serious things like anxiety and depression.

In 2016, Teena’s Bathtime will travel, as the Bella Room Commission goes on tour for the first-time to a regional area of New South Wales, inviting audiences further afield to engage with her multitude of joys and fears. This unexpected outcome will enable the MCA to engage in important outreach and awareness-raising, and help make contemporary art accessible to audiences beyond the physical environment of the Museum. The Learning Team will work closely with the staff at the regional arts centre to provide professional development opportunities and explore new ways of supporting audiences with specific needs to engage with contemporary art and art-making

The decommissioning of the artwork is a time of letting go as we farewell a work that has become a part of the fabric of the MCA and our Bella and broader learning programs. For the Learning Team, the opportunity to work closely with diverse Bella Room artists has helped us discover new ways of engaging with participants with specific needs. For the artists, the Commission has brought new learning about audiences, and prompted investigation of their practice from new perspectives. For audiences, the Bella Room has opened up new opportunities for them to bring their own story to encounters with contemporary art, and has encouraged all of us to look, think, create and connect in new ways through contemporary art.

As we wish Teena ‘Bon Voyage’ on her journey beyond the walls of the Museum to share her playful yet deeply thoughtful message with new audiences, we look with excitement to our next Commission and what will unfold to hold a new and commanding position in the MCA’s creative learning repertoire.

The MCA Bella Program was established in 1993 through the generosity of MCA Patrons, Dr Edward Jackson Am and Mrs Cynthia Jackson Am and the Jackson family, in memory of their late daughter and sister Belinda.

The Bella Plus Connect Program is supported by the NSW Government through Arts NSW.


engage 37

engage 37: Time and Place: Hosting and commissioning artists

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