Floating Museum members move a crate during the installation of "River Assembly." Credit: Jon Satrom / studiothread

It’s understandable that when someone hears the name “The Floating Museum” they might think it’s a museum that floats on water, or in midair. Instead it floats from place to place, moving across communities and manifesting itself in programs that take place in various Chicago neighborhoods. But for its summer exhibition, “River Assembly,” the Floating Museum will be literally seabound, occupying a 100-square-foot shipping barge for a three-week voyage up the Chicago River. The traveling vessel will showcase artwork, media, and performances from ten Chicago-based organizations and more than 30 local and national artists, including Hebru Brantley, Maria Gaspar, Cauleen Smith, and Edra Soto.

Yet the Floating Museum isn’t just a temporary installation that drifts upriver. The focus of the nonprofit is to invest in other spaces, particularly ones outside of traditional contemporary-art institutions such as the Art Institute’s Modern Wing or the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The project “is kind of a critique, but a loving critique of how art institutions function,” says artist and Floating Museum codirector Faheem Majeed. “It is not about a countermodel, it is about an additional model that can help what’s already existing.”

This model could have been classified as any number of things, but labeling it a “museum” was important to codirectors Majeed and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford. They wanted to instill a sense of authority and legitimacy in any artwork, object, performance, and collaboration that results from the Floating Museum. They’ve already formed relationships citywide, such as with the youth art program SkyArt, West Pullman Park’s Special Recreation program, and the DuSable Heritage Association, organizations that now serve as coauthors and collaborators on the museum.

“The city is the Floating Museum,” Majeed says. “The neighborhoods are the galleries, and all of the organizations are the players. It is just about figuring out thoughtful moments of beauty, moments where those things can come together.”

However, the original idea for the venture was based more on a physical structure than an aggregate of various projects. After attending an MFA program in sculpture together at UIC, Majeed and Hulsebos-Spofford wanted to build a mobile replica of Washington Park’s DuSable Museum. They hypothesized that moving the DuSable from the south side of Chicago to downtown might change the institution’s community, perspective, and support.

While brainstorming potential models for the DuSable concept, the duo were introduced to Andrew Schachman, an independent architect and IIT professor who led the redesign of the Hyde Park Art Center. Majeed and Hulsebos­-Spofford consider themselves builders: Majeed is known for erecting installations in abandoned lots on the south side, and Hulsebos-Spofford’s practice often involves the construction of large-scale architectural models. Schachman was invited on as a codirector and brought an expertise of working with the city.

“There are a lot of players involved in this iteration of what we are doing,” Schachman says. “It’s not just us, it is whole city bureaucracies.”

During the last year and a half the Floating Museum directors have worked in four neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and southeast sides, conversing with the local community and then facilitating temporary installations and exhibits in Austin, Calumet Park, and on-site at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival and DuSable Museum. Earlier this year Majeed, Hulsebos-Spofford, and Schachman invited a fourth person to become a codirector of the Floating Museum: poet and artist Avery R. Young, who will focus on programming music and performance events.

“The project is less like a mobile museum and more like a cloud or a network of people and places,” Hulsebos-Spofford says. “When the structure is needed, it happens. But when it’s not, it can go away. On the river it will be aggregating and congealing into a form, but because it is modular it can also disperse.”

“River Assembly” channels Majeed and Hulsebos-Spofford’s initial plan to physically relocate the DuSable downtown by exposing artworks to a wider audience. The barge houses a ten-foot-wide bust of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a giant LED screen, and 74 custom shipping crates stacked in the shape of a large pyramid, some of which are filled with artworks by the participants.

The exhibit is currently parked at Eleanor Park in Bridgeport through August 14, when it will travel to the Riverwalk and stay put until August 27, then end its journey on August 28, at Navy Pier. The crates, many of which will remain empty as a gesture toward the potential for future programs, will be unpacked at each of these locations and remain on display (without the barge) at Navy Pier through the end of October.

“River Assembly” isn’t supposed to be boarded by visitors at each site. The barge is intended to serve as a delivery system for the art onboard, though the vessel will also provide a backdrop for a series of community events that will happen on the river’s shore during its run. Each Wednesday there will be a song circle, and food-fueled panel discussions will be hosted on Thursdays; daily guided tours of the show will take place while it’s docked at the Riverwalk. The directors hope these occasions will more deeply connect audience members with the exhibit.

“If you want to figure out ways to get people into your institutions, to identify with the institutions, let them build the institution,” Majeed says. “Whether they are in the building or not in the building, they are always implicated, they are always a part of it. And the goal is to see who comes with us as we float down the river.”  v