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And the Winner Is…social practice at Haverford College


Imagine you’re a college soccer player at a small private school outside Philadelphia. It’s mid-March and out of the blue, you receive an email from the college art gallery inviting you to play in a skee-ball tournament, in the gallery, as part of an art project titled And The Winner Is…. You have not been selected because you are an athlete. But in fact, your name has been entered as a player in the tournament along with every other member of the Haverford College community — all 1,920 students, faculty and staff.

Chris Mills vs. Stephen Profeta for a semi-final birth in “And the Winner Is” at Haverford College Art Gallery.  Photo by John Muse

This March madness event — with bracketology and sweet sixteen and final four and all — was an experiment in social practice conceived of jointly by Haverford Campus Exhibitions Coordinator, Matthew Callinan and John Muse, visiting Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Exhibitions Faculty Liaison. The tournament, which ran from March 16 – April 20, also involved ancillary programming of lectures by artists like Sal Randolph, Lee Walton and Hank Willis Thomas, whose art involves social practice.

Chris Mills advances to the finals, and writes his name on the bracket. Photo by John Muse

Many ideas fueled the project, including the idea of competition on the Quaker campus where community is the watchword, and it’s frowned upon to talk about, much less brag about competing for grades.  There was also the idea of hierarchy in an academic environment which is pretty stratified, and the question of how or whether people would cross strata and play person to person, faculty versus staff, student versus teacher.

So the quick play-by-play is that right off the bat, people poured in to the gallery in unprecedented numbers. And while a few of the 1,920 invitees were peeved by having been unilaterally inserted into the game, Muse said that was the exception.

Tie-breaker, Chris Mills vs Josh Studnitzer. Breaking the tie involved counting who had the most high roll balls (or fewest 0 balls). Or flipping a coin. Photo by John Muse

This being art, there was interesting stuff to look at — of course the skee-ball machines, and the specially-designed vinyl wallpaper for the tournament walls, which laid out the tournament brackets to be filled in by hand as games got played and winners advanced.

Nick Kahn vs Chris Mills. The finalists square off. Photo by John Muse

And since participation and competition were watchwords of the entire event, the gallery team responded to its need for music and a software management program by issuing competitions in those two areas (see projects page on the website). Music could be uploaded to Spotify and would be selected (or not). Software could be submitted to manage the scores and scheduling, and it would be judged and one software designer would be chosen.

729 people played skee-ball in the first weeks, on machines set up in front an audience sitting on bleachers. And among those who advanced to the sweet sixteen were 13 students, 3 staff members and one faculty member. The final game saw sophomore Nick Kahn, a double major in English and French face off against Haverford Director of Communications and alumnus, Chris Mills ’82. And the winner is Nick Kahn! For his prize, he was flown to Greensboro, NC, for 6 hours of fun, to be feted by artist Lee Walton (who had been a part of the ancillary programming for the show) and friends. Kahn, it turns out, has a grandmother in Greensboro, and he asked whether she could join him for the celebration.

There’s a nice video of his 6 hours in Greensboro, which included a winner’s ceremonial walk around town accompanied by a saxophone player playing a wonderfully loopy jazz improvisation; a frisbee game on the lawn at UNC, while being serenaded by a bagpiper; a deep tissue massage; a donut party; a special pizza; a tour of the Weatherspoon Museum; a portrait sitting and more — an action packed day.

When I went out to Haverford the day of the final tournament, Kahn had just won, and they had just changed the name of the project from “And the Winner Is” to “And the Winner Is Nick Kahn!” and wrote his name into the show’s title on the gallery wall.

The winner, Nick Kahn, and the winning ball. Photo by John Muse

To say that curators Muse and Callinan (both of whom had played in the tournament, of course) were enthusiastic and exhausted that day doesn’t begin to cover it. Callinan said by the way that they chose skee-ball because it was a family member’s favorite game. Muse added that it was close to bowling, without being bowling. (They could not have turned the gallery into a bowling alley).

Skee-ball machines at rest after Nick Kahn won the tournament.

What I think is that everybody won, including Haverford Art Gallery, which set a new record for attendance — 4,200 people in the gallery during the show’s run (117 per day).   Congratulations all you winners!