There’s a question that inevitably arises when food is involved in a public art project: Is it art or is it just eating? In the early 1990s, Mary Jane Jacob curated several shows, including Culture in Action and Conversations at the Castle, that included artists getting people together to eat. The fact that these social interactions were curated not only marked a milestone in alternative curatorial approaches, it also legitimized public art practice of this nature. More recently, artists have used sit-down meals as a springboard to address a variety of complex social issues. Here, we look at a few projects that have explored the value of food and labor through the combination of dinner and art.

Expensive: Redefining Value

Artist and chef Jim Denevan is known for his large-scale earth drawings and as an entrepreneur with his business Outstanding in the Field—part dinner party, part harvest festival, part art event—Denevan calls it a “traveling culinary circus.” Launched in 1999, Outstanding in the Field is a summer-long U.S. farm tour. Denevan and his crew roll up to a farm—last summer they made 87 stops—and set up a long table emphasizing form and line. They work with the land’s farmer, a notable chef, and local food artisans to create a meal. Participants walk or boat to the theatrically selected site, carrying their own plates.

The event isn’t cheap. Tickets can run $240 per person, or more. And so the project isn’t really public art, but it almost was. At the beginning, Denevan said, years before “farm to table” was a common phrase, he had a choice: He could go the traditional arts route and secure a grant (or become a nonprofit) and offer the experience as a one-time event or to a very limited audience; or he could put a big price tag on the event and pay farmers and chefs well. He chose the latter. “My greater goal was to create an environment where people would say: This is so damn expensive, it must be valuable. Culturally valuable,” Denevan says.

So far, Outstanding in the Field has served almost 50,000 people meals outdoors on farms in 43 states and several other countries, too. They sell more than 99 percent of their available tickets.

Free: Encouraging Generosity

The Public Table was a temporary restaurant that predated pop-up restaurants. Run by Spurse, an artist collective, and supported by arts organizations, it operated in three locations for one month each in 2006. The premise: Spurse artists would show up in a town with just one week to gather everything they needed to operate a restaurant—furniture, a kitchen, tableware, and enough food to offer 20-course meals—from people they’d never met. The catch: No money exchanged hands in any part of the project.

In spite of the short deadline, says Iain Kerr, a founding member of Spurse, the artists often ended up with more stuff, and food, than they could use. “We weren’t so interested in the fact that these things were free, but that reality is inherently excessive.”

The three restaurants were very different from each other. In New Haven, Connecticut, Spurse ran a “super high-end molecular gastronomy restaurant.” In Bellows Falls, Vermont, they didn’t want to compete with the other restaurants in town that weren’t doing so well, so they partnered with them. Spurse cooked in their kitchens, then served a free happy hour from a mobile restaurant. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the collective decided that the restaurant could only be built with material found in the space itself.

In each case, the restaurant didn’t remain, but members of Spurse hoped that new networks between individuals and groups, and a new way of thinking and acting, would. “We hoped to get people to sense the possibilities of alternative economies and forms of generosity as a type of aesthetics,” Kerr says. “It’s not how we make art, but how we make our community that we should focus on. It’s about co-composing the world we live in.”

Bartered: Facilitating Exchange

Banquet for America was a two-week feast and a re-creation of a small town within a gallery. At the town’s center was a 37-foot-long banquet table, built by 17 conceptual and performance-based artists selected for the show. While visitors ate at the table, the artists performed on it. They also inhabited the town—inside the artist collective Flux Factory’s Brooklyn, New York, gallery space—for the duration of the February 2012 show.

“All of the participants brought something to the table—donut making, hair cutting—but you had to trade for their services,” says Douglas Paulson of Flux Factory. “The project is about that kind of exchange, and showing that barter economies are possible.” (But to raise money to buy the food served at Banquet for America, says Paulson, Flux Factory did it the tried and true way: with beer money).

Food is considered an essential organizing element at Flux Factory, which has a kitchen at its center. “Having dinners is not only a way to cultivate our community, but a way to productively generate projects,” says Paulson, who regularly uses food as part of his artistic practice.

Still, he has mixed feelings about working with food. “At times I feel I’m criticized for making barbeque art,” he says. “I think that’s a very superficial reading. Food is a means to an end. And I’m a real believer that when people share work they start to like each other. They can identify with each other. Cooking, eating, cleaning up together—that’s shared labor and that’s a foundation that leads to camaraderie and to generating other shared labors together.”

Karen Olson is Editor in Chief of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #46, where this article originally appeared as “The Temporary Table.”