Marilyn Arsem frames art that can’t be hung on a wall.

“It can be a challenge: How do you frame art as an experience, rather than an object?” The slippery answer to that question has long eluded many major American art institutions, Arsem says, and it’s the reason why her medium—performance art—has historically struggled to be widely embraced by stateside museums. “In the U.S., art is often viewed as a commodity culture,” explains Arsem, who in 1977 founded Boston’s Mobius, a seminal performance art organization that offers a home to experiential and experimental work. “There’s an idea that you’re investing in an object of value, one whose worth will increase the longer you keep it. That goes against the notion of performance art, an experience that disappears once it’s over.”

Museums are storehouses, but performance art is ephemeral. Experiences can’t be collected, archived and displayed in perpetuity. Artists like Arsem reframe conventional ideas of art. And right now, at least, it seems we’re more willing to look at them.

In December, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts announced that Arsem would be the first performance artist to receive its esteemed Maud Morgan Prize. (As part of her recognition, she will present a solo exhibition at the MFA later this year.) Around the same time, the Institute of Contemporary Art announced that its 2015 James and Audrey Foster Prize would focus on performance and collaborative art for the first time. (An exhibition featuring the work of its four Foster artists opens on April 21.) Between Mobius and a number of performance art-friendly galleries, like the South End’s Samsøn Projects, the medium has enjoyed a vibrant history in Boston. But the MFA and ICA’s high-profile honors reflect the conscious intent of two of the Hub’s most powerful art institutions to incorporate performance art in their exhibitions.

“We don’t consider performance art a separate program, but another medium that artists use. So we’re integrating it into our existing structures,” says Liz Munsell, assistant curator of contemporary art at the MFA. Since 2012, Munsell has been tasked with steering a new performance art initiative at the MFA, resulting in recent highlights that stand out from the museum’s more traditional collections. In June, the MFA hosted Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo for Big Bang, the live deconstruction of a car that coincided with the five-year anniversary of the auto industry crisis. In November, it welcomed Joan Jonas, a performance art pioneer since the medium’s radical 1960s nascence, for Reanimation, an otherworldly synthesis of choreography, visual art and closed-circuit video projections. And on view through April 9 is Sonic Blossom, in which the Taiwan-born, NYC-based artist Lee Mingwei presides over eight opera singers who intermittently engage visitors to serenade them with personal performances of Schubert.

It’s too weird! I don’t get it! Don’t worry, Aunt Mabel. Oil paintings of white guys in powdered wigs are  just a few galleries away. But you may want to get used to this.

“Overall, performance art throughout the world is experiencing a major resurgence,” Munsell says. Curators and artists point to a variety of explanations, from our hunger for visceral human connection in an increasingly digitized world to the idea that performance art is another manifestation of the larger experience economy. And whether your cultural touchstones are high culture or low, it’s easy to see a greater zeitgeist that is even imbuing performance art with some Hollywood-style sizzle.

Take Marina Abramovic, oft-called the “grandmother of performance art,” who is now as likely to score headlines in Vanity Fair as in ARTnews. In June, Abramovic presented her first new piece in four years, 512 Hours, during which the artist remained on her feet for 8 hours a day, six days a week, arranging patrons like statues in a silent, stark-white exhibition space at London’s Serpentine Gallery. And in Hudson, New York, just over the Western Mass. border, Abramovic plans to launch MAI, a first-of-its-kind art institute and incubator for “durational” (as 512 Hours would be categorized) performance art works. Yet she’s also become a celebrity darling during the past several years, whether by escorting frat boy-slash-Instagram artiste James Franco to the Met Gala or playing muse to Lady Gaga, who screened a video she produced with Abramovic at her last album’s “artRave” release party. Before you know it, Tilda Swinton is napping in a glass case at MoMA and Shia LaBeouf is—well, doing whatever Shia LaBeouf professes to be doing.

As the art world’s renegade outsiders are discovered by the in-crowd, we’ll probably see a lot more bad art. (To repeat: Shia LaBeouf.) But it’s hard to begrudge if it turns on more casual art patrons to the good stuff, and silences the snickering that even the phrase “performance art” can elicit from less open-minded audiences.

Mobius, now based in Cambridge, has been vital in keeping Boston’s experimental art scene buzzing even as other supports, like grant opportunities, have waned over the years—most significantly after 1990, when the National Endowment for the Arts defunded individual performance artists. The limited resources available from nonprofits and other grant-giving organizations are especially difficult for performance and conceptual artists to obtain, says Mobius’ current executive director, Daniel DeLuca, 30, because their projects are less likely to fit within the neat categories and parameters demanded by grantors. Last month, Mobius even launched an Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign to raise $25,000 to “cover operating costs and keep the space running” while a business plan for sustainability is developed.

So it certainly doesn’t hurt when performance artists receive the support of major art museums like the MFA and the ICA, where deep coffers offer award monies and hallowed halls provide cultural cachet to a medium that can be dismissed by more traditional tastes. Arsem wonders if the recent willingness by large institutions to more actively engage performance artists is related to a generational shift in power. In art, as in all things, there is “a cycle tied to who has the control over culture,” Arsem says, and right now that includes a younger crop of museum curators. Thanks to once-unimaginable digital libraries of decades-old footage and classroom tutelage by performance art vets (Arsem herself was a faculty member at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for 27 years), a new wave of decision-makers hails from the first generation to have studied a truly experiential-inclusive lexicon of art.

“I do think that a generation of new curators is looking to critically portray the art legacy of the 1960s and 1970s, and ensure that performance art is written into that history,” offers Munsell, 32.

“The younger generation was taught this material,” adds John Andress, 36, the ICA’s associate director of performing arts and co-curator of the Foster Prize. “They’re the first people getting into decision-making situations at major organizations to, in some ways, have the entire history of performance art at their fingertips. It’s part of your knowledge base. It’s in the field as canon. Like painting or sculpture, it’s treated as part of art’s historical framework.”

And for artists themselves, performance art is becoming just another “tool in the arsenal,” Andress says. Foster Prize artist Sandrine Schaefer (pictured above), 34, agrees. Schaefer is a “site-sensitive” artist: Her work responds to the location in which it is staged, even adapting to the unpredictable live variables. (Though she’s cagey on details, Schaefer says her Foster exhibition will involve five different performances, including one staged from a pier in East Boston, observed from the ICA’s glass-walled harbor-side gallery and live-streamed for “engagement” through computers in the museum’s media center.) She is also an adjunct professor at several Massachusetts colleges, and she’s been struck by the way performance art is increasingly simply “part of the discourse” for undergrads.

As edges between mediums blur, the current climate also celebrates the kind of multidisciplinary and collaborative artists acknowledged by this year’s Foster Prize, like Ricardo De Lima, an artist and DJ whose “transnational bass party” Picó Picante is a monthly institution at the Good Life. De Lima says he uses music, visual art and technology to “create spaces that generate collaboration,” and he considers his work more in line with “relational” art, a performance art cousin that builds “community and participation.” But he acknowledges that “performative elements in art are experiencing an extraordinary resurgence in popularity.  The large institutions are now paying attention.”

“Artists have always been ahead of institutions. It’s part of the job description,” he adds. “Performance art has been flourishing in underground spaces for decades. The institutions are adjusting accordingly.”

The evolution will take time. Performance art hasn’t struggled for space in museums simply because of curmudgeonly curators or a protracted low tide in the ebb and flow of trends. Logistically, incorporating it is just, well—hard. Artists need visas and hotel rooms. Galleries filled with precious, historic artwork are kept sterile and carefully climate controlled to prevent damage from organic matter. (Munsell recalls convincing conservators to let an artist pump breast milk in a Chinese period room. When Schaefer wanted to bring rocks into the ICA, several offices had to provide clearance.) Performance art is inherently unpredictable; it requires a level of communication and trust between an institution and an artist that doesn’t develop overnight. And there are unique questions requiring creative answers. How are spaces kept activated for visitors when artists aren’t there? (Schaefer says that between her ICA performances, discreet “traces” of her work will quietly accrue in the exhibition space.) How can ephemeral events be preserved for museum collections? (The MFA will record video footage of Sonic Blossom, says the show’s curator, Jen Mergel.)

At least now, though, those challenges are being tackled. And if it’s taken a while to get here—well, perhaps that’s poignant, says Jed Speare, an artist who spent 12 years as director of Mobius and now serves as director of the multidisciplinary Studio Soto. “I am from Boston, so I am reluctant to say, though it is true, that it is still one of the most conservative and least progressive of the major American cities,” Speare says.

“So isn’t it fitting that performance art has risen up in prominence here over the past 40 years? In this light, performance art has retained its subversive nature, as a long performance itself.”

Pampi and Kristophe Diaz’s “Drunk on Dhak” Performance at the Tinderbox Series@Mobius

Springing Into Action

Three highlights of the season’s performance art scene

The 2015 James and Audrey Foster Prize at the ICA

From April 21 through August 9, the biennial exhibition presents its first edition focused on performance art and collaborative work, with art from Ricardo De Lima, Vela Phelan, Sandrine Schaefer and the kijidome collaborative.

100 Northern Ave., Boston (617-478-3100)

Tinderbox at Mobius

An ongoing series spotlighting experimental artists, Tinderbox will spark conversation on April 10 with works like Catherine Siller’s Applying Myself, a comment on the rituals of female primping.

55 Norfolk St., Cambridge (617-945-9481)

Wilmer Wilson IV: Priestess Faust Walk at the MFA

On April 15, the artist will bestow a ceremonial wreath made from salvaged lottery tickets on a Roman sculpture in the museum’s collection. Jackpot.

465 Huntington Ave., Boston (617-267-9300)

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