The Lure of the Social (Book)

Encounters with Contemporary Artists

An intimate and personal exploration of the author’s journey following the development of the field of social practices in contemporary art: arguably the most significant shift in art world practices in the last two decades.  A beautifully written exploration of key individuals, institutions and gatherings in socially engaged art. 36 colour illustrations.


This new and original book is a creative practice ethnography, which navigates a spectrum where at one end the author works closely with socially engaged artists as part of her ethnographic research, and at the other she tries to find a critical distance to write about their art projects and the institutional structures that support their work, such as art schools and conferences.

Artists increasingly find themselves working in participatory settings where skills in social engagement are as essential as their creative skills.  The author was involved in the field of social practices from its early stages and stayed engaged with the primary movers in the field for nearly two decades as a witness, participant and critical observer. Her writing evokes the people and places she discusses, and her writing style is personal and accessible.

Over the course of the book, readers are introduced to artists and their work, and to the key debates and issues facing this fast-growing and emergent field. The author navigates the contradictions and paradoxes of this field of practice through description and analysis and, importantly, gives voice to the artists who are working to make art relevant in times of social and political uncertainty.

The problems addressed by social practices, as well as their contradictions, very much reflect our troubled political global moment. This book is a significant contribution to the field – few people have followed the development of social practices for as long as Coombs, and her dual perspective as an art critic and anthropologist make her ideally placed to describe and evaluate the institutions and practices.   While there are many books already in this growing field, the experimental and intensely personal nature of this book sets it apart. It could be a useful teaching tool to generate debate around the tensions and paradoxes inherent in the field of social practices and politically engaged art. Students will appreciate the author’s attempt to convey what it was really like to be there at certain key events and insights gained from direct conversations with the artists, curators and writers shaping the field.

Relevant to academics working in, and students studying, art and social practice, community arts programmes, contemporary anthropology, cultural historians and those with an interest in the sociology of art, protest or activism.

Will appeal to artists, writers and students interested in the history of how social practices developed as a field through its practitioners, discourse and lived experience. 

Gretchen Coombs is a writer and researcher with a focus on socially engaged art practices in the US, the UK, and Australia. She is a postdoctoral research fellow in design and creative practice at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.


A Letter to the Preeminent Feminist Art Critic Lucy Lippard

Introduction: Art and Social Practice

Art & Social Practice: A Constellation of Influences


Contemporary Artists (and One Curartor)

Ted Purves

Come Together (Harrell Fletcher)

Jen Delos Reyes

Amy Spiers

Aaron Hughes

Gregory Sholette

Fallen Fruit: Austin Young and David Allen Burns

Chloë Bass

Gabrielle de Vietri

Carol Zou

Astra Taylor

Bek Conroy

Aaron Gach

Marisa Jahn

Nato Thompson


California College of the Arts

Otis Public Practice

The Shape of a Conference

Come Together

On and Off Stage

Field Notes

Spectres of Evaluation, Rethinking: Art/Community/Value

Open Engagement: Life/Work

Queens Museum, New York City, May 2014

A Lived Practice

Creative Time Summit: The Curriculum

Open Engagement: Place and Revolution

Creative Time Summit: The Curriculum

Civic Actions: Artists’ Practices Beyond the Museum

Creative Time Summit: The Curriculum

ENGAGE MORE NOW! A Symposium on Artists, Museums, and Publics

Open Engagement: Power

Creative Time Summit: Occupy the Future

College Art Association

Creative Time Summit: Of Homelands and Revolutions

Open Engagement: Sustainability




"What story do you want to hear about social practices?’ was the opening question Coombs posed to the artists she met. The responses are fleshed out in this engaging ethnography of a complex, contested field of arts practice. [...] We can never get a real sense of the places, people and processes involved in social practices unless we were there, but thankfully Coombs was listening in, taking notes. The result is a collection of encounters that trace the ideas that have informed these socially engaged artists. The whispers between delegates, the discussions over lunches have informed Coombs’ own positionality and understanding of the stories artists tell. The way she has written these up allows for the contradictions felt in these practices to be aired. The book presents hope in these ‘pockets of resistance’, that these processes and ways of working can effect change.'

Sophie Hope, Cultural Sociology

“A modern-day Vasari’s The Lives of The Artists for the era of socially engaged art, The Lure of the Social is an intimate journey with key individuals into the gatherings and institutions that make up the field. Coombs' voice is insightful and knowledgeable, and the writing is moving and often strikingly beautiful. While there are many, many books on Socially Engaged Art, the experimental and intensely personal nature of this book sets it apart. It is a book of and for the field.”

Stephen Duncombe, professor of media and culture at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and the department of media, culture and communication at the Steinhardt School of New York University. Author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy

“Gretchen Coombs’s important, engaging book puts the ‘social’ back into the often institutionalized medium of social practice. Through a series of studio visits, Coombs takes the reader behind the scenes, creating nuanced and telling portraits of some of today’s leading practitioners. Coombs’s approach—at once critical and anthropological—is blissfully unrhetorical. The Lure of the Social captures the heart of one of the most important artistic movements to emerge in the 21st century, and one that is here to stay.”

Chris Kraus, author of Social Practices and After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography

“Artists and activists lured to the socialanyone interested in leaping the walls between art and lifewill find this book a smart, accessible, and eye-opening treasure trove. It is full of fascinating projects, many new to me, presented on a first-name basis through the author's intimate discussions with the artists and facilitating organizations. The pros and cons of social practice art have rarely been so intelligently examined.”

Lucy R. Lippard, author of Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics and Art in the Changing West
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