As a museum educator, I enjoy the elements of random surprise and creative disruption that can creep into museum practice. Experiencing the unexpected, especially in the space of a museum, can be such a rewarding thing. Back in late July, I had such an experience here at my own museum as I walked up one morning for work and heard a piano playing … and it was coming from the Museum’s outdoor sculpture courtyard. As I rounded the corner, I was surprised to see a piano sitting right there outside the Museum. The person playing the piano was truly fantastic, and a small group of people had gathered to listen — I assume that most were walking across downtown when they were drawn in by the sound of the piano.
I sat with the group for about 10 minutes, and then headed to my office with a few questions burning in my head: “Why is there a piano here at the Museum?” “How could I learn more?” “Would there be any way to keep the piano here?” I was so intrigued by how much this simple piano could activate and transform this small, public urban space.
I quickly learned that a local project called “Piano Push Play” had contacted the Portland Art Museum about placing one of their public pianos here. The project has been working this summer to place a series of pianos in public locations across downtown Portland — with the pianos generously provided by the Snowman Foundation, a music education non-profit organization based here in Portland that helps kids in need get the instruments, instruction, and inspiration they need to develop their musical and creative talents. “Piano Push Play” was founded to give the public more opportunities to see, hear, and enjoy the piano being played in outdoor spaces. And, as local project founder Megan McGeorge notes (and I heartily agree), these pop-up piano locations are “a bright spot of surprise in people’s day.”
McGeorge started the “Piano Push Play” project after experiencing “Play Me, I’m Yours” in New York City, a project developed by British artist Luke Jerram. According to his project’s website, Jerram’s street piano project has reached over three million people worldwide, with more than 800 pianos having been installed in 35 cities across the globe, from New York to London. Located in public parks, bus shelters and train stations, outside galleries and markets, and even on bridges and ferries, Jerram’s project makes pianos available for any member of the public to play and enjoy. Who plays them and how long they remain on the streets is up to each community. Many pianos are personalized and decorated by artists or the local community. According to Jerram, by creating a place of exchange, “Play Me, I’m Yours” invites the public to engage with, activate, and take ownership of their urban environment.
“Play Me, I’m Yours” at the Art Museum
As I started to search for more information about Jerram’s larger street piano project, I quickly found that many other art museums were hosting public pianos. For the weekend of Earth Day back in April 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had a “Play Me I’m Yours” public piano decorated by artist Frank Cubillos. As the LA Times noted in an article about Jerram’s street music project:
“The point is simple: Bring communities together through random acts of public music.”
The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art also hosted “Play Me, I’m Yours” during 2 weeks in June 2012, with 10 pianos decorated by a series of Utah contemporary artists that were placed in public spaces across Salt Lake City including UMOCA. This summer, the Cleveland Museum of Art has jumped onto Jerram’s project — in conjunction with their celebration of the 2013 Cleveland International Piano Competition (CIPC) being held at the museum. CIPC and Case Western Reserve University are presenting Play Me, I’m Yours Cleveland, which includes a piano decorated like the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Monet Water Lilies panel that was available to play through August 18, 2013. Later this fall, as part of celebrating the 75th season of Boston’s Celebrity Series, the organization has decided to partner with Jerram to bring this public street piano installation to Boston, including a piano sited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts this fall from September 27 to October 14, 2013. These are just a few of the art museums that have decided to get involved with “Play Me, I’m Yours,” and I’m sure there are many other art museums connected to this project or hosting public pianos outside of Jerram’s network.
Here at the Portland Art Museum, Megan McGeorge’s own “Piano Push Play” project has been drawing in lots of people in play, listen, interact with each other, and even learn about some of the organizations involved in expanding music education and access to instruments here in the Pacific Northwest. “We believe that simply by exposing people to the visual and auditory experience of a fellow human playing the piano, we are reminded of how magical and vital music is to our community,” says McGeorge, in a recent interview with OPB. “Thanks to a partnership with our organization, and our generous sponsors Portland Piano Company and West Coast Piano Moving and Storage, we are able to bring together the components of community, kids and music to the streets of Portland,” added Michael Allen Harrison, founder of The Snowman Foundation.
On several Fridays since the piano was installed at the Portland Art Museum back in late July, there have been concerts with additional instruments and noteworthy performers (the best way to find updated information is on the “Piano Push Play” Facebook page — especially since a lot of the programming is of the ‘pop-up’ variety). But the best way to experience this project is just to walk by and experience the music, the people, and the energy of this space. It is a great way for museums to continue to let go, to have community members creating and sharing artistic expressions, and to put community members at the center of a certain form of public engagement and programming.
The pianos in these projects stay in location as long as the community can support it (in terms of the cost of tuning and any maintenance needed to keep it sounding good). Through the generosity of several individuals, the piano has remained at the Portland Art Museum for several weeks past its original 12-day time slot. If you are interested in further supporting this piano, you can go to their WePay.com site by clicking on this link and find more information there.
Public Pianos as a Site of Exchange
Beyond simply having a public piano for people to play, this project intrigued me in terms of how it reactivated and energized the outdoor space between the buildings of the Portland Art Museum. And each time I stop by the piano, I am struck by the people gathered around, talking to each other and listening together. “Piano Push Play” certainly turns this public space into a site of exchange, where people meet who might never cross paths any other way in Portland.
I spoke with Megan McGeorge recently about this project, and she mentioned the powerful social and community-building element of street pianos. McGeorge, who plays at the piano herself fairly regularly, remarked, “I’ve met so many people I would have not met otherwise; playing is a great way to start a conversation.” One of the photos she shared with me (below) shows two strangers named “Safety Jack” and JB. They had never met before, but came to this piano and were teaching one another songs that they each knew.
Do others’ have experience with public or street music projects like this in conjunction with a museum? Is this type of project relevant to the work of museums? How might museums play a stronger role in community-based projects like this that bring people together around arts and creativity? What would a similar project look like in the visual arts? As always, I welcome your feedback, thoughts, and comments. And perhaps you will have the opportunity to participate in “Play Me I’m Yours” or “Piano Push Play” here in Portland or in your own city. PLEASE play!