A recent online publication that could easily slip through the cracks — but I think deserves more attention — is titled Let’s Get Weird: Lessons on How to Innovate, Motivate, and Take a Leap of Faith. Compiled by the National Arts Marketing Project and Americans for the Arts, this appetizer of an e-book spotlights three organizations getting “weird” and thinking in a very community-driven, outside-the-box, and unconventional way. While these organizations — Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, Laundromat Project, and Portland Art Museum — are not the only ones blazing this trail, they do reflect some interesting ways in which museums and arts organizations can embrace the unexpected.
As the National Arts Marketing Project writes on their website to frame this online publication:
“For arts marketers, it’s no secret that the engagement models of yesterday are being cast off in favor of fresh, bold ideas to boost audience development and revenue. If we’re keeping track, however, some of the new approaches that have been successful for organizations across the country would have seemed downright weird in decades past. Inviting naked cyclists into a museum to find new audiences? Bringing art to the local laundromat to promote community dialogues? Bringing random strangers together to interpret permanent collection pieces? These concepts may seem bold, but for [these 3 organizations], weird strategies like these have fostered an organizational culture that draws in the community and gives patrons an experience they won’t soon forget.”
Hack the Museum 2.0
Should anyone be surprised to find Nina Simon and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History at the top of the list of experimental, participatory organizations? I mean, she wrote the book on this type of work … literally. But instead of getting into a rut or taking any easy routes, Nina continues to lead her institution as a pioneer of participatory practice. And, more importantly, she is working to support and scaffold this type of work well beyond the walls of her museum — this summer’s “Hack the Museum Camp” brought together 75 creative and museum professionals for 48 hours to create a museum exhibition that challenges the way people think about displaying the art, history, and the heart of Santa Cruz.
Through this experience, the Museum of Art & History becomes a petri dish for participatory practice that is inevitably expanding to artistic and institutional practice far outside of the ‘innovative sunshine’ of California. The camp’s website nicely sums up the “Why”:
“To invite unusual collaborations, to give people a space to test out their craziest dreams, to push professionals to do something quickly, to encourage experimental thinking and prototyping.”
Wash Clothes, Make Art, Build Community: The Laundromat Project
I was truly inspired by the report’s feature on the Laundromat Project, a unique project that brings engaging, community-responsive art and artists into local coin-op laundromats across Greater New York City. As Rise Wilson, founder and creator, describes, the project focuses on bringing art to where the people are, and thinking about laundromats as unique community gathering spaces.
Not only are people across New York engaging in arts experiences as they wait for their wash cycle to end, but these neighborhood locations become creative spaces with the transformative potential to bring out new conversations, relationships, and a meaningful form of public art practice that spills out across the community.
“The power to harness our own imaginations is connected to a sense of freedom and agency to make the change we want in the world,” states LP Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi. “Creativity is the engine, and we are together, with our neighbors, trying to make the world a more just and artful place one creative, unconventional, and artful intervention at a time.”
On Naked Ambition: Portland Art Museum
I vividly remember that night back in June when nearly 10,000 stripped-down cyclists converged in the park directly adjacent to the Portland Art Museum, preparing to launch the world’s largest World Naked Bike Ride to date. Instead of keeping its doors closed (which was tempting for various reasons), the Museum made the bold decision to not only open to the public that night, but to embrace the community energy and “weirdness” that is the World Naked Bike Ride.
Scantily-clad cyclists entered the Museum for $1 per item of clothing, and many (for obvious reasons) entered for free. As chance would have it, this was also the opening day for the Museum’s summer exhibitions Cyclepedia: Iconic Bike Design and Gaston Lachaise (in case you don’t know Lachaise’s work, we’re talking some monumental nude figures). 1,000 naked or mostly-naked cyclists entered the Museum from 8-10pm that night, and aside from averting my eyes as much as possible, I was reminded why I love the Portland Art Museum.
The Cyclepedia exhibition itself was a focused effort to engage in community collaborations outside of the “weirdness” of the Naked Bike Ride, with the Museum partnering with 26 organizations, bringing 40 programs to the Museum and the region, and connecting with bike builders, designers, collectors, and cycling enthusiasts across the Northwest and the globe. We brought local bicycle designers’ voices into the galleries through the Object Stories project (which can be found by searching for “Bicycle” here), and hosted a series of Summer Joy Rides that had groups exploring art and bicycle culture via community bike rides.
As the NAMP e-book declares, if any town in the US truly captures the spirit of the “weird,” it’s the artistic, DIY-loving city of Portland. And I can say, after being here for almost a year, nothing could be more true. The Museum is dedicated to relinquishing control and gaining broader community involvement, as well as experimenting with participatory engagement and social practice with programming like Shine a Light (no doubt I’ll write more on this in the coming months).
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Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Inovation at EmcArts, pinpoints the change she sees happening across the arts non-profit sector:
“We see art organizations shifting from seeing themselves as producers of content to seeing themselves as platforms for engagement. This is a huge shift; one that requires a letting go of old ways of doing things and has profoundly exciting implications for organizations and the field.”
I know that this is happening in countless organizations across the US and the globe. Tell us about how your organization is getting “weird” or paving the path for more unconventional, risk-taking work? What changes have you seen in your organization recently that are providing space for meaningful participatory practice and playful thinking?