Thursday, June 10, 2010

Foot in the Door: A Powerful Participatory Exhibit

I spent last week working with staff at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) on ways to make this encyclopedic art museum more open to visitor participation across programs, exhibitions, and events. While there, I was lucky to get to experience a highly participatory exhibition that the MIA mounts once a decade: Foot in the Door.

Foot in the Door is a straightforward contributory project. The rules are clear: anyone who lives in Minnesota and considers her/himself an artist can contribute one piece. The artworks must fit within a 1 foot cube (a box identified as the "curator" of the exhibition). Artworks may not include living or hazardous materials. All artworks delivered to the museum during the submission period will be accepted and presented; no one is turned away. This year, the MIA also accepted audio/video submissions of up to 80 seconds, which are displayed on a Vimeo site.

Foot in the Door has morphed since its first show in 1980, growing from 300 to 4,800 submissions. Some artists and art-lovers bemoan the fact that Foot in the Door has grown beyond professionals to include hobbyists and casual art-makers, but for many contributors, the exhibition is an opportunity to revel in the diversity of art-making (for example, see this contributor's reflection). Thousands of people showed up for the opening and other events, and every time I was in the galleries, I observed highly engaged visitors who looked closely, shared impressions naturally with friends and strangers, and generally seemed captivated by the experience.

What makes Foot in the Door a success?
  • The design constraint is simple to understand, specific enough to be interesting, and doesn't prescribe the output. By limiting artworks by size alone, Foot in the Door is open to a huge range of content and media. The size constraint makes it easy to show lots of work and reinforces the egalitarian vibe of the project. It also makes the whole show more digestible; like Twitter, it's easy for spectators to scan and encourages contributors to focus their presentation. Some more savvy contributors even thought about how their work would read in a very busy gallery stuffed with art--another kind of design constraint that can spur creativity.
  • The exhibition design suggests both democracy and intimacy. The galleries are packed tightly, floor to ceiling, and you feel both that you can see everything and that you might find secret diamonds in the rough. I watched many visitors hunt down favorites or pieces with which they had personal connections to share, like little private gifts, with others. This promoted lots of social object behavior, including lots of pointing at art.
  • The design promotes dialogue among and about artworks. Packing in the art in so closely in huge grids meant that it was easy to experience the works relationally, to find things that went together or spoke to each other. While the gallery design did not improve the individual viewing of each work (especially those that were placed up high or low), it did more easily support people talking about how works related--an important and interesting concept in art education. I particularly enjoyed a few pieces that were clearly coordinated among contributors, such as four boxes labeled YES, NO, MAYBE, and POSSIBLY with red buttons on them so visitors could make their selections.
  • The diversity of content promotes comfortable dialogue about preferences. In a traditional curated gallery, many visitors don't feel comfortable saying that they like or dislike particular works. They know that an expert has selected them, and that tends to overshadow personal inclination. In Foot in the Door, the content is so wide-ranging that it was easy for people to talk about favorites. In fact, I think there is an expectation that some works will be great and others crap--and visitors revel in the opportunity to arbitrate the difference themselves. Again, this is a valuable learning experience that may not be supported in traditional art exhibitions which are lorded over by invisible experts.
  • Lots of visitors have a personal connection to the exhibition. I met several visitors who came to see their own artworks or those made by family or friends. This promoted all kinds of positive outcomes: a sense of public recognition for participants, personal relevance of the institution for contributors and friends, and an easy entry point to conversations with strangers. I also heard several adults say to kids, "In ten years, you could be in the next one!" While this may make some art aficionados cringe, I was thrilled by the implicit message that the art museum could be useful to your life in the future, that you could be part of it, that it is open to you and your creative expression. It's rare for an art exhibition to encourage not just art appreciation but art-making as well.
  • The staff did a wonderful job documenting the project. I've loved checking out the videos and photos that staff took to support Foot in the Door 4. My favorites are the YouTube videos--of contributors introducing themselves and their work (the best!), visitors discussing the show at the opening, time-lapse of installation, and a 10-min run-though of every single piece in the show. The only thing I really wish existed were more personal stories from the artists--I would have loved to see statements and photos of them alongside their works. I also think it would be useful for the MIA to aggregate blog posts, Flickr photos, etc. created by visitors and contributors so we can access "in my words" content all in one place.
The most challenging part of Foot in the Door--or any nontraditional project--is figuring out what it means for the institution overall. I started this list saying that the exhibition is a "success"--which I believe it is. But at the MIA, as at any museum, measuring success is not always cut and dry. Yes, Foot in the Door draws lots of diverse people--both contributors and visitors. Yes, people get highly energized in the space and have great conversations about art and art-making. But the project also takes a ton of work, especially during intake and installation. And it's quite a departure from the way the rest of the galleries in the museum curate and present art, which makes it hard to figure out where it "fits" with the institution and whether and how it could be expanded.

Foot in the Door can't be judged as a success or a failure without an institution- or industry-wide understanding of what success looks like. And we need this discussion to happen if we want to promote innovation. So many institutions focus on maintaining their programs rather than figuring out what programs will help them achieve their desired outcomes. This makes it harder for new modes of visitor engagement or content presentation to gain traction, as projects are judged by their institutional culture fit rather than their ability to yield great visitor outcomes.

In the best situations, projects like Foot in the Door force staff to really examine what they perceive to be "successful" visitor outcomes and then find ways to measure those across all projects and use them in planning future endeavors. This is what happened at the Oakland Museum of California, which used its very successful co-creative Days of the Dead project as a kind of template for participatory redesign. When staff can demonstrate how participatory projects achieve specific visitor outcomes of universal institutional interest, it's a foot in the door for more experimentation and engagement overall.

6 comments, add yours!:

Maria said...

What an incredible exhibit, thanks for sharing with us.
Being a new intern currently at an institution and a new "museologist" so to speak, I am trying to learn more about how programs/exhibits are accessed and deemed "successful". Coming from the educational field I am used to"success" being measured by "assessments" that are narrow and specific (the public school system demands this). Museums don't function in this way when it comes to programming and I am trying to wrap my head around how success is determined. It seems that this is a very wide open question and most museum professionals I have spoken with on this subject tend to answer me with "Well, it all depends". Each project/ exhibit/ program cannot be "graded" on the same scale. Which means a lot more time and effort needs to be put in on the front end- which can be difficult with rigorous deadlines for exhibits. So it seems that this is put on the back burner many times. Or pushed to the "next meeting".

I am putting together my own project in the fall through my Museum Studies program and I will have to figure out what "success" means even for my smaller scale project with an institution. So I am very interested in this discussion and hope to hear more about it and learn from what others have to say.

In the world of public education I must have heard a million times that "assessment should drive instruction"...although museums are a different beast of their own- I wonder if this statement can still apply in some shape or form.

Paul Orselli said...

If this exact same set-up was placed outside of a museum (in a school gym, or a park under tents) would people be as enthused in participating?

Would it even be considered an "exhibit"?

Nina Simon said...

Paul,
I hear what you're saying and would agree that it being in a museum--and specifically in the MIA--is a huge and inextricable part of its value.

Think about what this does. Just conceptually, the idea that you can get your foot in the door of a huge encyclopedic art museum changes visitors' reference points about who gets to make art and who anoints it. It's not just about sharing art together. It's about changing the view of what and whom that museum is for.

Chuck Olsen said...

Thanks for your great thoughts on Foot in the Door... I hope other museums endeavor to open their doors from time to time, like the MIA has.

Here are a couple more videos showing the range of amateur/professional, young/old, artists in Foot in the Door - filmed by mn original, the public television art show I work for. :-)

Foot in the Door: Artists of All Stripes

Foot in the Door segment that aired on mn original

cheers,
Chuck

Paul Orselli said...

Suggestion for a future FITD show: pair public contributions of "art boxes" with/near items from the permanent collection.

Christophe Bruchansky said...

Success is not only measured in terms of impact to the public. It can also be about increasing the reputation of an institution thanks to reviews from journalists and academics, or matching with the vision of a sponsor, or justifying why the people working in the institution know more than visitors and thus deserve public funding. All these reasons can explain why more participatory projects are not curated. I personally don't mind these other criteria for success, and they can be exciting too, as long as they are dealt with consequently and transparently.