Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A City and an Art Center Design the Future: Reflections on the Market Street Prototyping Festival

"The arts are future-making."

I wrote this down when Deborah Cullinan said it at a meeting of arts leaders about a year ago. We were discussing the potential for cultural organizations to have significant impact across communities: on planning, health, education, and quality of life. Deborah's vision for the arts leading the way to stronger future inspired me. But I couldn't fully imagine how a museum or an arts center could embody it.

Last week, I got to see Deborah's vision in action. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (which she directs) teamed up with the San Francisco Planning Department and the Knight Foundation to host the Market Street Prototyping Festival. Over three days, 52 artist teams erected experimental projects along San Francisco's biggest thoroughfare. They turned Market Street into a playground, a performance hall, and a meeting place. The result was a true experiment in designing the future--right here, right now--with artists and planners and civic leaders at the helm together.

The Festival is one moment in a decade-long project to redesign Market Street. Market Street is a central artery of San Francisco. It has wide sidewalks and lots of public transportation access points. 200,000+ pedestrians walk along it every day. But it's not just for transportation; it's also a huge swath of public space. In San Francisco, sidewalks account for 80% of all open space. In a city where parks are rare, streets can and should provide the social, recreational, and health functions that we expect from open space.

The Market Street Prototyping Festival was not a typical public art exhibition. The projects were messy, unfinished--true prototypes of future possibilities. A fitness trail for urban life. A soundtrack for the street. A urinal that watered plants. Pop up libraries, performance spaces, and seating areas. A hexagonal ping pong table that invited six people (often strangers) to play together. Lots of social bridging, surprise encounters, and more than a few mystified moments.

The Market Street Prototyping Festival stirred up a few thoughts related to design in public places, prototyping, and communicating complexity.


Just because you put something in front of a lot of people doesn't mean they'll take you up on it. One of the challenges and attractions of the Festival is the fact that most people were not traveling to Market Street specifically to play with the prototypes. They were heading to work, going home, running errands.

This made for some amazing emergent engagement behaviors, but also a lot of zooming by. I participated in a mini-observational study of one interactive sculpture in the festival. We found that 12% of passersby even stopped to glance at the piece (let alone interact) over a 15 minute interval.

What kind of cultural experience offers the right kind of invitation and opportunity for pedestrians in public space? Many Market Street prototypes struggled because they asked too much of people relative to their expectations and interests as they traveled along the sidewalk.

I've often encountered projects that try to address this challenge with confrontation. Put the most disruptive, loud, or provocative experience in the right of way, and people can't help but notice. This may be true, but such experiences are often so dislocating that they put people off and people scramble to get out of the way.

Invitation works better than confrontation. One of my favorite projects, designed by the Exploratorium, nailed the balance of invitation and opportunity on a public street. It was a simple pathway of fringed fabric that invited you to wander into a seating area with information about the drought (it made sense if you were there). The fringed pathways were perfect--intriguing and desirable, easy to walk along, intoxicating enough to entreat you into a new world. Many other projects struggled because the desired engagement was so open to the street. They were open books. The Fringe was a tentacle that lapped you in, a teaser that enticed people into stories they didn't know they wanted.


Prototyping is about learning, and learning usually requires communication. I was disappointed and surprised by how few of the Market Street projects were actively manned by their creators. While  "final" versions of these prototypes would need to stand alone on the sidewalk, the best prototypes are facilitated.

Facilitation has a dual function: the artists learn what worked and didn't, and visitors learn what the projects are all about. Hundreds of hours of community dialogue went into the development of the Market Street Festival prototypes--both on the street and online. Thousands more conversations during the festival. All of this dialogue helps build better projects, and ultimately, a better Market Street. Where it didn't happen, visitors, artists, and organizers missed an opportunity to learn and grow.


One of the most frequent questions I heard along Market Street was: "What's going on here?"

Many people thought the Festival was "an art exhibit" or "an art festival." ABC news headlined their segment saying "Market Street festooned with public art for 3-day fest." While this is true, it's also a missed opportunity for the larger project.

The point of the festival was artists and communities imagining potential futures for Market Street. The artworks were too rough to be "beautiful" and anyone seeking to judge them by that criteria might be disappointed. But as signals about the possibilities of the street? As prototypes for the future? Incredible... and not self-evident. That message could have been more clearly trumpeted throughout the Festival.


Overall, I'm amazed at the partnership, coordination, and energy that went into the festival. We often say that "arts deserve a seat at the table" of big civic decisions. It takes leaders like Deborah to claim those seats and launch successful collaborations.

The arts ARE future-making. I saw a little slice of the future last week on Market Street.

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