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Spotlight on Plains Art Museum

December 9, 2011

by Paulette Beete. All photos courtesy of Plains Art Museum.

Rocco Landesman (center) with Megan Johnston and Colleen Sheehy of the Plains Art Museum during a visit to Fargo, North Dakota.

Rocco dropped in on the Plains Art Museum during his December visit to Fargo, North Dakota. Here he is with chief curator Megan Johnston (left) and Colleen Sheehy, the museum’s director.

Housed in a renovated turn-of-the-century warehouse in Fargo, North Dakota, the Plains Art Museum, is a vibrant cultural hub offering more than a dozen exhibitions with related activities and other programming each year. The museum, which received fiscal year 2010 support from the NEA for its outreach program, recently took an unusual step inspired by recent projects at the Brooklyn Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It allowed members of the community to curate an exhibit drawn from its permanent collection of approximately 3,000 works. Through a combination of online surveys and in-person meetings, roughly 300 members of the public decided not only which works would be included in You Like This, but even the order in which they would be hung in the gallery. We spoke with Megan Johnston, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs and interpretation, and Kriz Kerzman, the museum’s communications manager, to learn more about the fine art of crowdsourcing.

NEA: What’s the history and mission of the Plains Art Museum?

KRIS KERZMAN: Our stated mission is to bring people and art together, which is a fairly broad mission. I would say that [recently] we narrowed our focus into more of an educational institution and working more with artistic skill building

MEGAN JOHNSTON: The establishment of the museum was actually by art activists. People in the local community—artists, people who love art—came together, and established a local museum. [It wasn’t] established by some rich patron, or some major art collector….It very much grew out of an activism in the community and a love for the arts. Most recently we’ve kind of shifted the museum into the new “museology” that’s out there, that kind of new wave of museums which is about social engagement. We’ve turned to education, social engagement, connecting with community, and a lot of that is manifesting now in the last stretches of a capital build for our Center for Creativity, which is going to be next door. [The center is] specifically based on collaboration, one of the only collaborations that we know of with the Fargo school district. …So all children K-5 in the Fargo school district will come to the museum once a year: 6,000 students.

NEA: Let’s talk about You Like This and what sparked the idea for a community-curated exhibit.

KERZMAN: Well it’s something that’s been tried by a few other museums across the country….And I think actually the idea originated with our Director of Collections & Registration Mark Ryan who said, “Hey, this seems like a really cool way to engage with our audience, to try something new, to experiment a little bit and at the same time maybe focus a little bit more on our permanent collection and maybe give us an opportunity to do some education on our permanent collection.” So we sketched out a plan of how to step it out in phases and how to essentially solve the logistical issue of how we build audience input into curating an exhibition….So we grouped our collection into broad categories and then polled our audience to see what media they preferred, what time periods they preferred, what segments of art they would like to see.

We had a written component through our physical newsletter, and we did receive some people who filled out an actual paper ballot, but I would say 95 percent of the responses we got through [an online] survey. We sent that out as far and wide as it would go….[W]e didn’t place any restrictions on who in the audience would have access to that survey. Certainly we did have the biggest buy in from our local community and our direct audience …but we threw it open to everyone. Then we took the results from that initial survey, and we brought those into a small focus group of people that we call “community curators.” [This] was a really important component for me because despite this being about the power of social media and how interconnected we all are now with technology, I really wanted to have people in a room and I really wanted to have some interpersonal give and take between actual human beings. That ended up being awesome, for lack of a better term.

We had seven community curators, and we met numerous times and discussed the results of that survey. But then we also talked a little about what [it meant]: How do you curate a show and how do we adapt that task into what [the community curators] are doing? So we had this great opportunity to not only make a teachable moment but to also listen and to hear their input. We expected some fireworks, and occasionally we had some differences of opinion and, to be honest, we wanted to see some differences of opinion. We took their recommendations, and we used those to present [approximately] 100 works of art from our collection that then [we opened] to an online vote. And then the 49 “most-liked” that ended up being in the exhibition.

JOHNSTON: I came in toward the end of the meetings with the community curators, but I was really taken at how considerate they were of divergent views. So we had young blokes, you know, and funky artists, over 65 who are very passionate about art, all having very different perspectives, and yet, they gelled as a group and really were so amazingly respectful of divergent views. …So that was really an amazing kind of dynamic for the museum staff to really see.

A wall of post-it notes with comments from visitors to the You Like This exhibit.

A wall 0f post-it notes with audience feedback on the You Like This exhibit.

NEA: How did you decide how to set up the gallery space for the exhibition?

JOHNSTON: There was an interesting line in participation as far as my job as the curator here. First of all we did a couple of Powerpoint lectures on curating [for the community curators]—what does it mean, how has it evolved over time, what do some examples look like—and that helped set a little bit of a frame work….Some of the younger community curators wanted to do really different things: paint the floors, paint the ceilings, paint the walls all different kinds of colors and stripes and paper the floor and [have] music and lounge chairs and couches and rugs and all these different crazy types of things. And you know other people said, “No I want it to be quiet; I want it to be contemplative.” I just wrote down everything that I heard people say, and then asked for them to actually step back and come do the work with me…. And I think it was really interesting that they [responded], “Yes, we’ll only go so far.” As a curator with a socially engaged practice, I would’ve liked them to have come all the way into the gallery with me, laid out the work, talked about all these different things,

So what I did was….I sat with the whole list, with the layout on a piece of paper, layout of the gallery space, list of all the images, pictures of them, and we decided to lay them out in the order of the ranking—the only linear element in the entire show. We had stripes and boxes and colors of orange and blue and green. We hung it salon style; we hung it at different heights. The little labels had, obviously, the “tombstone” information, you know, artists’ dates, time, but also had comments from the online vote, which are hilarious. [Quotes such as,] “I would never have this in the museum.” We also put vinyl stencil on the wall of some really fun comments, some positive, some negative. We have the post-it note wall so people can post their opinions. Every curatorial decision that I implemented was either my interpretation of what they said or what they said they wanted. I mean they started off the conversation with “We don’t want it to look like another Plains Art Museum show,” which we loved! I broke every curatorial rule I could think of, purposefully. I didn’t let the hanging guy have a tape measure, because [works of art are] usually all hung at the same height, all very linear, you know? That was really fun in terms of how we had to adjust our normal practice to honestly engage with the idea of You Like This.

NEA: Did you continue adjusting the show after it opened?

KERZMAN: The post-it wall was basically just comments, and then we posted ballots [and] people could give either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down too. A couple of weeks ago we went through and re-ranked them based on the votes. we didn’t re-hang them…but what we did was we just wrote in their new ranking after their old ranking.

JOHNSTON: We broke a lot of rules for the institution in really, really good ways. We used the voting mechanism as a way to get our front desk people to really engage with [visitors.] And the comments on the post-it wall, I saw that, I think in Manchester, England. It really works with this shows.

NEA: Overall, what did you want the visitors to take away from seeing the exhibit?

KERZMAN: Well I think in terms of what we as an institution were going for was just to give the typical viewer [the feeling] that they’re actively participating in an art exhibition, and to expose that process as much as possible so that the process itself becomes as integral to the exhibition as the exhibition itself. So if anything that process of gathering all that input was as much on display as those 49 works of art that ended up on display.

Anecdotally, I have to tell you at the opening just about all the community curators did show up. Two of the most vocal ones, I approached them at the opening and asked them what they thought, and both ofthem basically had the same reaction, which was, “This was not at all what I thought it was going to be” [laughs] On the one hand I was like, “Did we fail? Did we not do what we needed to do?” But I don’t think that. In those conversations they didn’t say, “It’s all your fault,” I think they realized that if they really wanted to see what they wanted to see they would [curate a show themselves

JOHNSTON: I think all throughout this whole process wanted the space for disagreement, dialogue, debate, not taking it personally, not worrying about that, just letting the process take its own course and be cool with that.

NEA: What’s been most surprising to you about this process?

KERZMAN: There were a lot of really unique staff demands. In terms of what I would do for a typical exhibition, what our registrar would do for a typical exhibition, what our curator would do for a typical exhibition…. I think we all stepped out of our comfort zones, but we were all able to sleep at night knowing it was all part of the experiment….Trying to crowdsource opinion and put all this together [gave] us a sense of our audience and probably put, for lack of a better term, “regular” exhibitions into a little bit more of context for us. It was really exhilarating.

JOHNSTON: On one side you could say we’re breaking codes, we’re breaking policy, procedure, professional standards. At the same time you can say “Why not bend them, break them, see what happens as part of that?” I think some people [were] really excited about that [and] some people struggled with it, because there’s an efficiency for knowing what you’re doing. So lacking that kind of efficiency or allowing that kind of inefficiency to come through was something everyone struggled a little bit with….but it really allowed us to break some rules and feel like we were rebelling a little bit which was really, really fun.

NEA: What have you learned and how do you think it’s going to affect future exhibits?

JOHNSTON: One of the coolest things [was how] we all came together as a staff. …So you’re in with curatorial, with marketing, collections. You together come up with and facilitate a kind of message out of ideas for exhibitions instead of a lone curator in an ivory tower coming up with the one fantastic idea that is then implemented by [everyone else]. It’s a different way of functioning that we really want to embrace. It was really fun working with Kris, this great ideas guy, and Cody, whose super creative and Mark who knows everything about objects and the way things should be treated and Frank who can build anything.

KERZMAN: I’d like to think that through this process that we’ve displayed a willingness to open ourselves up as an institution and…that our audience understands that they have avenues of entry. They have ways that they can say, “Hey, I really like this,” or “I don’t really like this,” and “This is my opinion about this.” I’d like to think that [before You Like This] the museum was this unapproachable, unreachable brick building and now it’s more of a permeable more of a public-friendly, more approachable type of a place.  And I think in the back of our minds, from here on out, when we’re looking at any sort of program, any sort of exhibition, any sort of whatever, we’ll be thinking about those components.

You Like This will be on view through January 15; learn more here. And check back on the blog next week for more on Rocco’s visit to Minnesota and North Dakota!

What do you think of the practice of crowdsourcing exhibits? Let us know in the comments.