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Two iconic spaces at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) will offer innovative programming in conjunction with strategic partners in order to reposition the museum as an inspiring “third space” in Midtown to encourage creativity, exchange and connection for all Detroit residents.

ArtPlace spoke with Brad Frost, Special Assistant for Community and Economic Development & Detroit Revitalization Fellow at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA):

ARTPLACE: So, what’s the latest with the design process of the Cultural Living Room?

FROST: Given that we fully anticipated that transforming two core museum spaces would require professional support, the wisest thing we did was to “design the design” of the project. Watching that design process unfold has been truly illuminating.

One of the Cultural Living Room partners, Steelcase and their local subsidiary, National Business Solutions (NBS), were asked to support the execution of the design process given their vast experience in developing high use “third spaces” in the community. In particular, we knew we needed deep engagement from diverse audiences to ensure that the transformation will work to meet the needs of the DIA team and our target end-users.

The design process, moreover, would help set clear strategic decisions for transforming these spaces. It is not an easy process though. This is especially the case when you have professionals with long-standing expectations for how the space is supposed to work.

Of course, this is exactly why we wanted to host Design Charrette sessions with staff and community stakeholders. They would help sort out areas of alignment and where we needed our leadership to reconcile some of those competing demands. They would also allow the diverse perspectives to be heard equally without letting any one person drive the whole vision.

We learned from the design charrette that simple questions can drive profoundly different responses. But that creative process will also help lead to a truly transformed space and experience.

Consider just a sampling of strategic questions that were raised from the charrette for Kresge Court:

· Will the space be fixed or flexible?
· If it remains flexible, how will the space be different from today?
· Should it be considered an indoor or outdoor space?
· How will the space programming – existing and future – be addressed?
· Who is the target audience? Age group? Members or nonmembers?
· What will make this a creative exchange? How will you measure vibrancy and inspiration?

Those questions, and their answers, helped us drive towards a more complete solution that marries Kresge court’s potential as a community living room with its storied past.

ARTPLACE: Have there been any tests or pilot efforts for the Cultural Living Room?

FROST: In fact, yes.  Although we can’t fully know how the space will be used once we’ve redesigned it, we did a cool partnership recently with the Ross Leadership Institute from the University of Michigan.  Over a dozen Detroit-based arts and culture organizations joined in on a workshop with these students to help build awareness and context for entrepreneurship in the arts sector in Detroit. The experience also allowed Ross students to experience the museum in a way that blends its core assets with its ability to convene diverse stakeholders in Detroit – from Whole Foods to ArtsCorps Detroit. This one experience helped show how Kresge Court could be a regional center of creative exchange.

What was also cool was that we linked up with one of the local Food Truck vendors to provide lunch, something we hope to utilize more of when we launch the outdoor programming in the summer of 2013.

ARTPLACE: Is there a new challenge that engaging in creative placemaking presents for you, your organization and the artists who work with you?  Are there new skills required?

FROST: There are a host of challenges and skills required to see this work through.

At the DIA, our Director Graham Beal has called for the “democratization” of Kresge Court. Broadly, we take that to mean moving the space for our more traditional audiences into an integral connecting point for all of our users. Additionally, it should encourage new audiences that are either seeking or are open to the invitation to connect with the museum to come in, participate and feel welcomed.

This creates conflicts though too. Some relate to how things have ‘always been done before’ in the space. Others fear that they will lose the chance to entertain important patrons.  Strategically, Kresge Court has long been used as a flex space, which made it great for serving diverse events – from formal performances to table dinners for 200 people to an open space for our annual Gala.  But, the opportunity to truly create a true ‘living room’ experience has forced the museum to rethink its rental program and its capacity in a new fixed arrangement.  These decisions were so key that they were elevated to the Board level to ensure we had leadership support at all levels of the organization.

So, instead of annual fundraisers for 200 people, and theater style seating for every performance, the space will still need to be multi-purpose. But, instead of tailoring to diverse audience and event needs, we will now tailor the room to a more permanent aesthetic and ask that those audiences and events rethink how to fit into the living room. Instead of a sit-down service, how about a strolling dinner?  Instead of a grand performance, how can we best position performances in the room?

Put another way, our Director has asked us to think of this as akin to the “Roman Forum” where all citizens could convene for work, connecting and to do all the things one might do in the natural rhythms of adult life.

Questions regarding who has access to this iconic space, and who controls/decides what takes place there, have come to the forefront as a result of the Cultural Living Room project.  Long-standing arrangements and assumptions are being challenged. The second phase of the design charrette deliberately incorporated members of the museum’s community, and these people had different ideas regarding appropriate use of the space. From 24-hour access to a butterfly aviary, from a space for yoga to contemporary touchable art, the community voiced its opinions for what would draw people into the space. Most of these ideas press the boundaries of the museum’s comfort zone. And, although many may never see the light of day in Kresge Court, if they are to be given credence and genuinely considered for implementation, then the museum will be expanding the parameters of decision making and authority to a new degree.

For new skills, this democratization will require community building and partnership tools. It demands negotiation, cooperation, and the ability to work across all sorts of diversity in order to attract new audiences while still meeting the needs of existing ones. The vision to ascertain who our audiences even are (Art is for Everyone, right?) and implement new uses for the space creates logistical headaches for some while expanding the horizons for others.

In every challenge lies the core opportunity.

The Cultural Living room stretches the boundaries of how the museum works. It focuses on new audiences, on being locally and outwardly oriented. It’s an inclusive endeavor that demands a level of experimentation that is unusual in a place that plans major shows and exhibitions years in advance.  It will encourage new partnerships and innovative programming and outreach efforts.

Achieving those aims and recognizing the difficult change process that entails (without alienating any of our patrons or the needs of our staff) will continue to challenge us.

Developing those skills too, will also support the museum’s core goals to build community, provide social engagement, have audiences foster a relationship with the DIA, to share knowledge and expertise, embody excellences and integrity, and to inspire curiosity and creativity. It’s all a new way of deepening our mission to create experiences that help visitors find personal meaning in art.

No doubt the “democratization” of Kresge Court is a challenge.

A worthy one.

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