Cultural Living Room

Detroit Institute of Arts

Funding Received: 2012
Detroit, MI
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
May 13, 2013

This April, ArtPlace caught up with Bradford Frost, Special Assistant for Community and Economic Development & Detroit Revitalization Fellow at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) about the DIA’s ArtPlace project, The Cultural Living Room. This month we talked about the lessons learned from starting the construction phase of the project.

ARTPLACE: You must be getting very excited about the changes coming to fruition. Tell us about the feedback you’re getting?

FROST: It’s really very exciting, but it’s interesting how our various audiences have reacted. The DIA has one of the most robust facebook pages of any major institution in the country—over 215,000 ‘friends’ and counting. In a typical facebook post, we hover between 50-150 likes, 10 shares and a handful of comments.

You can image our great delight to our many followers’ reactions to this recent post:

“Today is the last day to see Kresge Court before it gets a facelift! The initiative, which is supported by ArtPlaceAmerica, will provide the community with refreshed, comfortable spaces to relax, drink, eat, have a meeting, or hang out with friends. The makeover will include new seating, ambient lighting, easy technology access for visitors, new dining options, and more. The transformed space will reopen June 14.

Stay tuned for updates!”

To say we were unprepared for the 1392 likes, 153 comments and 253 shares would be an understatement. It speaks to the devotion and ardor so many visitors have for this space. Overwhelmingly, a lot of anxiety came through from followers that the DIA was going to change the space for the worse. Exchanges like this were typical:

Sandra Dziedziula: "I was just there the other day --- PLEASE don't mess it up, just make it nicer, if that's possible!! it's a GEM of detroit!"

Detroit Institute of Arts: "We promise not to mess it up, and can guarantee that it will be nicer!"

Detroit Institute of Arts: "No fears everyone... the walls and architectural features of Kresge Court will remain as is. We're enhancing the beauty of the space with furniture and a new layout that will encourage visitors to linger and enjoy!"

Lisa Perry Rathbun: "Eager to see that!"

Every change process will have its detractors. So, we’re comfortable with some feedback from users that won’t love the design or wish it was “just how it was.”

What struck me most of all though in the picture was how few people were inside the space. Not one of the comments reacted to the severe underutilization of Kresge Court in its current configuration. This glorious space, from the very beginning of my thinking about Kresge Court as a potential ‘Cultural Living Room’ has remained hampered by incredibly light foot-traffic.

Whatever the results of the changes, I think the proof will be in the renewed sense of place—that this space is always open to the public during regular hours, and a great space to recharge during your visit or come for a quick bite or meeting with friends. The other proof will be about use—the museum is alive with visitors and all of our ‘friends’ – online and off. We hope they feel a renewed invitation into this space, and act on it!

It will be a fascinating comparison when we reopen in June. I think our visitors will truly love it—I really do.

ARTPLACE: How’s the construction phase coming along?

FROST: Dynamic. Stressful. Awesome. The whole process is complex with new power, lighting, audio, and furniture upgrades; there are a host of activities, including cleaning the space. But, with ceilings as high as 65 feet, it’s a site to see. The lift alone is impressive! Just take a look at some of these images.

april inline 1 Hanging wire for new light fixtures 65 feet into the sky[/caption]

april inline 2 Panoramic of the room. Just past the lift is a special “cage” to prevent dust from spreading when adding floor plugs.[/caption]

ARTPLACE: What have you learned about the design process that you would share with others in the field?

FROST: Whatever you do, try to test how expansive your scope is from the beginning. Commit to an early and thoughtful conversation about the full breadth of the project. For the DIA, we started with furniture and technology access, but have since doubled and tripled down our investment by working to across the institution to enhance the whole experience in the room—from elevated food service and coffees, to new lighting, communal events and programs, and even a new brand mark specific to the new space. We’ve had every meeting you could imagine—from dust mitigation to protect the artwork to warehouse visits to explore metal structures for design inspiration to refrigeration and cooling to a ‘cultural concierge’ to staff the space.

It’s comprehensive and will make for a truly integrated and holistic visitor experience.

A fuller appreciation of this design domino effect would have helped in some key areas, like retaining an architect to complement the interior designer up front. That resource would have ensured construction processes were less ambiguous.

Of course, even the best laid plans can’t account for everything that transpires during a project of this type. The design process still got the job done and the DIA team has performed remarkably pulling all of those disparate elements together. The challenge was that, like dominos, items kept falling into the project—it made the process more difficult and ambiguous at times.

In the end, though, the design process was an extraordinarily valuable experience. The museum learned from the public its aspirations and acquired such a range of insight and expertise to ensure the room is as vibrant and dynamic as possible for the renewed visitor experience.

I would certainly encourage others in the field to adapt design into their projects as a way to build momentum and invigorate change strategies. The process has allowed an institution like the DIA to participate meaningfully in the creative placemaking field.