Cultural Living Room

Detroit Institute of Arts

Funding Received: 2012
Detroit, MI
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
October 22, 2012

The Cultural Living Room project will update two iconic spaces at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to offer innovative programming in conjunction with strategic partners. DIA's goal is repositioning the museum as an inspiring “third space” in Midtown to encourage creativity, exchange and connection for all Detroit residents.

Recently, ArtPlace touched base again with Bradford Frost, Special Assistant for Community and Economic Development & Detroit Revitalization Fellow at DIA about DIA’s ArtPlace project, The Cultural Living Room. This month’s topics covered key role players outside the museum and other insights into good partnerships. We also get a glimpse of some cool DIA lawn programming that took places as part of several pre-planned efforts that are being used as pilot opportunities for the overall Cultural Living Room project.

ARTPLACE: Who outside your organization has been key to your ability to move your initiative forward?

FROST: One of the core distinctions to the Cultural Living Room Project has been the explicit effort to bring diverse stakeholders and powerful partners to help realize the transformation of Kresge Court and the front lawn into more vibrant centers of the community.

For example, Maud Lyon, Executive Director of the Cultural Alliance for Southeastern Michigan first sent me the ArtPlace application. Her encouragement was key. She asked us to see the ArtPlace opportunity as way to build a unique platform for linking diverse cultural sector partners across Detroit to interact strategically and innovatively with the museum.

Sue Mosey, the energetic steward of Midtown Detroit Inc., our district’s economic development organization (and recipient of ArtPlace support for the Sugar Hill Arts District in 2011) was a critical collaborator in the design of the project. Sue has brought enormous credibility in forging Midtown’s placemaking strategy in ways large and small for over two decades. She provides sage counsel and ensures we pass the ‘smell test’ with our efforts to break down the “marble walls” of the museum. We rely on Sue to truly extend the invitation to our local residents, students and professionals to access the museum and reimagine their relationship to it from an occasional user to a frequent visitor.

Next up, we turned to Matt Clayson and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center to deliberately position our ArtPlace grant with the strongest emerging talent sector in Detroit. Unfolding at the intersection of art, design, and other creative based industries, this segment is accelerating demand in Midtown and in various Detroit neighborhoods. They also tend to lead highly autonomous and diverse work/life/living/playing balances. It’s a cohort that is hard to pin down for good reasons, but the independent exchange and creative inspiration potential of linking this demographic to the museum and reintroducing the museum’s value was a natural fit for Matt’s team and the DIA.

All of these local Detroit partners are key to the DIA’s continued democratization process.

Finally, in the early stages, I reached out to Steelcase to see if there was some potential partnership opportunity. Steelcase is at the forefront of third space development where work and life interact. They have a core competency at bridging those ever blurring lines between a 9-5 cubicle approach to productivity and our common yearning to leverage the freedom technology affords us to work and connect wherever our hearts desire. Just look at Steelcase’s Interconnected Workplace framework and one image from their catalogue that speaks to this new paradigm:

Steelcase’s core competency showcases the powerful ways in which space design proves essential to the success of any place. The Steelcase team introduced us to NBS Solutions to offer free design services and enormous discounts on prospective furnishings. We were also able to access this group’s unique ability to facilitate large-group and multi-stakeholder design processes, which they executed to great effect at our recent Design Charrettes.

We put a lot of faith into our community partnership and design teams. All of these partners were champions of the ArtPlace opportunity from the opening of our application. We have since added Patrick Thompson Design, a Detroit based design firm with experience across residential and commercial spaces to round out the team and to provide a critical Detroit voice to the design aesthetic.

Each of these partners play critical roles in the design, development, and execution of our ArtPlace experiment. Even my own role as a Detroit Revitalization Fellow, which is an “Outsider/Insider” 2-year commitment by the museum (led and managed by Wayne State University) was perhaps the initial domino that encouraged the museum to reconsider how it can meaningfully re-connect with local community and economic development opportunities without abandoning in any way its core mission to provided visitors’ experiences that create personal meaning with art.

Indeed, as the museum has wrestled with these changes and the boundaries of that mission with its Cultural Living Room project, it has benefited as well from the significant support and encouragement from all of its key partners. It’s not all seamless by any means, but rather it epitomizes that creative dynamism that allows all the stakeholders at the table to stretch and forge together an innovative space design and district wide experience that can influence how Midtown evolves for years to come.

ARTPLACE: Are there secrets to good partnerships?

FROST: Our partners are diverse and strategic in their make-up.

We asked each partner to equally represent their own self-interests and to serve as advocates for community based interests in their decisions related to the design, development and execution of the Cultural Living Room project.

The secret to a great partner then lies in our ability to identify our mutual self-interest, embrace our distinctive expertise and then ask where the intersection lies with those assets? This will hopefully allow us to blend our capabilities to best create a vibrant place for the whole community to access and explore as part of their daily life in Detroit.

That process requires patience. It requires a willingness to be flexible and a need to know how to negotiate differences or challenges as they arise.

Ultimately, though, the core secret is about having a shared mission.

ARTPLACE: What about buy-in with internal stakeholders in a large institution like the DIA?

FROST: That’s clearly another dimension is in play here with respect to partnerships.
The DIA has hundreds of volunteers and employees on hand. So, in a project like The Cultural Living Room, partnerships must be forged internally and in ways that run across traditional silos using varied cross-functional and multi-departmental strategies.

So, it should be no surprise that when the work aims to transform two iconic museum spaces, it’s bound to run into roadblocks.

The Cultural Living Room represents significant change for the museum. In many cases as a result, partnerships have been easier to realize with our eternal stakeholders. “New work” and new ways of utilizing this historic and pristine campus is in many ways an easier sell with those outside groups. Many of them have long been eager to realize new possibilities with the museum. As guardians and stewards of the public trust, it’s understandable that the core museum team has been more nuanced in their approach and, at times, much more cautious in how to see through this change strategy.

A great example is with our rental program. This revenue generating portion of the museum is being asked to rethink what spaces it can use for outside groups that have historically relied on Kresge Court for private dinners. With reduced flexibility for larger groups, news spaces need to be identified and potentially less revenue will be secured. At the highest levels, while there is a core commitment to the Cultural Living Room project and its general aims, these changes adversely affect some core museum patrons. Those relationships can’t be taken for granted.

Lots of those issues impact people’s jobs and basic assumptions about core museum functions and spaces. It’s a difficult process. As we develop these spaces, however, we rely on consistent and deep engagement across all layers of the project stakeholders – staff, formal partners, and community members – to share the in the co-creation process and ensure everyone remains connected to the change.

Ultimately, all of these allies to the project will help realize transformative opportunities. Those partners that have reservations to the change play a key role in the process. Bridging these elements and building momentum for the project along the way is what the design and development process for the Cultural Living Room is for. We’re very excited about what these partnerships will ultimately yield in terms of fostering new district and regional dynamism for the museum and its local audiences.

ARTPLACE: Any other cool happenings lately?

FROST: One stands out. DlectriCity was a recent event led by our partner Sue Mosey and her team at Midtown Detroit Inc. This weekend long event is a great district wide effort and the DIA had several exterior exhibitions. Although not exclusively part of The Cultural Living Room, we use projects likes these to benchmark and learn about event driven and art driven placemaking efforts here in Detroit. It’s a process we’re eager to replicate with our full launch next spring.

This installation was on our front lawn, home of the future lawn portions of the Cultural Living Room project.