WolfBrown: On Our Minds

…And Then It Hits You

October 12th, 2011

You are rushing through a New York subway tunnel to catch the B train but are stopped dead in your tracks by a billboard:

A man sits transfixed in an empty subway car, a stark outline against the orange seats. Through the car’s open doors, you see that a woman, stark in black satin, streams along the platform, trailing a wake of churning ocean. Above him is the familiar signage of the platform – and this message:

Vollmond[1] struck him at Atlantic Terminal.
Where did BAM hit you? Join us on Facebook.

A little further up the passage way another sign, stark in black and white, reads:

It can happen at a show. In the subway.
It can happen three days later,
When you are crossing the street.
It can happen anywhere, really.
The beauty is, it is different for everybody.
BAM may be theater, dance, music, art, film.
But that moment of impact, that’s why we’re here.
And at that moment, when it happens, you know it.

This is Brooklyn Academy of Music’s new marketing campaign – one that trades not on the pre-show hype and advance reviews, but on the lasting, unbeckoned power of a great performances – or visual revelations such as can occur facing a painting, the painstaking tesserae of a mosaic laid out centuries ago, or the solemn depths of the reflecting pools at the 9/11 memorial. Art as the sustained release of beauty, insight, longing, or hope.

These posters pack a wallop (on two occasions, other travelers have run into me, all of us staring, making sense, suddenly united by remembering). But the idea behind these images is even more arresting. That man, transfixed on the subway car, should make every researcher or evaluator re-think his or her toolbox. A post-performance survey or a post-test conducted during the last session of a residency will get at what registers right there, right then. But these tools can’t capture what incubates – what goes “BAM” three days (or two years) later. Nor can they x-ray the radiating map of associations over time. What we need are tools, along with ways to use them, that recognize and illuminate the long, associative lines of aesthetic experience – and re-experience.

[1] Vollmond is a dance-theater piece by Pina Bausch featured in BAM’s 2010 season. It features dancers and torrents of water that cascade, flow, and drench.

These days, my mind has been wandering towards issues around capacity building. As arts groups struggle to increase outreach, expand programs and audience-base, and create a sustainable organizational structure for the future,  frequently cited challenges boil down to shortages of time, people, and money. Additionally, as Alan suggested in our last issue, another significant challenge many organizations face is a lack good information about their audience (i.e., research). Even if they get that information, they often find themselves  limited in their ability to transform research results into actionable initiatives.

However, things are not as bleak as they may appear. Applying creative and imaginative thinking can help arts groups overcome these barriers with innovative solutions.  Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s short piece in the Teachers College Record defines the difference and interconnectedness of creativity and imagination in assisting innovative thinking: “Creativity is the ability to use resources in new, clever, or unpredictable ways to solve a specific problem,” whereas imagination is the skill that allows for solutions to bubble up by  inventing a new space, or lens, through which to view the problem. Imagination, they argue, plays a larger role in problem solving, but both are important for their different approaches. I have been learning about arts groups’ inventive audience engagement strategies, and have seen many overcome the staff/time/money challenges. Here are two that I would like to share with you – one more creative, the other more imaginative (as defined by Thomas and Brown):

  • Creative approach: The Brooklyn Museum wanted to record and share visitors’ reactions to “The Black List” photography exhibition, and didn’t have the time or staff to record and edit videos. Instead, they set up two webcams at a simple kiosk so visitors could record their responses directly to the museum’s YouTube page without any staff involvement.
  • Imaginative approach: South Coast Repertory Theatre (SCR) was concerned about the dearth of theatre criticism, and so imagined an environment in which criticism flourished,  and where audience members were encouraged to think critically (i.e., become “citizen critics”). They recruited “Facebook Ambassadors” (audience and community members who are particularly savvy Facebook users) who would post thoughtful comments about an SCR performance to their Facebook page. They then went one step further and invited local bloggers to attend and write reviews on their blogs.


Both examples demonstrate employing creativity and imagination to develop innovative engagement tactics. What are you seeing out in the field that is novel in regards to engagement activities? Please share your thoughts and comments by clicking on the link below.

Also see A New Culture of Learning for a full-length work on this subject by Thomas and Brown.


This year, two major granting efforts have been launched for creative placemaking programs: Our Town, the NEA’s newest design initiative, and ArtPlace, a unique consortium of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions. Both programs support a diverse range of projects, such as design, public art, community engagement and revitalization, but a common thread is some form of public-private partnership (Creative Placemaking, a white paper published by the NEA, details numerous examples of these public, private, and community partnerships that use the arts as catalyst for improving public space). There are obvious advantages to operating under the auspices of a government entity, particularly when it comes to urban design and public art projects. However, as of late I am increasingly aware of several organizations that operate outside the purview of public agencies— grassroots style, if you will— whose projects are stunning examples of creative placemaking and ephemeral urban interventions.

The work of San Francisco-based design studio Rebar is “rooted in the belief that human interaction, community and a sense of wonder form the basis of the good life.” Fusing art, design, and ecology, the PARK(ing) project— perhaps one of Rebar’s better-known— has inspired a worldwide annual PARK(ing) Day during which parking spaces are temporarily transformed into parks. Operating under the belief that public art is not only a noun, but “just as often a verb,” this studio has re-conceptualized civic engagement and the role it plays in creative placemaking. The Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF), also of San Francisco, works to inspire “art, community and civic participation” and supports a diverse portfolio of projects that require “human interaction to complete the piece.” Although BRAF occasionally partners with various city agencies, it is a private 501(c)(3) that operates under a unique intersection between “inclusive participation, community input and city collaboration,” which allows them to remain true to their roots. Their installations serve as conduits for engagement; interactivity is key. For example, the Composting Contraption, part of BRAF’s Scrap Eden program, is a “kinetic artwork” that doubles as an educational tool used to engage communities in composting practices.

This is not just a San Francisco phenomenon– the Public Art Fund, Creative Time, Project for Public Spaces, ARTblocks, and City Repair are all exemplary organizations that work to imbue their local urban landscapes with increased community interaction, inspirational public spaces, and thought-provoking installations. I invite you to join the discussion – how do your communities inspire and support public, private, and grassroots creative placemaking?


Kyle Marinshaw, Impact Assessment Program Manager, joined WolfBrown’s San Francisco office in the Fall of 2011tm

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