Curating with the Brooklyn community
SHELLEY BERNSTEIN, VICE DIRECTOR FOR DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT AND TECHNOLOGY, BROOKLYN MUSEUM
Brooklyn Museum is a frontrunner in involving museum audiences in novel ways and challenging the boundaries between museum practices and the public they are aimed at. In 2012, the Museum once again took community engagement to new levels of depth and impact with GO – a project that invited the Brooklyn community of artists and art lovers to participate in curating an exhibition of contemporary art.
From crowd-curation to community engagement
Over the years many people have asked me if we’d do Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition again – the exhibition we made in 2008, testing the assertion that a diverse crowd is often wiser at making decisions than expert individuals as put forth in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of the Crowds.*1 My general response has been to say that we wouldn’t do a repeat; that our answer would be to take the lessons we learned and do something different. Four years later, our answer was named GO: a community-curated open studio project. GO asked Brooklyn-based artists to open their studios, so that the public could take part in deciding which artists to feature in an exhibition opening at Brooklyn Museum in December 2012.
Some things about GO were similar to Click! – namely that they were both Brooklyn-focused initiatives where audience participation resulted in an exhibition at the institution – but this is where the similarities end. Click! was much more about the “crowd” and, in that, we were specifically looking at the wisdom of a group of people unknown to each other creating something and exploring the end result of that aggregated data. GO was much more people focused; it spotlighted community and aimed to foster personal interaction throughout the process to come to an end result that would be a collaborative effort between artists, the public and the Museum’s curatorial staff. The web was used to help connect everyone and drive these ideas home, but it was the people who fueled this project, not the technology and this is a very important distinction.
Inspirations for GO
When Sharon Matt Atkins, Managing Curator of Exhibitions at Brooklyn Museum*2, and I first started discussing the project that would become GO, one of our sources of inspiration was a map that the Brooklyn Arts Council had created of the artists in its Registry. What the BAC map showed was a stunning amount of artists living in Brooklyn and, for us, it became a reason and a symbol for moving forward with our own project.
The Brooklyn Arts Council Registry had a big hand in helping us visualize how many artists were working in Brooklyn, but it was my first visit to ArtPrize*3 that really galvanized my thoughts about what a next-generation community-curated process could be. ArtPrize is a public art competition held every year in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The concept is simple: any artist in the world can bring one work to Grand Rapids and display it in a local venue. Over a two-week period, the community looks at the work and votes for what they like; the winners get a monetary prize.
When you visit ArtPrize, you’ll find almost every place opens their doors to show art. Venues are what you would expect – bookstores, cafes, restaurants, galleries, exhibition centers – but there are also surprises – the dog shelter, a hairdressing salon, the Salvation Army, and local churches all serve as ArtPrize venues. As a visitor, it feels as if the entire city opens its doors and this openness fosters an incredible dialogue. Voting is just one part of the experience and not something every participant does, but art is everywhere and people talk about it. Simply put, I had never seen more quality engagement taking place at any arts-related event, and it left me wondering what would happen if we did something similar in Brooklyn.
After my first visit to ArtPrize in 2010, Sharon and I started discussing what it would mean for the Brooklyn Museum to host a project like this. Knowing how Brooklyn and Grand Rapids differ greatly, we could easily see what worked in one location might not be easily replicated in another, but we also felt that the participation model would need to be adjusted to suit the Museum’s goals. How could we create a structure that would be less about voting and more about curation and collaboration? If we managed that task, how could we appropriately scale the project to span an area equivalent to the fourth largest city in the United States? The following year, the two of us travelled to ArtPrize together and we used the trip to really think through some of the participation models and what we thought might be the right fit for Brooklyn; we were also able to talk to ArtPrize staff about these ideas and were struck by how incredibly open they were to our finding inspiration in their project and making modifications that fit Brooklyn.*4
Digital as enabler, not an end in itself
During GO, artists opened their studios and, as part of the guidelines, had to be present during the open studio weekend to meet with visitors. The public was asked to create profiles online, check in at studios and then nominate artists for inclusion into a group show at the Museum. Curators used the same profile structure to open up the process of creating the resulting exhibition. For the GO project, Brooklyn Museum’s web team produced a full-featured website where people could register as voters, browse artist profiles and save studios to their itinerary. 
GO was about getting out into the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and seeing where art making is taking place, talking to artists, discovering spaces in the local communities that participating voters never had access to before. People used web and mobile technology to find the studios, but the project was about actually seeing art – in person, not online – and meeting artists prior to making up one’s own mind about it. GO focused on what’s happening within the communities of Brooklyn, fostering personal interaction and thinking about the Museum differently; more as a facilitator and a hub for interaction.*5
The power of physical presence
If Brooklyn were its own city, it would be the fourth largest in the United States. With a land mass of 73 square miles, 2 and half million people and 67 neighborhoods, managing a borough-wide project like GO was a challenge. Each one of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods are different – constituencies are unique, the urban fabric varies widely – in other words, what works in one area may not work in another. A big part of what made GO work was a distributed network of local neighborhood coordinators; 22 coordinators working locally within their neighborhoods to reach artists and their communities. 
When interviewing applicants for these positions, we were looking for individuals who had a deep understanding of their neighborhoods, an enthusiasm for the project, and a good handle on outreach methods they thought would work for their areas. For all the social media out there, Brooklyn is still very much a bulletin-board-borough and more often than not these candidates came in with a healthy dose of reality when it came to how far online communications could go; most of them talked about the need for on the ground communication, cafe-to-cafe flyering and person-to-person outreach.*6
Participation in person
One similarity between ArtPrize and GO is a reliance on people to participate in person, not online. Digital tools may be used to help plan your visit and capture your interest in an artist’s work, but the primary focus is seeing art and being physically present to do so. At ArtPrize, participants have to confirm their registration in-person in order to vote. We transferred that feature to GO, urging participants to go to studios and record their visit using the unique number that each artist had been assigned. And they were only able to nominate artists from the list of studios they visited. Both models encouraged visitors to weigh-in on works of art after they had seen them in person.
However, the participation model of GO also differed from that of ArtPrize which is based on a straight up/down vote into a top ten, then a re-vote within that subset to determine the top artists. For GO, we asked participants to “check-in” at studios instead of voting right there on the spot. If they wanted to nominate artists for the group show, they needed to “check-in” to at least five studios to be eligible to nominate three from the list of places they visited. In this, we wanted to shift the engagement model to encourage participants to think about making choices, much like our curators have to do on a daily basis. By removing the “vote” from the event itself, it was our hope that participants would experience the weekend and let their thoughts marinate a bit before finalizing their nominations.
Getting beyond the “like” button
As we developed the concept for GO, many people mistakenly thought that it was all about social media, that a quick “like” would decide what would happen during the open studio weekend. But GO was designed for a specific type of participation that moved beyond “like” button mentality to foster something much deeper.
During GO we asked participants to work pretty hard; they had to register, log their travels by “checking in” with unique codes, and see at least five studios in order to be eligible to nominate three artists. That may seem like a fairly involved and complicated process, but we believed firmly that these thresholds would engender deeper participation. However, it also raised concerns within the community of participating artists. Because of this participation model, we got several comments from artists like this one, “I reviewed what it takes to nominate someone and I really don’t think that ‘regular’ people will actually go through with it all.”
But we had good reasons to make people jump through all these hoops: Requiring registration set a high bar, but it gave all participants a way to identify themselves within the scope of the project. In early phases, profiles allowed participants to recognize each other in the studio, but in later stages of the project (nominations, curator visits) it became a tool to continue the dialogue online in a way that retained the feel of those open doors. The electronic “check-in” at studios was another step in the process, but one that went a long way to ensure that works of art were seen in person. Artists’ online profiles were just meant as teasers to help visitors get interested in the work and then later remember what they saw, but we didn’t want people judging work online where works of art are difficult to represent. Requiring a visit to at least five studios in order to nominate three was another high bar, but it allowed participants to think more like curators. They had to make a choice, and by removing the nomination process from the open studio weekend, we hoped to encourage participants to be more reflective in their choices. 
Basically, participants couldn’t just sit at home and vote online; and they couldn’t just go to their friend’s studio and vote on the spot. We wanted to shift the dialogue from the spontaneous “like” to careful consideration among many options. The like button is easy, and while we didn’t think participation in GO should be difficult, we did think we needed to move away from the gold standard Facebook has forced upon us, to something more powerful that served the needs of participants specifically taking part in this project.*7
We didn’t have a Facebook page for GO for many of the same reasons outlined here. During GO, we wanted to encourage participants toward a dialogue that took place in the real world, and most importantly, in the studio. While social sharing was enabled throughout the GO website and we did encourage participants to share GO via their social networks and email lists, we believed that reaching out to friends and supporters and asking them personally to stop by the studio would go a long way toward encouraging studio visitation and fostering deeper connections.
Open studio weekend participation
During the GO open studio weekend, which took place 8-9 September 2012, artists opened their spaces in 46 of Brooklyn’s 67 neighborhoods with a scope that was both wide and surprising. We had anticipated studios would be concentrated in high-traffic neighborhoods, but while those areas did have the most registrations, it was not an overwhelming majority of them. The project turned out to facilitate artists who don’t have access to the more structured open studios that happen every year in high density neighborhoods. This was not something we expected, but something we were incredibly proud of.
Before the open studio weekend we released our own map showing the 1861 registered artists – across 46 of Brooklyn’s 67 neighborhoods – who opened their studios for GO. During the six weeks of artist registration, we watched this map populate with excitement. Did it represent every artist in Brooklyn? Of course not, but for us it presented a powerful visualization showing where much of the art-making is taking place throughout the Borough.
During the GO open studio weekend, we saw incredibly deep participation metrics in just about anything that could be measured. Let’s look at the numbers, what they mean, and how we got to the estimated totals.
Statistics about visitation rates for the open studio weekend
- Estimated visitors: 18,000
- Estimated studio visits: 147,000
- Total participating artists: 1,708
- Total neighborhoods with participating artists: 44
- Total registered voters: 10,319
- Total voters who checked in to at least 1 studio: 6,106
- Total voters who checked in to at least 5 studios and are therefore eligible to nominate: 4,929
- Total studio check ins: 48,918Average number of studios visited per participant: 8Gennemsnitligt antal atelierer besøgt per deltager: 8
Among artists surveyed informally throughout the weekend by GO staff, only 1/3 of visitors were visibly using mobile devices to check in to studios or were seen writing down artist codes. Based on this, we took the total voters who checked in to at least 1 studio (6,106) as a baseline and used this to project an estimated attendance of 18,000. The same holds true for studios visited; 48,924 check-ins would correlate to approximately 147,000 studio visits. These estimates, however, are conservative. As one indicator, many families were visiting studios together, but children under the age of 18 could not register per the voter guidelines; as another, we saw groups of people where only one person was recording visitation. Traffic was dispersed throughout the borough, but even double tornado warnings and transportation issues in Brooklyn could not keep people from visiting artists during GO.
From the feedback we heard during the open studio weekend and comments on the website in the days and weeks after, a few things were ringing loud and clear. Many people reported that visitors to their studios were unlike those for other open studio events; visitors were engaged and focused. Artist feedback indicated a high level of discussion happening in the studio. Most artists said there was a mix of traffic – 30% invited friends, 70% new visitors. This mix changed from neighborhood to neighborhood, but overall we heard artists gained a new audience for their work.
Celebrating creativity and community
GO opened on a Target First Saturday, a popular monthly event at Brooklyn Museum with free admission to the current exhibitions and programs.  Given the democratic nature of the project, we thought this would be a fitting way to get the show off to the right start. The 1,708 artists who had participated in the open studio weekend had – through the dedicated activity of the Brooklyn community – been narrowed down to the top 10 nominated artists. Subsequently, two Brooklyn Museum curators had visited each of these artists in their studios and through a tough selection process chosen 5 of them to exhibit at the Museum.8 While the resulting exhibition could only show works by 5 artists, it was just as much staged as an event to bring together the entire community that had participated in GO process – all the artists who had opened their studios, all the Brooklyners that had registered, checked in, met with and nominated artists, all the volunteers that had helped coordinate the borough-wide project – to celebrate the tremendous creativity and engagement taking place on the Brooklyn art scene.
This article is a rewritten version of Shelley Bernstein’s blogposts in connection with the GO project, originally published on www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere and edited for Sharing is Caring in collaboration with Merete Sanderhoff.
*4 The staff at ArtPrize were incredibly helpful throughout the process of conceptualizing GO. They went so far as to discuss what worked for them and what didn’t. We talked extensively about their data metrics and we were able to take those lessons and insights and adapt them for our own participation model. After our open studio weekend, we shared our lessons learned back to ArtPrize, so they, in turn, could learn from our experiences.
*5 Deutsche Bank supported GO through its Art & Technology program. In their own participation, they wanted to support an initiative that thought broadly about community and sought to enable all residents of Brooklyn access to both the process and the technology that would be used throughout. Read more about how we achieved this thanks to local partnerships: http://gobrooklynart.tumblr.com/post/29552893069/partnering-with-nycha-for-go
*6 Many of the coordinators are artist themselves who, because they were working on GO, could not open their own studios during our open studio weekend; all of them felt the project was so important that they wanted to support other artists by working on it rather than showing in it.
*7 This topic is also treated by Valtysson & Holdgaard in their article p. 221 ff.
*8 Read much more about the curatorial process behind choosing the 5 artists for the GO exhibition in Sharon Matt Atkins’ blogposts, for instance: www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2012/11/28/making-choices-to-create-an-exhibition/, Related posts by Sharon can be found following the links at the bottom of the webpage.