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Creating a playful space for all at Buffalo AKG Art Museum

Jason Povlotsky and Stavros Mavrakis of Quarterre design studio share their experience of supporting Buffalo AKG Art Museum and the Lego Foundation on the development of the museum’s Creative Commons space – a stunning new visitor experience in Buffalo, New York.

In June 2023, the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) opened the doors of its new Creative Commons space to the world for the first time. Part of a $230m expansion and transformation project, Creative Commons is billed as a “safe and joyful environment” that helps visitors to make meaningful connections to art, ideas and each other. Creative Commons is an impressive example of what can be achieved when museum’s let creativity and play take charge.

Developed in partnership with the LEGO Foundation, Creative Commons brought together a melting pot of creative minds that included the museum’s Learning & Creativity team; digital design agency, Kiss the Frog; and design studio, Quarterre. The latter was responsible for the spatial design and installations within the new space, having previously worked with LEGO and the LEGO Foundation on a number of projects within the organisation’s new Global Headquarters, in Billund, Denmark.

Quarterre Director, Jason Povlotsky, says, “We have a long history of working with LEGO Foundation and previously with LEGO House, supporting them on projects that have drawn on our expertise in design, user-experience and play design. We also work across a number of different industries and sectors from product and spatial design, mobility and brand extension.

“The LEGO Foundation’s principles are to support ‘Learning Through Play’ and that was at the core of the brief when we were invited to pitch to work on Creative Commons. Our remit wasn’t to simply appeal to the kind of people who always visit art galleries; instead it was to make Creative Commons as open and engaging as possible for everyone and anyone.”

Quarterre’s Lead Designer, Stavros Mavrakis adds, “Creative Commons is a free space that is all about how you connect people and bring them together to feel part of a community – not just a visitor. It’s also about stimulating thought and encouraging creativity. You go there to play.”

A combination of art, technology and hands-on interaction, Creative Commons showcases the very best of learning through play. The intention of the space is to inspire children of 4+ to connect with art and, just as importantly, each other.

Creating an inclusive and playful space with a sprinkling of LEGO magic

The brief for Creative Commons was clear in its insistence on providing an environment that appealed to visitors of all backgrounds, identities and ability levels. As a multigenerational learning and play space it incorporates a LEGO build station, a free build area, a digital drawing station and a magnetic wall, as well as a “Living Display” that toys with the idea of perception through a number of interactive activities. The aim was to allow people to have fun with and create their own art while engaging with the existing AKG art collection. In doing so, these experiences support both learning and wellbeing for all who visit.

Jason comments, “Accessibility is essential to Creative Commons. We wanted to ensure that whoever walked through the door of the gallery would feel included and welcome to enjoy the experience.”

Given the involvement of LEGO as a philanthropic partner of the fine art museum, it is hardly surprising that a particular emphasis was placed on “meaningful, iterative, actively engaging and socially interactive experiences”. However, turning that brief into a reality required careful planning and a great deal of expertise from the Quarterre team and Kiss the Frog. Jason says,

“We wanted to bring some of that LEGO magic to the table – as we have done in our previous work with them. In this instance, that didn’t involve the usual LEGO kit you’d expect to buy in a shop, instead we wanted to use LEGO as the raw materials for people to impose their own artistic creativity.”

Stavros adds, “One of the most interesting but challenging aspects of this project was combining some of the foundational principles of LEGO’s learning tools with the influences of the art around us in the gallery.”

Working closely with the Kiss the Frog team on installations such as Draw Together stations, a Create, Scan & Share tool and wall-mounted screens, Quarterre aimed to deliver a space that liberated visitors. Just as importantly, the installations encourage visitors to see things differently.

Whether that’s playing with mirrors, lenses and lighting, or contrasting analogue constructions with digital reproductions, young visitors are empowered to have fun with perspective and interpretation – an approach that will no doubt help them gain greater enjoyment from AKG’s wider collection in the future.

Flexible play and evolving spaces

Another interesting aspect of Creative Commons is that the brief from AKG’s Learning and Creativity team was to ensure that the space had the flexibility to be changed and manipulated in the future. Rather than create static installations and a rigid structure to the experiences, Stavros suggests that the museum team wanted to reserve the ability to change the experiences as they learn more about visitor interactions in the future:

“AKG may wish to trial new activities or incorporate new materials into the space over the coming years. We needed to help develop a space that is almost like a living organism, one that can develop and grow over time.”

Jason is also at pains to point out that interactivity at Creative Commons doesn’t resemble the kinds of craft activities one might typically expect in a child-friendly museum space:

“There are rooms nearby that offer this kind of creative play, of course. But the play experience that we were asked to develop was all about creating emotional and intellectual responses – rather than leaving with a ‘craft item’ in hand.

“There are also touchpoints to the collections elsewhere in the gallery, via slides in the oversized kaleidoscope, in the pool of shapes or on the magnetic wall, for example.”

In the absence of the ability to test in situ (the ongoing renovation at the gallery made this too difficult to facilitate) Jason and his team instead underwent rigorous off-site prototyping on the activities themselves. Jason explains,

“This process helped us to whittle down to the strongest installations that resonated with people and hit the requirements from Charlie Garling and the AKG team. However, because the space was inherently designed with flexibility in mind, changes could (and have) been made after fabrication.”

Asked to summarise the nature of the project, Stavros says, “I think what we have created is a playful experience that offers much more than a stylised representation of a museum collection. The interactive elements all give visitors many ideas and thoughts to take away. That may encourage them to reflect on art, play and collaboration in new ways in the future.”

Jason adds, “What would be really fascinating for us in the future would be to see how those Creative Commons experiences resonate with visitors long after they have left. Because that’s what we hope to have achieved . . . real, genuine success is about what people learn and think about as a result of this playful art experience.”

“Our long relationship with LEGO has reinforced the importance of changing people’s mindset, using the power of play and this was our intention with the Creative Commons.”

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