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Film: We Are Throwing A Party And Everyone’s Invited!

This presentation on developing audiences at Minneapolis Institute of Art was given at MuseumNext Indianapolis on 25th September 2016, by Katie Hill, Audience Engagement Specialist at Mia. In her presentation Katie talks about the centennial birthday of the museum, and how this was used to raise public awareness of the permanent collection and bring art into the community in new and surprising ways.

Katie: So you may notice, coming down the aisles, some party hats. I did promise party hats would be provided so we are throwing a party and everyone is invited, so thank you for playing. Feel free to wear your hats throughout the day.

My name’s Katie Hill. I’m here from the Minneapolis Institute of Art and I’m going to talk to you about our 100 year birthday celebration, which is an ambitious initiative that’s museum-wide, all in honour of celebrating 100 years of art, and looking forward into the next 100 years.

So Minneapolis Institute of Art – who are we? We’re a free encyclopaedic art museum in Minneapolis with approximately 90,000 objects in the collection and last fiscal year we served an audience of 750,000 visitors. Our goal is to inspire wonder through the power of art, and we strive to do this by enriching the community, by preserving, collecting and making accessible outstanding works of art from the world’s diverse cultures. How many of you can say your museum mission by heart? Just kidding. But we do see ourselves as a classic museum with a twist. This year a local newspaper called us the people’s museum, and that was the largest compliment we could possibly receive.

So, what’s happening in 2015? Well, 100 years ago we opened our doors and you only turn 100 once so let’s celebrate. Rather than focussing on the past and having more traditional centennial celebration where we do 100 best of, looking back at 100 years, one big celebration, that’s it, we really wanted to leverage this moment in time as an opportunity to raise broader awareness about the museum and grow our audience, taking advantage of this moment to really honour the foundation of the museum but also use it as a platform to set the stage for what to expect from Mia for the next 100 years. So we took the exciting challenge of a year-long birthday celebration with a theme that the museum is always surprising.

So what does the year-long celebration look like? Well, of course, it starts with the art so we had some excellent special exhibitions this year, including the [Hapsburgs] releasing masterpieces from Europe’s greatest dynasty, Leonardo da Vinci, the Codex Leicester and the Creative Mind, Delacroix Influence, which opens next month and Rise of Modern Art From Cézanne to Van Gogh, and a sort of surprise travelling exhibition of work by contemporary artists, Mark Mothersbaugh, someone you may all know from his musical background in founding the band, Divo, and also composing music for Wes Anderson films, but he’s also an incredibly prolific contemporary artists and well, this give you any idea of what that show was like, it was surprising.

And in addition to special exhibitions we also had the opportunity to bring in some extra heavy hitters for our audience, for free, on view, surprise masterpiece paintings all by themselves in one gallery, right off the main lobby, for a viewing experience unlike no other. So leveraging this birthday year and also as a result of some, you could say horse trading with other museums, we are able to bring three masterpieces starting with Vermeer’s ‘Woman Reading a Letter in Blue’, followed by Raphael’s ‘Madonna with the Pinks’, and currently on view, van Gogh ‘Irises’, so those are free and accessible to anyone who walks in the doors of the museum.

And the best part about these was that we really did not tell anyone what they were until they were on view, installed for everyone to see so even the staff didn’t know it was coming, which is a really hard secret to keep internally. And so, of course, we’re not just celebrating this year but we’re looking forward to the next 100 years, so continuing this core content of art gifts we had some extra special birthday gifts all year long, including a collection of American modernist paintings from Myron Kunin’s collection that were on a yearlong long-term loan for our audience to view for free as well, and a very impressive Mary Griggs Burke collection of Japanese art that was gifted to the museum this year, which boosted the museum’s Japanese collection to be one of the largest and best outside of Japan, so really looking forward to the next 100 years and what we have to offer, and our permanent collection has been a goal this year as well.

So, of course it starts with the art. That is the core content. It’s the heart of what we do, but because of this excellent content, we’re able to play around the edges with programming and these birthday surprises, the icing on the cake, if you will. The 52 surprises ranged dramatically in scope, scale, budget and reach, and a major theme throughout has been bringing art to the community in new and surprising ways, whether that’s on-site, off-site, online in real life and everything in-between.

So I’m going to run through some examples of the last, I guess around 39 this week, surprises and I figured I could just show you, show, not tell, show you what we’re doing and then talk a little bit about communications and some other storytelling methods we’re using this year, and then see if you all have questions. I do have some sort of boring questions slides at the end that I can throw up if you don’t have your own questions, but I think it’s more fun when we have a conversation.

So obviously you can’t celebrate a birthday without cake so we kicked off the birthday year with a special weekend in January where we asked ten bakeries to design cakes that were inspired by works of art from the collection, and put them on view throughout the weekend in sort of temporary exhibition in the lobby. Turns out cakes don’t love to be, like, hermetically sealed in cases but again, you don’t know what you don’t know and we’d never done this before so that really set us up for a whole year of learning and experimenting and opportunity.

We also filled that weekend with surprise pop-up performances from local choirs and theatre groups to just really set the tone of ‘expect the unexpected this year from Mia’. And in an attempt to really embrace something that’s very Minnesotan, very Minneapolis, our lovely freezing winters, we wanted to create something, a public spectacle of sorts that was ephemeral and meaningful and engaging for all ages and all kinds, and also something that highlighted our growing Asian art collection so we, of course, commissioned a 60ft giant ice dragon sculpture that was originally planned to appear on a frozen lake in the centre of Minneapolis.

Well, for whatever reason, this January was too warm to put a very heavy ice sculpture on the lake for people to see so we actually had to change our plans and move it right on land as if it were coming out of the lake – again, more opportunities for learning and you don’t know what you don’t know, so this was a really fun popular project that lasted basically until it melted and it was one of our biggest hits on social media with our birthday year engagement so people loved seeing the dragon, taking pictures of the dragon, and really were becoming aware that we’re doing things differently this year and celebrating something special.

The other benefit of surprise programming is that nobody knows what you’re doing until you do it, so nobody knew it was supposed to be on the lake originally and that was a nice perk. Another surprising way we wanted to get the collection physically outside of the walls of the museum but obviously our registers and curators would not allow such a thing ever, so we were able to make four high-end reproductions of sort of fan favourite paintings from the collection, and these were so high-end that we had our visual resources do a 3D scan of the frames and then they were printed, and a famer framed and painted the stretched canvas that was a printed high resolution image, that you really wanted it to feel authentic and exciting, make you do a double-take but also the label said it was obviously a fake so make sure everyone’s on the same page.

So these popped up all over Minneapolis for one month, changing locations halfway through the month and they were accompanied by label [unintelligible 00:23:32] like you would see in a museum, and Saturdays we actually activated the paintings with our [docence] and guides volunteering to stand in these random locations with these paintings and talk to the general public about art, which they all seemed to have a really great time with and so this is our van Gogh outside of the public library downtown in Minneapolis.

We had Rembrandt’s ‘Lucrecia’ hanging out of [Bobby] and Steve’s Auto World, a favourite gas station and also downtown, ‘Green Stacks’ by Monet, that popped up in the Stone Arch Bridge Park, which is sort of an iconic area of Minneapolis, and we couldn’t resist playing with Soutine’s ‘Carcass of Beef’ outside of a butcher shop so we really had a lot of fun with these and the public did as well, just really unexpected to find art outside of your US bank or your whatever else we could find, whoever else would partner with us to do this project.

Another very, very sort of ambitious endeavour that we undertook was to wrap three water towers with works of art from the collection, so if you guys want to do this, talk to me later, it’s really hard, but it was also very, very satisfying. These were up all summer. They went up in May and they’re coming down this week, but we really wanted to surprise and delight all those people who are on a daily commute somewhere, and you just have that stretch of highway and all you see is the water tower – maybe it’s a Minnesota thing; I think it could be a universal experience, and what if you’re getting your road rage and then you look up and see van Gogh, might feel better or Stella [unintelligible 00:25:28] off the highway and beautiful Japanese [unintelligible] as well. So that was a project that had a lot of learning opportunities involving city councils and learning about oxidisation of water towers and how to clean that in order to adhere fancy vinyl and all kinds of fun stuff so happy to chat later about that.

And then this one is by far my favourite – I mean I love them all – but my favourite because, and also even more challenging than water towers was this crapart spectacle so we engaged with a crapartist, yes, that’s a thing, to recreate the museum’s beloved van Gogh ‘Olive Cheese Painting’ out of a field that is in the pathway of Minneapolis St Paul airport flight path. So this can only really be seen from the air or with a drone, but again there are regulations with that we learned about too, so and this was a summer-long progressive experience of planting and tending and adjusting for weather, and replanting and re-tending and working with a very charismatic artist who, as we all know if you’ve worked with artists, can be lots of fun and challenging. So this is by far one of the larger scale surprises that had even more opportunities for learning as we went along.

And we also really wanted to engage with the artist community so last spring we put out an RFP to the artists in our community, asking them to pitch surprise project ideas that could be done onsite or offsite, that celebrates the museum’s 100th birthday in a surprising way with a theme of birthday surprise, and we received about 50 entries and reviewed with an internal jury of sorts involving curatorial, as well as audience engagement staff, and selected six that we could actually implement feasibly, and that we thought best fit the theme so this first one, artist Erin Dysart transformed our fountain court space in a very surprising way using a disco ball, some spotlights and a motion sensor, so typically that space is used as a bit of an ante chamber for receptions before or after a lecture. It’s right outside of our auditorium but for two months, when you’d walk into this space, after about three second delay the lights would turn off and the disco ball would turn on and start moving and you’d have a 15-second surprise party all to yourself, so that was very exciting and lots of fun.

One of the other artist surprise projects that really got at the core of this idea of turning 100, and birthday celebrations, and making wishes, was a project by Ben [Maran] who put together, found footage of people blowing out candles from age 1 to 100 in just a really sweet short video that we producted in surprising locations throughout the museum this year and I think it’s called ‘100 Years of Wishing’. Look it up. It’s just absolutely beautiful and was a perfect fit for our birthday celebration.

And then one other surprise project, well, you can’t have a birthday without balloons so artist [Alysa Bogis] created basically the ultimate birthday experience in conjunction with an all-night festival called ‘Northern Spark’ in Minneapolis so museums open late, we have an artist project that we would typically do so she had pitched this specifically for that night, to inflate a hot air balloon inside, not with hot air but with cold air, and fill it with twinkling LED helium balloons and then inviting the public to come inside and just hang out and enjoy the experience. It was about as birthday as you could get.

We’ve also been working with different community arts groups to do surprises so the art [unintelligible 00:29:40] projects are a group of artists who take ice fishing houses and transform them into artist experiences and normally pop up in a little village in February, again celebrating winter, so we were really excited to bring them onto our campus in our courtyard to pop up for a weekend in September when the weather is warm and engage with a whole new audience.

And we have a longstanding 100-year relationship with the Minneapolis Parks Group Board so the museum was founded on park land. We wanted to celebrate this 100 year relationship and so we worked with some of the gardeners to plant specific gardens inspired by works of art in the collection so another nice surprise out in the community.

And one of my favourite community arts projects was embracing the annual Mayday parade in Minneapolis which is giant paper mache puppets kind of social justice driven, very, very engaged community so we were able to create a paper mache Chihuly like our sunburst to be featured in the parade this year and that was created at community arts classes that we host in the parks throughout the city by the public so was a very, very inclusive fun surprise project.

We also had some exhibition related surprises so we did a pop-up, I don’t like the word flash mob but a pop-up flash mob at the Mall of America that was a Viennese waltz in celebration of our Hapsburg show. Also on opening day of the Hapsburgs we offered free horse-drawn carriage rides around the museum and park, another learning opportunity; it was about 20 below that day – very, very cold, but we still sold out 43 rides with the exception of, like, two groups wimping out because it was too cold, so people were still into it despite the freezing cold weather and they were just gorgeous royal carriages in the exhibition so that’s what we were kind of playing with there. And then the Mark Mothersbaugh exhibition, the artist himself gave a surprise performance for everyone on opening night on one of his instruments that he’s built and sang some new songs and just surprised everyone, which was wonderful.

We’ve also done some special collaborations with the bike community and the design community with these art bikes, just another way to get a broader reach of awareness with very active Minneapolis community, as well as design community nationally, and they really picked up there’s a Stella, a Monet and one that is designed after our [Totra], which is like a beautiful silver car that looks like it’s from the future so a lot of fun there. And of course we wanted to give everyone the opportunity to help us to give a gift to the museum, a birthday gift of art, of public art so when we acquired this Mitoraj sculpture called ‘Eros’, we invited donations of all shapes and sizes to help us crowd fund this new accession in honour of the birthday year.

So how are we communicating all of this? Well, of course we built a special website because that’s what we do. That’s served as a placeholder for all of the birthday surprises but also an opportunity to archive the year, and social media has been a huge driver in spreading the word and having our audience actually participate back with us and sharing their experiences with the birthday surprises.

And there are other sort of birthday year storytelling initiatives, including our 100 videos project where our media and technology team has really upped their game in video production this year and has been documenting a lot of the surprises and happenings around the museum in short, sweet videos that really capture the essence of what the museum can be and will be for the future.

One of our writers created a nice short and sweet [unintelligible 00:33:44] Mia blog series that comes out every week, featuring an image he found in the archives that was surprising, and a nice little story of what might have been happening that day so I’ll let that one … you guys can go read that one, it’s really good, and then we just came up with birthday year publication; rather than doing a catalogue sort of accounting for 100 best works or 100 years of history, we decided to show and not tell what it means to inspire wonder through the power of art and so we reached out to authors, artists, photographers, essayists, graphic novelists, as well as our internal curatorial staff to tell stories about wonder and art, and that just came out this week, that was the sixth surprise so check it out, it’s very cool.

And going off our membership discussion from the previous presentation we’re also rolled out our new free membership model this year, so it’s been a busy one. We’ve also had a new brand come out so all kinds of excitement in the birthday year. Thank you so much. Does anyone have any questions? Well, then I’ll stop. Feel free to ask me later.

Thank you so much.

This presentation on developing audiences at Minneapolis Institute of Art was given at the MuseumNext conference in Indianapolis on 25th September 2016, by Katie Hill, Audience Engagement Specialist at Mia.

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