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How the Portland Art Museum Is Bringing Art to the People

Ziba Design is part of the massive exhibition "China Design Now" that's reaching beyond museum walls and throughout Portland, Oregon. For the next few weeks, Steve McCallion will report on how the experience transforms the city.

The Portland Art Museum in Oregon is innovating its way through the new economy. Its latest exhibition, China Design Now, which opened October 10th, uses the principles of crowdsourcing and experience design to shift the museum’s role from curator to moderator and to put the museum in the center of a global conversation.

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In this new economy, everyone is searching for ways to attract more customers. Museums are no different. The traditional model of relying on contributions from a handful of large patrons is becoming increasingly challenging. Long-time patrons are contributing less, memberships are down, and admissions are falling, forcing museums to figure out how to live off the long tail--a fragmented population with a limitless number of entertainment and education options. Rather than becoming a victim of this changing market, the Portland Art Museum decided to innovate.

Founded in 1892, the museum is one of the oldest institutions in the country--so it's impressive that the museum is digging deep in its effort to attract and engage new audiences. Its first priority was Portland’s thriving design community. We were excited to be asked by Portland Art Museum’s Executive Director, Brian Ferriso, to help his team create a new museum experience.

Portland’s design community is a DIY, social networking culture that's not used to passive experiences. From custom bikes to craft beers, they are physical learners who expect to be involved in the discourse. They are more likely to spend time on Etsy selling their latest creations than in a museum studying van Gogh. To connect with this elusive audience, the museum broke the rules of content and control. In the process, they redefined the museum experience.

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First, the museum needed relevant content. Ferriso discovered China Design Now, the Victoria & Albert exhibition featuring the progression of design in China over the last 20 years. The exhibition’s focus on Chinese design was a departure for the museum--but necessary in order to pique the interest of Portland’s design community. Portland has been a trade partner with China since the Gold Rush, and strong relationships in computer technology, apparel, and emerging “green” technologies continue to thrive.

While some people in Portland were familiar with the advancements China has made in design and innovation, research indicated that the ‘Made in China’ stereotype persisted. In reality, China has undergone a dynamic cultural transformation in just 20 years, and is at the crossroads of its isolationist past and a global future fueled by creativity. The sheer scope and willingness of China’s fashion designers, graphic designers, and architects to experiment and take risks would be inspiring and enlightening to Portland’s design community. For Chinese youth and designers, China Design Now is a coming out party. The exhibition would help shift preconceived notions from China being an imitator to a recognition that China is actually an innovator, and would create a global conversation.

(Read about the recent Beijing Design Week here)

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The biggest issue, however, was the museum experience itself. To connect with Portland’s DIY design culture, the Portland Art Museum did something radical--it invited the community to be part of the exhibition. Rather than focusing on attracting people to the museum, it decided to bring the museum to the people. It reached out to its audience to create content and contribute to the experience: The Ace Hotel showcased an exhibit of Chinese street art, retailer Office PDX + Froelick Gallery had a pop-up store and panel discussion, the Goldsmith Gallery ran a Jelly Generation exhibition, the University of Oregon created an “Inspiration China" exhibit with pieces that riff off ancient Chinese artifacts, and the Floating World Comics curated a Special Underground Comix exhibit from China. The museum relinquished control of the experience but maintained its mission of community involvement and discourse. The exhibition is envisioned as a hub and spoke experience, with events that engage institutions and businesses throughout the city. Layers of interpretation include film, architecture, art, social science, fashion, and food.

Over the next few weeks, the Portland Art Museum will be hosting a citywide discussion about China, design, and innovation--and testing the limits of a museum’s role in a community dialogue. I’ll be blogging about how the museum re-invented the museum experience and about the experience itself. I'll also try to determine measures for the exhibit’s success. And, in the spirit of the exhibition, you, too, can join the conversation online.

Read Steve McCallion's blog Beyond the Widget
Browse more blogs by our Expert Designers

Steve McCallion is a skilled innovation architect and brand strategist with a rare balance of design sensibility and strategic thinking. He has led groundbreaking work including redefining Umpqua Bank's role as an anchor for community prosperity, creating Sirius Satellite Radio's award-winning experience for the "iPod fatigued" and working with real estate developers Gerding Edlen to create more meaningful neighborhoods. His other clients include Xerox, Black & Decker, Whirlpool, FedEx, McDonald's, Coleman, Kenwood and Compaq.

Steve's primary charge is to foster Ziba's consumer experience practice. He founded the company's award-winning Design Research and Planning practice group which has developed many proprietary research and design planning methodologies that have helped numerous clients understand the essence of their customers, win design awards, obtain patents and succeed in the market.

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