The Portland Art Museum Transforms an Exhibition Into a Social Platform

Ziba Design helped create the massive exhibition, “China Design Now,” which is reaching beyond museum walls and spidering into Portland, Oregon. For the last few weeks, Steve McCallion has reported on how the experience transformed the city.

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Portland Art Museum brought China Design Now, the London Victoria & Albert exhibit, to Portland to attract a new audience and elevate Portland’s cultural discourse to a global level. The exhibition documents China’s impressive advancement in graphics, fashion and design over the last 20 years. In my last post I discussed how the Portland Art Museum used story and metaphor to make the exhibition even more meaningful. The museum’s most significant innovation, however, is not in the content of the exhibition–it’s the museum experience itself.

China Design Now

A China Design Now display at the Portland International Airport welcomes visitors and offers a glimpse of exhibit artifacts and design elements

To attract and engage an increasingly complex and distracted audience and to broaden the cultural dialog throughout the city, the Portland Art Museum redefined the museum experience as a platform. Envisioning the museum as platform is a radical but necessary departure. It shifts the museum’s role as curator and owner of content to moderator of a global conversation that invites real participation from the community. To succeed, the museum borrowed from social networking platforms and created a dynamic ecosystem that invites different levels of involvement from three types of people–creators, commentators and consumers.

jelly generation

Goldsmith Gallery’s “Jelly Generation” features China’s new and colorful culture with a concentrated eye on the past. Photographer: Andy Davidhazy


Inviting commentators and consumers to view a show and comment is what the museum had always done. The museum’s bold step was reaching out to creators–Portland’s creative community–and inviting them to make their own exhibitions and events exploring the creative revolution in China as part of the total China Design Now exhibition experience. Portland’s creative culture jumped at the chance to extend the discourse beyond the walls of the museum and at times, beyond the museum’s comfort zone.

inspiration china

The White Box’s inaugural exhibit, “Inspiration China” displays contemporary student creations inspired by Chinese artifacts. Art: Mackenzie Schubert “Temple for a Disabled Sculpture” 2009 Paper, Wood, The Internet. Photographer: Andy Davidhazy.

Community-created exhibitions and events include an inspiring collection of more than 100 portraits made by Wieden + Kennedy’s Shanghai office displayed in the W + K Portland headquarters ; an exhibition at the Goldsmith Gallery exploring China’s Jelly Generation and how the youth of China are redefining what it means to be Chinese; University of Oregon in Portland’s “Inspiration China” exhibit at The White Box; a performance art piece in the Ace Hotel where a young group of Chinese street artists perform in its lobby; and even an underground comic anthology from China, “Special Comics,” filled with experimental Chinese comic art that the museum may never have shown in its halls.

China Design Now map

Extensions of the Portland Art Museum’s show extend across the city

To extend community involvement online, the museum created where sixteen different blog editors from the community contribute content and editorial perspectives daily. They are not museum employees, but people from the community that have insight into China and/or design, and are willing to contribute to the discourse for free.

While including potentially offensive underground comics and “amateur” art may make some traditional museum-goers uncomfortable, the museum believes that inviting people to be part of the experience is necessary to remain relevant and worth the risk.

China Design Now

Portland-based Wieden + Kennedy showcases mixed-medium portraits that Shanghai office members created of each other. Photo: Courtesy of Wieden + Kennedy

The Portland Art Museum’s experiment will last until the end of the year. Creating an experience platform for people to contribute content is a dramatic shift for an institution that is used to controlling the door. It’s also a wake-up call for businesses that have been slow to adopt platform thinking. Companies, non-profits and cultural institutions alike need to understand how to create meaningful platforms if they are interested in attracting and engaging a new generation of consumers. Like other social platforms, the biggest challenge for the museum will be finding a sustainable business model. In December, I will sit down with Brian Ferriso, executive director of the Portland Art Museum, and John Jay, executive creative director of Wieden + Kennedy and key contributor to the China Design Now experience to review this experiment, discuss measures of success and how this will affect the museum moving forward.

Related: Steve McCallion’s posts on China Design Now


Read Steve McCallion’s blog Beyond the Widget
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McCallion is a skilled innovation architect and brand
strategist. His groundbreaking work includes 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. 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 proprietary research
and design planning methodologies.


About the author

Steve McCallion, executive creative director at design and innovation consultancy Ziba Design, is a skilled innovation architect and brand strategist. His groundbreaking work includes 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