A director of engagement: ten years ago hardly any art museum had one. Now, in some form, they all do. In an era of branding, you must fully commit to maintaining connections with your visitors and donors. The bottom line is that you've got to move product.
For an art museum, the product is an experience, and not an intuitively engaging one. Art doesn't leap off the walls and grab you like Game of Thrones does. So museums build programming for all sorts of audiences; they print kid guides with scavenger hunts for their exhibitions, host artist talks and film screenings—whatever they think will get people in the door and give them a positive art experience.
This fall the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill is banding all of those public programs together as the community-building experiment ART&, which runs into early January. A section of former gallery space now provides a free pop-up coffee bar (ten a.m. and two p.m. daily), a lounge, and a programming space. The Ackland has commissioned area artists Derek Toomes, Heather Gordon, and Stacy Lynn Waddell to create site-specific murals on one wall. And the museum extends its hours to nine p.m. during ART&, on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and second Fridays. It's a bold, brilliant move, and it seems to be working.
"We're trying to experiment with what a museum can be, putting front and center the idea that museums are a community hub," says public programs manager Allison Portnow Lathrop, the Ackland's equivalent to a director of engagement. "We're very lucky to be straight in the middle of that Venn diagram of campus and local communities."
Lathrop had heard a desire expressed by visitors and donors for a hangout area in the museum; she noticed that every time a bench moved in the building, a student with a laptop would be flopped on it ten minutes later. Without an auditorium or theater, she was always shoehorning audiences into awkward spaces. Why not see both problems as the same opportunity?
"We had been doing all our programming in an ad hoc setup throughout the galleries," Lathrop says. "Talks with a folding projector screen and music that you had to see while peering around columns. So at the practical level, it's definitely been called for."
ART& occupies two small rooms right off the main lobby, as well as one large gallery. Neither of the rooms has enough wall space to hang work effectively; one feels like a hallway, and the other is a tight alcove often used for video projections. Lathrop decided to utilize that architecture instead of fighting it.
The walls of the hallway gallery have been painted with chalkboard paint and surfaced with magnetic board, so visitors can respond to weekly questions posed by the museum staff. The alcove gallery dispenses the coffee. The larger gallery is a swing space—a lounge with seating and work areas that can easily be converted into a little theater or auditorium.
Photographer Burk Uzzle recently gave an artist talk in ART& to a capacity crowd. Zinesboro turned the lounge into a zine-making workshop, and The Carrborators turned it into a club. The Ackland Film Forum is projecting its fall series there, "Politics of Place," on most Thursday nights.
Just as significantly, students have discovered ART& to be a good spot to get some reading done, and some faculty prefer it to their offices for informal meetings. Free coffee from local roasters like Gray Squirrel Coffee Co. helps.
"If we want the community to be there, making the Ackland their own space, then we need them to help build it," Lathrop says. "It's by and for the community as much as we can make it."
Scent of the Pine, You Know How I Feel (Sept. 10–Dec. 4, North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, www.ncmuseumofhistory.org) This exhibit shows how depictions of the mountain, Piedmont, and coastal regions of North Carolina have changed over two centuries in the hands of seventy-three painters: Impressionists, realists, folk artists, futurists, postmodernists, and more. —David Klein
Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation (Sept. 17–June 2017, 21c Museum Hotel, Durham, www.21cmuseumhotels.com/durham) Works by internationally known artists such as Ebony G. Patterson and Nick Cave show how election-season issues manifest in clothing and portraiture. Many local artists are included, like Beverly McIver, Stacy Lynn Waddell, and André Leon Gray. —Chris Vitiello
The Small Museum of Folk Art Grand Opening (Sept. 25, 4–8 p.m., Small Museum of Folk Art, Pittsboro, www.smallmuseumfolkart.org) In its opening party, a new museum unveils the folk art collection of retired UNC professor Jim Massey, which includes hundreds of pieces by the likes of Vollis Simpson and Jimmy Lee Sudduth. —Brian Howe
Click! Triangle Photography Festival (Oct. 1–30, various venues, Triangle-wide, www.clicktrianglephoto.org) This free, monthlong photography extravaganza spreads more than seventy exhibits and community events in a wide variety of Triangle museums and galleries; its keynotes are photomontage pioneer Jerry Uelsmann and South African activist Zanele Muholi. —Brian Howe
Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Cars from the 1930s and '40s (Oct. 1–Jan. 15, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, www.ncartmuseum.org) Automotive design meets Art Deco in masterful machines. The elegant, undulating curves on fancifully named vintage cars—Silver Arrow, Stout Scarab, Thunderbolt—beg to be caressed, but remember: no touching. —David Klein
Thomas Sayre: White Gold (Oct. 7–Jan. 22, CAM Raleigh, Raleigh, www.whitegoldcam.org) Thomas Sayre explores cotton's Southern legacy in mural panels and cast-concrete sculptures commissioned for CAM. Known for his large-scale earthworks, Sayre is a founding principal at the architecture firm Clearscapes, which designed the museum. —Chris Vitiello
Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation (Oct. 29–April 9, City of Raleigh Museum, Raleigh, www.cityofraleighmuseum.org) Piercing pop-culture stereotypes, this traveling Smithsonian show of artifacts, photos, and interactive exhibits explores three hundred years of Indian people's contributions to the nation, as railroad builders, farmers, civil rights advocates, entrepreneurs, and, finally, Americans. —Brian Howe
NCMA Park Celebration (Sunday, Nov. 6, 1–7 p.m., North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, www.ncartmuseum.org) See how all the unsightly construction on NCMA's campus has paid off in this public opening of its new outdoor spaces, with art workshops, music, food trucks, and an early look at Amanda Parer's huge, incandescent rabbits, which will only stay at Museum Park for ten days. —Brian Howe
The Mobile: Composition in Motion (Nov. 9–19, The Carrack Modern Art, Durham, www.thecarrack.org) Gaze up at mobiles juried from an open call for submissions while rubbing elbows with the artists who made them in this kid-friendly show.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Social Studies"