Still Water helps Colby turn visitors into makers

Colby Museum RenderingWhen it reopens on July 13 after a major renovation, the Colby College Museum will become the largest art museum in Maine. Front and center for the opening will be the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion, a monumental space that calls out for innovative programming.

Colby’s Sharon Corwin and Patricia King invited Still Water to brainstorm with their staff about how to make the white cube a destination for today’s media-savvy creators.

The Colby Museum’s staff met with Still Water Co-Director Jon Ippolito on January 29 to envision how software and hardware might introduce play and surprise into visitors’ experience of the new building. To do so means breaking the churchly atmosphere most visitors associate with museums in favor of more creative use of space, whether participatory activities, sound and video installations, or VJ-led techno-raves.

While it has the potential to turn passive viewers into active contributors, participatory art raises issues most museums are not prepared to confront:

  • How do you prime the pump so there is already some “participation” to see at the opening?
  • How do you set constraints so as to generate something fresh rather than hackneyed?
  • How do you shape the evolution of the project so there are reasons to return throughout the run of the show to see how the work has evolved?
  • How do you make room for other participatory projects in the same space, following John Cage’s dictum of “interpenetration without obstruction”?

The group cited numerous works that tackle these concerns in different ways. These included conceptual and environmental works such as Meg Webster’s Stick Spiral and Lawrence Weiner’s works in Public Freehold, as well as works by local artists such as John Bell’s Variable Museum.

One of the most exciting approaches to exploiting the museum’s lobby and its future programming recognized that students that already have access to smartphones, and mobile technology can be more powerful and practical than permanent technology fixtures. Offering an app that students can load and share on their own devices makes it easier for the museum to stay current with software and programming rather than buying, maintaining, and preserving a soon-to-be obsolete fleet of devices itself.

Mobile devices also make it easier for the museum to extend outside of its architectural footprint to student dorms and other unusual places on campus. The group cited Smith College’s recent installation of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing in a Mathematics department hallway.

The new Digital Curation graduate program offered through the University of Maine at Orono will offer excellent synergies, including internships at Colby. And now that the Smithsonian’s tech-savvy Frank Goodyear and Anne Collins Goodyear have been named Co-Directors of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the Maine art scene is poised to explode with new opportunities for young and old to get involved in art.

Examples cited ranged from complex media installations such as Jake Barton’s work with the 9/11 memorial to simple ideas like SoulPancake’s urban ball pit.

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