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Enriching the Arts Experience

With grants from The Heinz Endowments, five local cultural organizations are experimenting with ways to more actively involve audiences in their visiting experiences.

Photos: Carnegie Museum of Art’s architectural charette gave high school and college students the opportunity to work alongside professional architects and sample the design experience from beginning to end.


“The initiative’s funded projects are trying to get away from the ‘talking head’ kind of thing and much more into the experiential process.” -Lynne Conner, University of Pittsburgh





Maggie Matela, a 17-year-old Avonworth High School graduate, recently faced a daunting challenge: designing both a kindergarten and a public amphitheater on a Second Avenue site overlooking the riverfront in Hazelwood. The assignment came as part of an architectural learning forum held this summer at Carnegie Museum of Art.

For Matela, the forum—called a “charette,” or a design brainstorming session—marked a chance to sample the design experience from beginning to end. “I really liked the charette,” says Matela, who will begin studying industrial design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn this fall. “It proved useful seeing how professional people work and how the thought processes evolve.”

For Museum of Art staff, the charette opened a new door on how to help museum visitors shape their experiences when they visit. The museum is not alone, however, in its strong desire to have its audiences take ownership of their visits. The Andy Warhol Museum, City Theater, The Pittsburgh Ballet and The Pittsburgh Symphony are all just as eager to achieve the same goal.

Enter The Heinz Endowments Arts Experience Initiative. The initiative has given each of the five institutions two-year, $50,000 grants to experiment with ways to get cultural arts participants more involved in the exhibitions and events they attend. The ultimate goal: to change how they view their “customers” and to deeply engage their audiences in the subject matter.

Janet Sarbaugh, director of The Heinz Endowments’ Arts & Culture Program, says, “Our planning process led us to believe we should be supporting projects that encourage cultural audiences to be more actively involved in the venue they are attending. So we set aside some funds to experiment with like-minded institutions interested in delving into this concept.”

“ The initiative’s funded projects are trying to get away from the ‘talking head’ kind of thing and much more into the experiential process. But it takes money, time, and the willingness to fail,” says Lynne Conner, a professor of theater and history at the University of Pittsburgh, who is also an expert on audience engagement and the principal investigator for the initiative.

The Museum of Art’s charette, which focused on the exhibition Michael Maltzan: Alternate Ground, brought together five teams of local high school and college students as well as professional architects from Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. Each team was given a local urban site and asked to consider how they would incorporate two unrelated types of buildings on it. Their work sessions took place in the Museum of Art’s Hall of Sculpture, where other museum visitors could view their sketches and models and hear the students’ final presentations.

At The Andy Warhol Museum, the staff is using their funding to revise the museum’s signage and transform several corridors to create an easier-to-navigate experience as well as one that encourages more discussion of exhibitions. For example, during the exhibition Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, one of the hallways held a photocopier that visitors could use to “transform their everyday” just like Warhol did with his Time Capsules collection. Visitors could photocopy items in their purses and pockets and display them in the museum beside Warhol’s collectibles.

City Theater is using its grant money to fund and market discussion panels called “Text and Context” sessions, writing workshops, and lectures related to its plays, says Lisa Remby, the theater’s marketing director. Recently, the theater had a panel of Frank Lloyd Wright fellows speak about the famous architect in connection with the theater’s production Work Song: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright.

“The ‘Text and Context’ sessions help us enhance the experience of coming to the play. The more you know about the author and background, the more you get out of the play itself,” Remby says.

For its part, the Pittsburgh Symphony has experimented with several projects, the most controversial being setting up two screens that project written messages during concert downtimes. A screen might give context about the show’s second half or a particular song before it begins, explains Robert Moir, the symphony’s vice president of artistic planning. There are also regular “talk-back sessions” when members of the audience can stay afterward to talk about the music. “We hope to provide a forum where audience members can extend the concert experience for another hour,” Moir says.

At the Pittsburgh Ballet, the staff is using The Heinz Endowments funds to enhance some of its existing programs and create others. Ballet patrons can look behind the scenes with the “Family Point” program prior to a Saturday afternoon matinee. And “Talks with Terry” allow ticket holders to come before a show to talk about the production with Terrence Orr, the Ballet’s artistic director, while dancers rehearse on stage behind him.

In the case of the Museum of Art’s charette, it was a true experiment that was in marked contrast to the all-too-common breeze through an art exhibition. According to Karen Knutson, one of the evaluators for the initiative and the associate director of arts and humanities at UPCLOSE, the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning in Out of School Environments, “Participants got an incredibly rich, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and they brought their families on board, too. It really set the ‘gold standard’ for museum audiences making an exhibition their own.”

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