Pop-up Engagement: Design Thinking, Museum ‘Labs,' and Urban Problem-Solving

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 09:00
Location: Hörsaal 14 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Max HOLLERAN, New York University, USA
The project examines socially-engaged arts festivals and urban 'laboratories'—a field that has expanded along with the art museum building boom, but has attracted less ire because it incorporates and resolves calls from critics for museums to 'grow-down' and foster more engagement with the communities in which they are situated. Using two cases from New York City’s Lower East Side (Sponsored by the New Museum and Guggenheim Museum), it analyzes the type of engagement museums create when they reach out to surrounding communities, and the ways in which they bring-in traditional neighborhood organizations. Museum-sponsored urban labs have stressed the need for creative class professionals to address urban problems through street-level interactions, forums, and educational festivals. Often, with corporate partners, museums have advocated for 'design thinking' and creative interventions to fix long-term problems like deteriorating public housing, access to healthy food, and polluted waterways. In examining these new spaces, we find a useful analogy in the settlement houses that dotted the Lower East Side one hundred years ago. Progressive Era reformers viewed American cities as ripe for intervention and manipulation through scientific management of social problems. The 'laboratory' metaphor has returned, this time, with design as the lens for examining and alleviating urban woes.

The use of design, not art, shows a telling difference in the way museums think about the neighborhoods in which they are situated. As New York’s museums move to poorer neighborhoods they introduce more programs to ‘connect’ with local residents. It is telling that while high-income visitors can consume art, low-income community members need to be engaged through design, a field that tends to privilege bold, visual—often overstepping—solutions. While well-intentioned, the creation of labs to tackle urban problems marks a shift away from ‘base-building’ approaches advocated for by community who have been operating in these neighborhoods for years.