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Springfield Art Museum Thinking Outside the Box with "Art in Our City"

If you've gone to the Springfield Art Museum lately, you've no doubt noticed some renovation taking place in the main front lobby.  You may have also noticed that the Gift Shop,  just outside the entrance to the Museum's main gallery space, is closed and has been more or less gutted.  Both projects are the result of thinking outside the box about how the Art Museum is serving the public, says Executive Director Nick Nelson.  

"Museums, like our museum here, are having to face a new world: a new world of media, a new world of information," according to Nelson. "Museums used to be sort of repositories of information and facts. An if you wanted to know something, it was sort of like the Encyclopedia Britannica--you would go to the museum and find out information.  Nowadays, information is everywhere, and you can find it--if you need to know something, all you have to do is pull out your phone. So, I think museums, in a lot of ways, we still take the role of scholarship and information--"

"Repository," I chime in.

Nelson agrees. "Yeah, we still take that seriously.  But we understand that we're not the only game in town.  We have to figure out what other roles we play."

First of all, what's happening in that big lobby space?  (Listening to the sound file above you can certainly hear some construction noise in the background as Nelson and I stand in the former Gift Shop space to talk.)  According to Nick Nelson, they are planning to "create a sort of 'front porch' for the Museum--a place when you come into the Museum that's welcoming, provides a lot of amenities, and provides a gathering spot for social events and other things." He characterizes the operation of a museum as serving the dual function of "an archive and a social space at the same time, and those things don't necessarily always mix.  We've had a lot of conversations here about how the Museum is used and what peoples' expectations might be."  Ultimately, Nelson says, the Art Museum isn't just a place that collects, preserves and displays art.  "We're also a community space, we're a public building.  We have an auditorium, we have community spaces."  That, of course, includes the outdoor amphitheater between the Museum and Phelps Grove Park. "We have this space where the gift shop was. So we're thinking about how people use the Museum and how we can have a richer, fuller understanding of that use and what it means.  It's all part of a larger plan to make the Museum a little more friendly to events and programs. So this sort of look outward to the social aspect of the Museum is an important move, and that's part of the driving force behind things like the renovations in our lobby, and the opening up of this new space."

The "new space" Nelson refers to will be situated where the old Gift Shop used to be.  The Museum plans to create a "multi-function space that's going to include retail, very limited food service, and then also an exhibition space--a social place where you can enjoy art, and sort of gather before going into the Museum."

Now, that might sound like just an expansion of what the Gift Shop already offered, and I said as much to Nick Nelson. "Well," he answered, it's not so much 'expanding' as focusing on real specific things. Our tagline for the Museum as part of our branding (campaign) that we did a couple of years ago is 'Enjoy, Learn and Create.'  We're taking inspiration from that, of course including brewed coffee service.  Retail is one aspect of a number of different aspects within the space--a space you can come and sit, an exhibition space, and a space where you can get a cup of coffee."

A major component of the new space will be a new rotating annual exhibit, says Nelson, called "Art in Our City." "What we wanted to do with this exhibit was to not only highlight and feature the talented artists that live in our community, but also the neighborhoods in which they live. So what we'll be doing is featuring artists who live and work within the (Springfield) city limits, not only featuring their art in an exhibition, but also featuring information about their neighborhood--where they live, their 'backyard,' so to speak."

Rather than requiring the artwork to be specific to Springfield and/or to the artist's neighborhood, Nick Nelson says "we just want some really cool art!  The inspiration is, this is a really cool city with really cool artists, and there are probably artists working in your neighborhood that are making really cool things... and here they are. So, the art doesn't have to be tied to the city, it doesn't have to be tied to the neighborhood.  It's just a way of showcasing the creative activity and creative life and energy of the city, and of the different neighborhoods in the city."

The official launch of the new flex space for retail, gathering, relaxation and the display of the new "Art in Our City" exhibit is set for October 21st, 2017.  Artists from within the city of Springfield who want to be considered for the inaugural exhibit must submit a proposal before August 1st, says Springfield Art Museum Executive Director Nick Nelson.  There's no charge for submissions. He tells me they've already had about a dozen submissions, and they're looking for more. To find out more about "Art in Our City", call the Art Museum at 837-5700.