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Reimagining Every Resource

Deep among the formal beds and groves of Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a literal “tree house” built from salvaged tree parts, many of which gathered after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy: twigs, branches, trunks, every conceivable part of a tree. There are wide plank floorboards, “tiles” fashioned from cross-sections, and upright branch struts. On the one hand it is a whimsical monument to imaginative recycling and disaster recovery. On the other hand, artist Roderick Romero’s tree house is a provocative three-dimensional metaphor for how cultural institutions — museums, orchestras, and theaters — might think about using all their resources to draw in new audiences, particularly as they search for ways to engage with the youth who will be the next generation of creators, producers, advocates, and eventually the parents who introduce their own children and grandchildren to the arts as a way of being fully alive.

Roderick Romero Tree House Installation at Brooklyn Botanic Garden 
Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s tree house built by artist Roderick Romero using wood from trees felled by Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene, as well as other salvaged wood from BBG. Photo by Caroline Voagen Nelson.

Open rehearsals are, by now, a familiar example of this principle. The necessary work of preparing a final performance can be transformed into a rare educational opportunity for young people interested in understanding how artistic choices are made and pursued. But institutions could go much further in converting their core needs and operations into resources for engaging their communities. Consider:

  • From Front of House to Invitation: The New Victory Theater’s Usher Corps turns the basic need for customer services into a three-year paid internship opportunity for young New Yorkers, offering them the chance to learn about the inner workings of live theater, gain career skills, and staff the theater’s front of house needs. Their energy and demographically mixed presence sends the message, “This theater belongs to anyone who enters and partakes.”
  • From Thresholds to Initiations: At the Tate Modern in London, visitors are immersed in new conceptions of beauty as they enter Turbine Hall where the huge entrance area is at once mechanical and majestic. At the Dallas Museum of Art, visitors are drawn into an initiating space, the Center for Creative Connections, a 12,000 square foot exhibition where interactive experiences with works of art (imagine a giant magnifier trained on a turbulent seascape) and posted questions invite visitors to “See differently. See unexpectedly. See art in a new way.” Through that portal, a new visitor is reminded of the power of her own curiosity — there is time enough to learn “gesso” from “aquatint.”
  • From Galleries to Classrooms: The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston names youth as one of its target audiences. Backing up that commitment is the most expansive set of youth-focused programs in the US. For example, in the ICA partnership with the Boston Public Schools, the non-profit EdVestors conducts credit-bearing courses for students seeking to fulfill their high school requirement for the arts. In return, the Museum gains a deeper understanding of how to engage visitors ages 14 through 18. This “bi-directional” design features both the “give” and “get”.

The point? Every limb and twig went into Romero’s tree house. Likewise, building new, more inclusive audiences will take every department, service, function, and space a cultural organization commands.

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