Planning Out Your Creative Utopia

About two years ago I started an after (work) hours art show that would provide students and local artists an opportunity to show their work and get experience speaking about it with people who didn’t have the shared vocabulary of visual artists.

Last Thursday we had the 4th iteration of the event, which we have been holding every 6 months or so.  Due to my involvement with the Creating Connection initiative, I consciously tried to employ suggested language about personal capacity for creativity in the promotional materials. I referenced people’s past comments about not realizing their neighbors were so talented or even interested in creating works of visual art.

Our frequent local partners/collaborators, the Creative Cult, had approached me about having a hands-on activity for attendees so the opportunity to create something yourself also figured heavily in our promotional materials. Since we usually have more artists enter than we have space to accommodate, we originally discussed placing the activity in a side corridor off the lobby. However, we had fewer applications than expected so we were able to move their activities to a prime spot.

They got people involved in executing their vision of a Creative Utopia…in cardboard. While the idea was to theoretically rebuild our town with the features that would make it a great place for people to express their creativity, few people felt constrained by that basic concept. And who could blame them.

The cardboard village was dubbed “Cult-topia” since the guys from the Cult provided all the art materials and scrounged up a lot of cardboard in advance.

While young kids were the most enthusiastic and added the most color to the project, there were a lot of people of all ages who contributed to the creative utopia.

One thing we noticed about the event– People lingered a lot longer than in the past, even those who weren’t helping to build Cult-topia. We aren’t exactly sure why. Did they like watching people have fun making ugly buildings out of cardboard? Was it the presence of more cafe tables to sit at? Even though the crowd was the same size as the past, did the ambiance feel calmer and less frenetic because the layout was a little more spread out?

I was reminded of an observation Nina Simon made in her book where she mentions that her museum started offering all-ages participatory activities at their events and exhibitions. She says none of the activities were specifically targeted as family events. Kids and adults just worked side by side at many of the events. Little by little, they noticed the melded events were packed, but the Family Day branded events saw decreasing attendance. She characterized it as the appeal of a room that was large enough to accommodate everyone versus a special segment.

I wondered if something along those lines was in operation in this situation. Did the presence of participatory activities keep all attendees engaged for a longer period of time regardless of whether they contributed or even viewed themselves as someone who would dive in to cardboard construction projects with gusto?

At the end of the night, I was asked if we could leave Cult-topia up on display for a few days. Some might feel it was a mistake to agree to leave a shabby looking project created by committee prominently placed in an art center lobby. This is the type of thing that draws derisive commentary about something not being art, art being dumbed down or the infamous, “I could do that.”

But that is sort of the point. By leaving it up for about a week, we hope to validate people’s capacity to make a creative contribution. No one is saying it is great art. Just that people had a great time putting it together. It is a small step in a journey of 1000 miles.

It can be a risky move and could diminish the organization in the eyes of some. But probably the easiest way to combat the perception that work by “people like me” doesn’t appear at an arts event is to display the work of people like them.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment