participatory art
Art Business

What is Participatory Design in the Arts?

Over the past half-century, artists have explored ways to permeate the boundary between museums and their surrounding environments and constituencies. Encouraged by this “performative turn,” many arts organizations have welcomed theater, performance, dance, and other participatory formats into the gallery environment.

Beginning with 1960s counterculture attempts to democratize art though inclusion of the audience as co-creators of artists’ activities, For instance, artists associated with the Neo-Concrete movement in Brazil such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, advocated for a phenomenological approach to art which emphasized free expression in order to create a direct relationship between the artwork and the viewer. They created wearable art forms, architectural environments and brought dancers into the museum. In New York City, the activities and people around Judson Church like dancer Yvonne Rainer and alumni of Black Mountain College such as artist Robert Rauschenberg and choreographer Merce Cunningham blurred the divide between artist and performer by choreographing events in which objects and people moved in and around galleries and other temporary art spaces.

Under constant pressure to expand and deepen audiences, it is now common practice for a museum or gallery to host multiple performances throughout the run of an exhibition, or to enlist artists in projects where they interact directly with viewers. In part, this is an answer to the “butts in seats” dilemma faced by many non-profits. Just as brands value social media influencers by the number of eyeballs they draw – measured in follows, comments, and likes – funders of museums and not-for-profit galleries look closely at attendance numbers as a key metric for evaluating success.

participatory designThe average gallery-goer will visit an exhibition just once. By adding a program of related live events, arts organizations can attract repeat viewers to generate buzz and expand the appeal of their organizations. But the participatory art experience often goes beyond performance and incorporates artists into all levels of the museum’s infrastructure – from the ticket window to the classroom – and often extends beyond the museum’s boundaries to reach new audiences in different constituencies and disciplines.

As a result of developments such as these, some independent artists and art organizations are developing new skills to navigate such complex interdisciplinary intersections. As consultants, artists who work in these expanded fields might collaborate with city agencies, businesses, scholars and academic institutions, social activists and community groups, fabricators, architects and designers, engineers, contractors and construction managers, as well as artists of other disciplines. They may need to contend with various social, economic, and environmental aspects of community life and negotiate between a diverse group of stakeholders who seek to utilize art and culture as a means for community revitalization or social inclusion.

Few art schools prepare artists to enter this kind of expanded field. In the realm of public art, some artists have cut their teeth in programs like New York City’s Percent for Art program, which requires all City-funded construction projects to devote 1 percent of their funding to the creation of a site-specific public artwork. Since 1982, hundreds of artists have been commissioned under this law to produce works that adorn the city’s school buildings, firehouses, and parks. But participatory art often incorporates modalities from a variety of fields including education, design, anthropology, sociology, media studies, architecture and urban planning that surpass the standard definition of public art.

Establishing a fluency with the vocabulary of participatory design is one way that artists interested in pushing the boundaries of a traditional art experience might position themselves to manage the complexities involved.

participatory art
The average gallery-goer will visit an exhibition just once. By adding a program of related live events, arts organizations can attract repeat viewers to generate buzz and expand the appeal of their organizations.

What is Participatory Design?

Participatory Design is a term used in a variety of fields, including software engineering and product design, urban planning, and architecture, to describe an approach that involves negotiating between all the stakeholders of a project. Participatory Design blurs the distinction between designers and users, researchers and artists, occurs “in the wild,” and often addresses issues of social justice, inclusiveness, and sustainability.

The Repellent Fence is one recent example of an art project that uses participatory design principles. The Repellent Fence was a recent Creative Capital-sponsored project by the Phoenix-based art collective Postcommodity, consisting of 26 “scare eye” balloons, every ten feet in diameter. In order to create a 2-mile long land art installation fifty feet above the desert borderlands between the United States and Mexico, the artists engaged in lengthy legal negotiations between the towns of Douglas and Agua Prieta on either side of the border. Eventually, these formal legal relationships developed into more informal, collegial relationships with stakeholders in those communities.

The American Riad was a 2015 project by the artist collective Ghana ThinkTank. Reversing the typical flow of economic development, where people from so-called First World countries propose solutions for people in developing nations, Ghana ThinkTank asks communities in developing nations to solve “First World Problems.”  For this project, the artists formed a partnership with a think tank in Morocco to rebuild a derelict corner of Detroit and to facilitate exchanges and skillshares between the collaborating communities. To address what the think tank identified as the American problem of social isolation, the Moroccans suggested an Islamic style Riad, an affordable housing community surrounding a Moroccan-style courtyard that would serve as a public space for gatherings, art exhibitions, workshops, and performances. Adopting elements of African Culture to solve America’s problems, Ghana ThinkTank facilitated support of multiple institutional partners in order to make the long-term commitment of resources and energy.

A precursor to this model of artist-as-facilitator, the “Town Artist” program established in Scotland in the 1960s created civil service positions for artists under standard terms of contract and with the same benefits as other municipal employees. Rather than commissioning artists to produce a single work, governments of “new towns” in Scotland hired artists like David Harding to oversee the incorporation of art into the town’s new construction over a long-term period.

Have You Heard was a 2014 project in the city of Edinburgh enabled through a grant to a group of artist-researchers, including a Russian spatial designer and researcher, a Portuguese filmmaker, and a Finnish art manager. The artist-researchers were to gather stories from first or second generation immigrants and engage local artists to incorporate the stories into a public artwork. In the actual execution of the project, many of the roles shifted between the different groups of participants. The outcome was a series of public diary entries printed on placards and adhered to bus stops, buildings, junction boxes and lampposts throughout the city. They also a documentary film. Unlike most other such projects, Have You Heard also included a hefty research component. Five of the migrant-participants were interviewed extensively. These interviews not only shaped the project, revealing deeper layers of connections in the community that weren’t necessarily apparent in the story gathering process, they also became the basis for the documentary.

participatory design
Design thinking begins with observation and empathy. The participatory design process is grounded in human needs and feedback.

Four Principles of Participatory Design

These are just a few examples of art projects using participatory design. Given the variety of outcomes an artist might seek in producing projects of this nature, it is impossible to define any hard skill set that might be required. But if you are looking to get involved in this kind of interdisciplinary work, there are soft design thinking skills that will help you create a successful outcome.

  1. Cultivate empathy – Design thinking begins with observation and empathy. The participatory design process is grounded in human needs and feedback. Empathy makes this process rich and meaningful. Artists must be able to listen, learn, observe, and care about participants needs and perspectives and adjust the project accordingly.
  2. Think holistically – Because these kinds of projects are often processed-based and organic, the artist must be keenly aware of the design process, understand the goals they are working toward at each stage of development, and be flexible enough to shift according to the input of the various shareholders.
  3. Collaborative Ideation – Unlike more conventional top-down approaches to public art, engaging audiences and participants to brainstorm and develop ideas in a participatory process is key to achieving outcomes that feel inclusive instead of imposed.
  4. Model and Prototype – Part of your design process may involve making prototypes so that you can test ideas before you invest a lot of time and resources. Collaborate, share thoughts and ideas and most importantly, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board a few times. Be flexible. Always enable yourself the freedom to see things differently.


About the author

Erin Sickler

Erin Sickler is a mindfulness & creativity coach living in the Hudson Valley. A former NY art curator, she has worked with some of the world’s most successful living artists and now writes about expanded modes of being on the creative path.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

From the Artrepreneur Marketplace

Support an Artist

Creative Careers Podcast

Insights and advice to shape your passion for art and design into a sustainable creative career.Podcast

Artrepreneur on Instagram