This article originally appeared on the Library as Incubator Project on June 25, 2012.

The Idea Box at Oak Park Public Library is a new experiment in community participation and library programming.  According to the website, the Idea Box “is an exciting participatory community space located right at the Main Library’s entrance. We’re creating new experiences for our visitors by inviting them in to explore, learn, and play with us.”

RAW (Real Art Work) in the Idea Box at Oak Park Public Library

The 9 x 13 glass-enclosed space opened in March and has already played host to several popular exhibitions.  We spoke with Customer Service Manager Monica Harris, who manages the Idea Box, about the space and the most recent Idea Box exhibition, called Real Art Work (RAW).

Before the Idea Box opened, the space was home to a cafe and coffeeshop.  When the cafe closed, library staff and leadership thought hard about what they could put in that space that would engage, and create something new, with the community.  Many ideas were proposed, including a Friend’s store, a gift shop, and a business area with computers. Assistant director Jim Madigan had an idea to turn the room into an arts-focused community space, the idea struck a chord with other library staff, and the Idea Box was born.  While the original plan was to include mainly arts-focused activities and exhibitions in the space, the scope has expanded to include science and technology-based exhibits as well.

The Idea Box is highly visible; every visitor to the library, whether they are entering through the front door or coming up from the parking ramp, has to walk right by.  Everything that takes place within the box has to be interesting, interactive, community-focused and participatory, says Harris.  Another goal is that the exhibitions appeal to all age groups. Harris says, ‘You’ve got small kids in here, you’ve got senior citizens in here, you’ve got teenagers in here, and everybody is kind of doing their own thing and looking at each other’s work…Everyone can really approach this on their own level and make it work for them.” A perfect example was a former exhibit for which the library painted the Idea Box walls with magnetic paint and filled the walls with magnetic poetry.

Artists at work in the Idea Box as part of RAW.

Most recently, the RAW exhibition featured 17 artists working on their art in full display in the Idea Box.  The exhibition, which just wrapped up Saturday, was curated by Executive Director of the Oak Park Art League Faith Humphrey-Hill and her husband, Steven.  Artists were scheduled for every hour that the library was open during the three week period, often with up to three artists work in the Idea Box at once.  Artists created all different kinds of art, and came from all different levels of expertise.  Pieces were hung on the wall as the artists completed them.

“It has been really exciting to be in a place where the creative experience inside is always changing,” says Harris. “The visual representation of the art has grown as the three weeks have gone on.”

It has also been fun to watch the interactions between the artists and the public, Harris explains. “You see small children up against the glass — there are lots of face prints,” Harris says with a laugh.  “Other artists from the community have come in and wanted to participate. It has been a really interesting talking point with patrons.”

An artist at work in the Idea Box as part of RAW.

The public arena was been something new for the artists too, says Harris. Many of them were used to working in their own homes or studios, and have found it inspiring to be in a new place, with people watching.

RAW concluded with a reception on Saturday, and the art will now go on sale with 20% going to Oak Park Public Library art fund.   While this exhibition garnered a huge positive response, Harris hopes future exhibitions can create even more opportunity for community members to participate.   For one future installation, which starts June 29, the library will paint the walls midnight blue and install over 200 touch lights on a grid on the back wall of the Idea Box. Anyone who walks by will be able to come in and create their own star patterns on a constantly changing constellation wall.

One previous exhibit called “Leaving Czechoslovakia” was a partnership with a museum, and featured Czech art and video. To draw attention to wonderful but otherwise more static exhibit than others in the Idea Box, the library added a bit of the unexpected. One day, the library had pop-up folk Czech folk singers perform in the library lobby, right in the middle of the foot traffic.  It was unadvertised, but people saw fiddles and dancing and came in off the street to see what was going on.

RAW artists hung work on the wall as they finished it.

“It was the coolest thing to have this going on in an open space without expectation,” Harris says.  “It really made it into something magical.”

Harris says she would encourage any library to try something like this; installations can be very ephemeral.  It doesn’t need to be something that requires a whole, glass-enclosed room.  Anything that patrons can interact with works, whether it’s a small art project in a corner or a working artist or performer that patrons can walk up to and talk with.   The key is to find programs that fill a need in the community and give patrons a chance to participate.

For more information about RAW and other Idea Box programs, visit the Oak Public Library’s website.

All images courtesy of the Oak Park Public Library. 


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