Amid ancient, towering tapestries that adorn marble walls and misty windows looking off unto Boathouse Row, stood a young man. He set up shop in the kind of ambiance only dim lighting can provide. Jim Grilli, a studio monitor in the education department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, greeted me with an eager anticipation.
As the sun set, it was just about time for the festivities to begin. Every Wednesday night from 5-8:45 p.m., admission to the museum is “pay what you wish” and comes included with various showcases. Staff-picked collection highlight tours are guided through the halls while participatory programs are open to anyone.
The low-key programming is a treat where there are crafts to be made, games to be played, yoga to be instructed and a seemingly popular happy hour to settle down with.
“Wednesdays create a place where people want to hang out,” Wednesday Programs Director Claire Oosterhoudt said. “You don’t have to wander around the museum for three hours, you can come, sit, relax and have a beer.”
Grilli, the man eagerly shaking my hand and offering a seat, was the man in charge of “Neon Resolutions” – the Jan. 8 edition of “Make Stuff.” Offered weekly, “Make Stuff” is a participatory program that allows visitors to view a piece of the museum’s collection and craft their own renditions of the piece.
We sat in the Great Stair Hall making pleasantries as a half hour ticked by – and plenty of determined individuals bustled by donning their yoga mats. It wasn’t until a pleasant older gentleman accepted a seat at the crafting table that the program began to take shape.
Grilli explained to the man that in honor of the New Year, they would be creating a colorful resolution in the shape of a spiral – a “neon resolution.” The design inspiration came from artist Bruce Naumann, whose piece “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” in the medium of a neon sign, and is a permanent fixture in the Modern and Contemporary Art wing of the museum.
This man, a visiting New Jersey native by the name of Peter Lynch, sat down eagerly claiming to have the perfect idea.
“I’m not writing a resolution, I’m inscribing a manifesto,” Lynch said. “This is a realization I came to a year ago that I have chosen to live my life by.”
“I personally believe that every story is better when you participate. Won’t you make one?” he asked me, motioning to the empty chair on the other end of the table. With an approving nod from Grilli, I sat, and created.
“I think ‘Make Stuff’ helps visitors engage with the collection in a very direct way,” Grilli said. “It’s one thing to stand in a gallery and look at pieces, or watch a video. It’s a very different experience, however, to have a physical interaction with the artist’s work to take home.”
It quickly became obvious, however, that ‘Make Stuff’ transcends past the opportunity to interact with the museum collection. “Pay what you wish” opens up the museum to everyone, regardless of budget. These strangers can then come together in a house of history and culture.
Participants were able to sit together, laugh and create with no mind toward age, race or language barrier. These shared ideas became embodied when a woman approached the table nervously with her two young children in tow.
She began to explain, “No hablo inglés.”
As Grilli clearly struggled to explain the program in a charades-esque fashion, the woman to my left rose. She smiled as she approached the children, crouched down to their level, and began to outline the objective of the craft in Spanish. Two smiling faces then sat down across from one another and began to create.
What they created was something we all could understand – art. In that moment, goals were the commonality among otherwise unconnected strangers.
They left, one by one, expressing gratitude for the opportunity. One of the last to leave, Lynch tapped on my shoulder.
“I’m ready,” he said as he stood holding his resolution that read: “Every woman in the universe needs to be treated with kindness and love.”
“Make Stuff’ is a program that runs every week on Wednesdays and has been providing a participatory art program since February 2012.
“Sometimes, you forget to sit down and create, and ‘Make Stuff’ gives you that opportunity,” Oosterhoudt said. “We believe these programs are making art easy and accessible to our patrons.”
Brianna Spause can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.