The Lilley Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno, looks a little different.
The glass cases are gone for now, and the mood of the second-floor gallery, formerly one of quiet elegance, is all-out cheerful. The new decor—including tables set with writing supplies, Kelly green ballot boxes mounted to the walls, and carpet tiles with an elementary-school color scheme—make it clear that the museum is encouraging a high level of audience participation.
This experiment is called the Lilley Co-Lab, and the gallery’s new look has a mission behind it: Through October, the Lilley staff wants to learn everything it can about what people want in a museum.
“I want this place to be beloved and useful,” said Stephanie Gibson, the Lilley’s curator and director since February. “I want folks to come here and know that this place is for them. I want them to spend time and share their thoughts.”
She pointed out that people can write notes on a tablet or by hand.
“I’m hoping that over time, this place looks messy and overrun with content,” she said. “I want Post-its. I want responses. I want constant movements.”
Museums everywhere have tried to be more accessible and inclusive in recent years, and there’s a particular emphasis on trying to diversify their audiences and better reflect their communities. Nevada’s art museums have tried various approaches. In 2017, the Barrick Museum at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, began offering free bus transportation to Clark County schoolchildren. The Nevada Museum of Art has mounted retrospectives of major Great Basin Indigenous artists and—in a pandemic-necessitated move that worked so well, they stuck with it—offers teacher education statewide via Zoom.
At the Lilley, the approach is assertively hands-on. On a blue wall, next to a handful of portraits, there are prompts to ask whether the people in these pictures look like you. There’s a selfie station and a craft table where you can make your own likeness. On a red wall, the curation of a handful of paintings has been crowdsourced. A few visitors (including a 6-year-old who liked a picture of a hot dog in a bun bridging a red-rock canyon) have selected their favorites; the display will grow as others make their own choices from a wall-mounted tablet.
On a maroon wall, a hand-painted map of Reno serves as a tool to collect demographic data, both hard and soft: “Where are you from?” “Where would you rather be?” “Describe Reno in one word.” Emoji stickers are available for anyone who’d like to post a “smile” or “huh?” next to a piece of artwork.
Other institutions are collaborating on the Lilley Co-Lab, too. Brushfire, UNR’s art and literary magazine, is working on an installation based on personal objects lent by the editorial board and contributors. The Holland Project found local artists to make original works in response to pieces from the Lilley’s permanent collection. (The juxtapositions are delightful; Nathaniel Benjamin’s 2022 print makes a lot of sense next to a Toulouse-Lautrec from 1896. Sara Paschall’s 2022 acrylic painting picks up a conversation where a 2019 Shepard Fairey print left off.) And Gibson plans to invite local art and culture groups to hold their own events in the space.
“This is a really incredible opportunity to gather data on who we serve, and who we need to serve, and who we’re missing,” Gibson said. She hopes that the Co-Lab will prompt people to think about how curators and museums go about telling stories about a community.
“I think we’ve just changed a lot in the past 20 to 30 years—how we show art from different parts of the world, art from Indigenous artists,” she said. “I think (the goal is) to continually interrogate the way we have labels, the amounts of information we put on them, and the type of vocabulary and language we use that’s either inclusive or exclusive. And then, of course, the artists who we’re representing on the walls as well—how diverse and how encompassing their stories are.”
Come October, the Co-Lab will be taken down. The Lilley staff plans to use all the data they gather through the project to inform future exhibitions. But for the time being, Gibson said, “This is a democracy.”
The Lilley Museum’s second floor will be the interactive Lilley Co-Lab through October. The museum is located in the University Arts Building on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus. Parking is available at the Whalen Parking Garage on North Virginia Street. Hours are noon to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; admission is free. Visit www.unr.edu/lilley for more information.
This article was produced by Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts publication. Read more at www.doublescoop.art.