Crowdfunding a Crowd Favorite

| 01 Sep 2015 | 12:19

A favorite exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art is getting bigger, and the museum is asking the public to get involved.

On Sept. 1, the Himalayan art institution in Chelsea launched “Find Your Focus,” a crowdfunding campaign to finance the expansion of its much-loved Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, a recreation of a house shrine environment on its second floor. The online fundraising effort, a first for the West 17th Street institution, with a $45,000 goal, will help fund the installation of the shrine in a larger fourth-floor space that will double its capacity.

The launch of the campaign is the newest phase in the shrine’s expansion — the museum first opened a shrine room in 2010 with art on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., before opening the current iteration with work from its own collection in 2013 — and marks the institution’s latest effort to engage with its audience through digital initiatives.

“One of the beauties of the crowdfunding is the people who endeavor to join the crowdfunding campaign take a piece of ownership in this space,” said John Monaco, head of exhibition design at the Rubin. He compared this to how donors to Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns connected with the candidate. “That really is kind of part of this. Because it is our patron’s space.”

For the Rubin Museum and other institutions in New York and beyond, social media and interactive digital projects can bring the collections to new audiences and provide opportunities for visitors to engage with the objects outside of the traditional museum experience.

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, an interactive touch-screen wall shows around 4,500 works that are on view in the galleries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ongoing digital initiatives range from Meow Met, a Google Chrome extension that displays images of cats from the museum’s collection whenever a user opens a new online tab, to the Artist Project, a video series in which artists discuss works from the Met’s collection.

“The idea is, how can we connect our audiences to the art in multiple ways?” said Sree Sreenivasan, the institution’s chief digital officer.

Following the earthquakes in Nepal this spring, the Rubin Museum installed a small Nepalese art installation in its lobby and labeled Nepalese objects throughout its galleries with the hashtag #HonorNepal, encouraging visitors to share the works on Twitter and Instagram. The Rubin also worked with Google to create an interactive online experience of the exhibition, as the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and other institutions have done.

“A museum can be so much more than just the space itself,” said Robin Carol, the Rubin’s public relations and marketing manager. “We have a lot of active followers and we have a lot of fans all over the world who may or may not have been to the museum itself and we wanted to really activate a new audience that way.”

The museum’s campaign through a platform called Razoo is hardly the first crowdfunding effort made by an arts institution. Carol referenced a campaign by the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery that helped fund a 2013 exhibition on art and yoga as inspiration. In 2013, the Louvre restored “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” statue in part with crowdfunded donations, and the Smithsonian recently earned $719,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to fund the conservation of Neil Armstrong’s space suit.

Crowdfunding, Carol said, can create anticipation for a project, but also reveals the process of building an exhibition to anyone with Internet access.

“(Museums) are doing everything they can to reach people through social media. They’re trying to personalize the collections,” said Anna Blume, a professor of art history at the Fashion Institute of Technology on Seventh Avenue in Chelsea. “The efforts to be inclusive right now are extraordinary.”

Currently located on the Rubin’s second floor and connected to its Gateway to Himalayan Art exhibition, the 300-square-foot shrine room appears as an open-air diorama, with a shin-high glass barrier separating viewers from a richly-adorned room. Decorated with sculptures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, flickering battery-operated candles, offering bowls and around 130 other ritual objects from the museum’s collection, the room offers an immersive gaze into what a home shrine might look like.

At 500 square feet, the new shrine will be more immersive, with room for seating and a floor-to-ceiling, retractable clear glass wall that, when lowered, will open the space for intimate music performances and readings.

That the shrine room was already a beloved space and tour stop made its expansion an ideal crowdfunding project. Much work has already been done offsite to construct the new shrine room, Monaco said, and the funds raised through the campaign, which runs through Oct. 23, when the shrine opens, will finance additional construction, installation, conservation and transportation of the art works and the creation of a new lighting system, an integral aspect of the room’s venerable atmosphere. (The shrine will open as part of a larger exhibition called Sacred Spaces which was financed by the museum’s 2015 exhibitions fund and private donations.)

“It’s really fitting to us because we’re opening up the shrine room physically, we’re making it a bigger space, but we’re opening up the process, sort of behind-the-scenes, and we’re opening up the support we can receive to anyone who has a computer or smartphone,” she said. “That’s a huge goal of the crowdfunding campaign, to give people a bigger sense of ownership over the space.”