How we got here: GRAM

Guest post by Jon Carfagno, Director Of Learning And Audience Engagement, Grand Rapids Art Museum


“Focusing on art, design, and creativity, GRAM will provide diverse platforms for experiences, ideas, and dialogue that enrich the human spirit and build practical learning skills. Through dynamic exhibitions, collections, learning initiatives, and community collaborations, GRAM will increasingly serve as a cultural beacon and civic anchor.”

On December 11, 2013, the Grand Rapids Art Museum adopted this statement of purpose as the foundation of our new strategic plan. It synthesized many months of collaborative visioning that engaged all levels of the organization.

Our goal from that statement, was to explore how GRAM could deliver the highest levels of value to the many audiences that comprise our reach—today and in the future. With a focus on serving the public and impacting the community, our staff, board, and volunteers worked together to examine orthodoxies, survey trends, and define how the museum could offer transformative experiences across channels. For us, one major theme that emerged was the important role that GRAM’s exhibitions, collections, and programming could play in inspiring creativity and innovation.

But how could we actually put that statement into practice?

That was challenge #1.

Connecting people and enlisting support has always been a great joy of my role at the museum. With that in mind, I was so excited when Chris Koens—who I knew through his exemplary work coordinating the GRAM excursion during MidWest UX—approached me about getting to know Kate Hunt.

That first meeting, we met at MadCap Coffee, and within minutes, we were collaborating on what would end up taking shape as Design Briefs. Their ideas, enthusiasm, and excitement was energizing.  Together, they seemed to immediately understand the broad range within the shared values of GRAM and AIGA that could create the natural, mutually beneficial connections that we were looking for in our statement. In the countless hours that we have spent together since then, we have also recognized a shared love of meta moments, puns, and observational humor, but overall, we were all committed to delivering enormous impact to our community.

In the months leading up to our first event, Chris and Kate helped assemble a cross-functional team consisting of representatives from GRAM’s departments of Learning and Audience EngagementGuest Services, and Communications, and members of AIGA West Michigan’s Design for Goodcommittee. With last summer’s breathtaking Michigan Modern: Design That Shaped America exhibition as a backdrop and source of inspiration, the blended talents of GRAM and AIGA brought the Design Briefs concept to reality. These fun and engaging nights transformed the museum into an incubator for ideas that might become the Mitten’s next great innovations.

Featuring crowd-sourced presentations of products, services, and social entrepreneurship concepts, a panel of experts from a variety of fields provided insight and feedback to the idea presenters. From there, the team from sponsoring partner Visual Hero led workshops that activated the very best thinking of the nearly 100 people in attendance both nights. The West Michigan creative community did what they do best: collaborated, shared perspectives, and dreamt big, all the while just footsteps away from prototypes, process sketches, and photographs representing how masters like Eames and Saarinen drove mid-Century innovation.

The entire journey affirmed for us the power, excitement, and possibility engendered by our revamped purpose statement. On top of this, the GRAM staff was afforded the unique opportunity to learn serious skills by working with our incredibly gifted new friends from Design for Good while having a great time in the process! We’re so excited to break new ground, again, by sharing our learnings during the upcoming Design Briefs: Digital webinar. We know that the conversation will shed light onto how effective collaboration can redefine the role that museums can play, both today and in the future.


Jon Carfagno
Director Of Learning And Audience Engagement, Grand Rapids Art Museum

By Ken Czop
Published November 15, 2014