“What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?" -- Michel Foucault
The 21st century is the age of design thinking. Design philosophers, futurists, and critics are asking how our relationship with objects creates a vision of what we have been, what we are and what we will become. Interdisciplinary collaborations within cultural institutions have produced more meaningful ways of communicating important -- often complex -- ideas, all while evoking the charms of the imagination. In 2014 the Museum of Design, Atlanta (MODA) will be celebrating 25 years of design advocacy, community outreach, education and participation in the international conversation about how our relationships with objects can facilitate social and personal change.
"In the past year, the staff and board of MODA have spent lots of time building foundations, as we’ve re-evaluated our mission and vision and compiled a strategic plan, while also thinking aspirationally about what MODA can become and the role it can play in the metro-Atlanta community and beyond. Most challenging (but also most exciting) has been the task of reconciling those two ways of thinking with day-to-day operations. We’re small enough that a clarification of the museum’s vision that is reached one afternoon can impact operations the very next morning," says Laura Flusche, Executive Director of MODA.
"MODA is a non-collecting institution, which gives us the opportunity to focus a great deal of attention on our exhibitions and the programs that enhance them. Over the course of the past year, we’ve concentrated on creating content-rich exhibitions that teach but that also inspire visitors to ask questions and to want to learn more. And, through our programs and interactive activities, we try to give those visitors the chance to expand their knowledge and to ask questions of experts. The idea that exhibitions should be jumping-off points for many people, rather than the be-all and end-all of knowledge, is something that we discuss, whether we’re curating our own exhibition or choosing to bring a traveling exhibition to the museum," she explains.
This strategy is what has garnered MODA much success in a time when some museums are struggling. Flusche offers an explanation: "I think we all know that arts education in schools has declined dramatically over the past decades, and that’s a problem for traditional art museums as they strive to attract and retain audiences. Our situation is a bit different: our audience tells us that they are attracted to MODA because they find the exhibitions and programs to be immediately relevant to their everyday lives. And, while the median age of visitors to art museums has risen significantly since the 1980s, we consistently attract an audience of 20-40 year-olds. Part of that is because of exhibition content--skateboard graphics are clearly going to attract a young demographic--but we see a similar audience coming to exhibitions on architecture, industrial design, graphic design, and so on."
AN ARCHEAOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE
Recently appointed Execeutive Director, Flusche brings a rare, compelling combination of intellectual and creative accomplishments to her position. She joined MODA in 2010 as Associate Director after 15 years of living in Italy, where she served as Assistant Academic Dean of an American university program, taught art history and archaeology to university undergraduates, and worked on an archaeological excavation in the heart of the Eternal City.
While in Rome, Flusche also founded and led The Institute of Design + Culture, a non-profit arts and culture educational organization. She has studied Arts Administration at the Savannah College of Art and Design and is an alumnus of the 2011 class of Art Leaders of Metro Atlanta (ALMA). Flusche also holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Roman and Etruscan Art and Archaeology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree in Italian Renaissance Art, also from the University of Illinois.
"The rigorous problem-solving methodologies that I used in both fields have been entirely applicable to my position at MODA, where we see design thinking as the great problem-solver of the 21st century," she explains. "Archaeology and design thinking have much in common: in both cases you’re trying to solve a problem, but you recognize that there are many possible solutions. To find the best solution (or explanation) in archaeology requires empathizing with an ancient culture, i.e. doing your best to think as they did; deciding what are the answerable and best questions to ask about the material culture they left behind; brainstorming possible answers; and then testing those answers against different kinds of evidence."
In addition to an uncanny ability to combine theory and praxis, Flusche's training also gave her a distinct leadership style-- one closer to that of an educator than a CEO. "My experience in different fields has taught me to listen closely and learn from others. As a result, I have a fairly democratic leadership style. I like to give others a chance to participate in decision making through discussion and debate and I recognize that both MODA staff and board have valuable insights that can help us realize the museum’s mission and pursue its vision," she explains.
This democratic leadership style is ideal for MODA, which experienced a great deal of change over the last 25 years. "MODA was founded in 1989 as the Atlanta International Museum of Art and Design by a visionary group of people who wanted to spotlight the fact that the city was becoming increasingly international by staging exhibitions about the arts and culture of other nations," she says. "Over time, they discovered that the most successful exhibitions were those that looked at design, so in 2003 the museum’s name was changed to the Museum of Design Atlanta and, naturally, a change in mission followed."
But as Flusche notes, the museum's changes and resulting challenges didn't end there: "Last year, in 2012, the board of MODA once again re-evaluated and modified the museum’s mission and vision in response to the fact that the word design has come to mean many things in the past decade. In our newly revised mission vision, we locate design at the intersection of creativity and functionality and define it as a force that can make the world a better place. To give just one example, as a result of this re-evaluation, we’ve created a design thinking program for children that we’ve been prototyping with Boys and Girls Clubs and hope to roll out in the public schools in 2014. We think that teaching this innovative problem solving process to children is one of the most powerful contributions we can make to the greater Atlanta community."
In addition to its conceptual redirection, the museum has also made very concrete changes, moving to Atlanta’s Midtown Arts District in 2011. It was a risky strategy: "We moved in the midst of the financial crisis, when rules were changing for all arts and culture organizations nationwide. The move, along with changing circumstances in the arts world, provoked our board and staff to think long and hard about how our exhibitions, programs, and communications express the shared idea that design is a powerful tool for changing the world."
Being a good citizen, both locally and globally, is vital to Flusche's platform. Contemporary social, political and economic concerns are key prompts for creating the museum's goals. "In 2009 Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, told the New York Times, 'This might be the time when designers can really do their job [because] what designers do really well is work within constraints, work with what we have.' Antonelli recognized that designers might well thrive within the constraints of the financial crisis because they would recognize the new rules governing our changed world and would have the talent and training to create new things and pursue new ideas within those rules. And, from my point of view, that’s exactly what’s happened. With markets for luxury objects reduced (and attitudes about luxury objects changed) some designers have given up on the idea of design for design’s sake and have focused their attention and creative powers on finding solutions for some of the world’s most significant problems."
Critical thinking about commerce and design (often tricky and controversial) is also part of the design museum's curriculum. "Design plays an expansive role in the world, not least of which is the creation of commercial objects that we all need or want--whether iPhones, winter coats, or hot rod cars. Design makes those objects more attractive, more functional, and more desirable; by doing so, design shapes the world and our experience in it. That’s the fundamental message of design museums like MODA, which occupy a unique position between industry and the arts."
As markets expand and borders crumble and shift, it's been especially important for MODA to think about design globally and locally. "There’s so much creativity in Atlanta and the southeastern United States—particularly in the area of design—and we try to highlight that through exhibitions and programs. For example, for 2014 we’re putting together an exhibition titled, Design Revolution: Innovating for a Better World, that will showcase innovative projects meant to solve 21st-century problems, as well as the designers, architects, and social entrepreneurs in Atlanta and the southeastern United States that are working on them," Flusche says.
She is passionate about how Atlanta has a very important design community that has much to contribute to an international conversation. "These creative individuals and firms may call the southeastern United States their home, but in many cases their work will have global effects. Atlanta can focus on problems affecting every part of the world. But, those designers still need a local community that feeds their creativity, that asks challenging questions, and that presents alternative ideas. We believe that the Museum of Design Atlanta can enable that community, while also showcasing the great work that’s being done all around us."
For example, as part the programming for their current exhibition, Paul Rand: Defining Design, they partnered with AIGA and the Portfolio Center to bring Steven Heller, an author, art director, editor, and curator, to Atlanta from New York City. Over 600 people attended the two lectures he gave in a single day—400 college and university students at an afternoon lecture and 200 designers and interested members of the general public at an evening lecture.
In addition, Skate It or Hang It: the Evolution of Skateboard Art, which broke MODA’s attendance records, brought in a whole new, diverse audience for the museum.
DESIGNING THE FUTURE
When asked about the MODA exhibiton that has touched her the most, her love for Italy-- and community-- becomes clear. "We recently hosted an exhibition from Italy titled, Barrique: Wine, Design, and Social Change. It documented an upcycling project that took place at San Patrignano, a treatment center in Italy for young addicts. Conceived by the design team/brothers Maurizio and Davide Riva, the Barrique project involved 35 architects, artists and designers from around the world who agreed to design objects that could be constructed out of used wine barrels. Those objects--designed by such luminaries as Daniel Liebskind, Kareem Rashid, and Arnoldo Pomodoro--were then crafted in the wood shop of the treatment center by the young people in residence there."
But the exhibition's story doesn't end there: "While the objects were beautiful, the story that informed their creation is a wonderful one. The young adults in recovery at San Patrignano--who have 'temporarily lost their self-respect' (as one designer who participated in the project put it)--used the powers of design and shared creativity to rebuild their lives."
As for the future, she waxes philosophical, "You’ll see a museum that makes a difference in the world." Under her leadership we think we already have.