Combating isolation and social exclusion is the first-year theme for CMA's new installation.

After the Columbus Museum of Art won a $247,000 three-year grant last fall from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Museums for America program to connect art with social engagement, grant writer Jen Lehe was faced with the question of how to make such an abstract idea real. Lehe, CMA’s manager for strategic partnerships, enlisted the help of Hannah Mason-Macklin, who specializes in creating interactive experiences for museum visitors.

Early brainstorming sessions were challenging. “Our imaginations were pulling us in a million directions,” Lehe wrote in a blog post about the center. What focused their thinking was a 1964 painting in the museum’s collection by George Tooker, titled “Lunch.” In it, a dozen people sit hunched at counters, looking down while eating sandwiches and sipping coffee—so disconnected from one another that they might as well be looking down at cellphones. The painting could spark conversation about racial segregation—after all, it was created at the height of the civil rights movement—but it could just as well inspire discussion of the social disconnection that troubles us in the digital age.

Lehe and Mason-Macklin made the painting the centerpiece of the new Center for Art and Social Engagement, which opened earlier this month and will remain a part of the museum for at least three years. In its first year, the center tackles an issue raised by the painting: isolation and social exclusion. The gallery features an eclectic array of artworks drawn from the museum’s collection, including a photo by Diane Arbus of a Levittown living room, a life-size photo by Taiwanese artist Chien-Chi Chang of two mental patients chained together and a 1938 portrait by Walt Kuhn of a sad-faced acrobat who was also a World War I veteran.

Lehe says she has already seen how unexpected conversations can emerge from contemplation of the art, citing the time when a woman who was looking at the Arbus photo began talking about why she wanted to move her family from a homogeneous suburb to a more diverse neighborhood. “When all the ingredients are there, then an experience of a work of art can be a springboard for something you would never predict,” says Lehe.

The text on the wall beside each work offers context but little interpretation. Instead, the focus is on questions. How would you describe the moods of the people at this lunch counter? What do you think is going on in this scene?

“A lot of people, when they walk into a museum, think, ‘OK, what am I supposed to do here? I don't know what the rules are. How can I engage with this?’ So we want it to be really clear,” says Mason-Macklin.

To encourage conversation and connection, the gallery includes interactive elements, such as a game of checkers, a booklet containing 36 questions that have been used to help people connect or even fall in love, and spots on the floor where visitors are encouraged to face each other and reveal things about themselves. My guilty pleasure is …; Something I care about is …

Finally, the installation includes a display where visitors can learn about community agencies that address issues connected to isolation, such as homelessness and suicide prevention. Visitors also are encouraged to write down their own experiences and strategies and post them on the wall.

Community partnerships are key to activating the potential of the Center for Art and Social Engagement, its curators say, and they will kick things off Sunday, April 28 at 1 p.m. with a free event hosted at the museum and developed by the staff of YWCA Columbus. “Poetic Justice,” part of a YWCA national initiative called “Stand Against Racism,” will bring together three spoken word artists with three community action leaders who will describe their work. After the presentation, participants will be invited to explore the center (the museum has free admission on Sundays). To register for the event, go to ywcacolumbus.org. For more information about the Center for Art and Social Engagement, go to columbusmuseum.org

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