he Lilley Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno looks a little bit different this spring. 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—tables set with writing supplies, Kelly green ballot boxes mounted to the walls, and carpet tiles with an elementary-school color scheme—all make it clear that the museum is encouraging a high level of audience participation.
The gallery’s new look has a mission behind it. This experiment is called the Lilley Co-Lab, and for the next six months, 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 the 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 the communities they’re in. 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, and 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 Co-Lab, too. The 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 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, the type of vocabulary and language we use that’s either inclusive or exclusive. And then, of course, the artists that we’re representing on the walls as well—how diverse and how encompassing their stories are.”
Come October, the Co-Lab will be deinstalled, and the Lilley staff plans to use all the data they gather through the project to inform future exhibitions. For the time being, Gibson said, “This is a democracy.”
Photos: Kris Vagner
The Lilley Museum’s second floor will be home to 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 Tuesday-Saturday noon-4 pm. Admission is free.
Also coming up at the Lilley is Oh, Joy! | The Collection of Margo Piscevich, June 5-Aug. 12 with a reception June 8 from 5:30-7:30 pm.
Join the Lilley’s email list here and follow @thelilleymuseum on Instagram.