Last Friday, the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) hosted its monthly Feel Good Friday event curated by Philippa Hughes, a social sculptor and creative strategist based in Washington, D.C.
Centered around the upcoming midterm elections, the event is open to the public and features artists, musicians and local politicians. Unlike a traditional art exhibit, Feel Good Friday encourages participants to interact with the art and engage in conversations with local politicians and social workers, all the while swinging to the music on the main stage.
The October Feel Good Friday featured five distinct galleries and a rotation of musicians supplying music throughout the night. The event also highlighted UMMA’s pop-up ballot office, which opened on Sept. 27 and allows members of the campus community to submit their votes.
LSA sophomore Andrea Pellot, an UMMA staff member, said the October Feel Good Friday was created as part of the museum’s five-year strategic plan, which highlights civic engagement.
“We’re working with visiting artist Philippa Hughes for the Vote 2022 project,” Pellot said. “I think this is an environment where people can engage really closely with each other and learn more about each other and the world around us.”
Hughes explained that the event was about facilitating audience interaction with art and other participants, as well as learning about local issues while still having fun.
“All the experiences are geared around human connection through dialogue, through meaningful questions, meaningful experiences, and not just the usual stand-back-and-look,” Hughes said. “(Those at the exhibit can) also learn about issues on the ballot in a fun way.”
Hughes, who has been organizing events to facilitate social interactions for many years, said she aims to create experiences where people of different opinions can have a civil conversation.
“People will literally say ‘I’m not going to sit down with that person’ or ‘I’m not going to talk to that person,’ so I want to create experiences where you can actually come together and have a real human and authentic conversation,” Hughes said.
Hughes said she took inspiration from an experience when she invited someone who had differing political opinions to lunch and discovered that they connected really well.
“Literally from the very first moment, we found a lot of connection with each other and we sat together for almost three hours, just talking,” Hughes said. “Once we had the conversation, it was amazing, but it’s getting to the conversation that’s so hard. So it’s just if I can get them there, I know it works.”
Hughes’ experience mirrors the events that took place on Friday as well. Christopher Ankney, director of marketing and public relations at UMMA, explained that local politicians attended the event in order to listen to the voices of their constituents, and participants were encouraged to engage with them, regardless of their beliefs.
“You can sit in that chair, there are cards that offer you talking prompts,” Ankney said. “Or if you have something you want to talk about, you can just talk about it with them, and they are not allowed to talk back to you. They will sit there and listen to whatever you want to say.”
State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, a U-M alum, echoed Ankney’s thoughts and said he believes listening to the community is very valuable for a politician.
“Everybody thinks that all politicians have to talk,” Irwin said. “And you do, but what you say is going to be so much more on point if you’re actively listening to what people are saying. It’s a much better way to get a poll of how people are feeling and what the community is thinking. And plus sometimes you get very specific ideas that are good ones.”
Hughes said she hopes her event inspires more people to think about the difference they are making when they place their votes.
“That was the impetus for this programming — the voting site is here, but what are you voting for?” Hughes said. “Do you understand what the issues are? So it’s about making your participation in our community and civic life more fun and more meaningful.”
Public Health senior Kennedy Smith said she appreciated the ballot box at the UMMA and believes that Feel Good Friday could help raise awareness and increase access to voting for the midterm elections.
“When I came in, I saw that you could vote here or place your ballots,” Smith said. “It’s convenient for students because a lot of us don’t have cars and people can just come here and turn their ballots in. It’s definitely a convenience thing, and it raises voting awareness.”
During the Speak Your Mind, Mind Your Speech (S.Y.M.M.Y.S) gallery of the event, the Ann Arbor Housing Commission (AAHC) partnered with Deidre Smith, emcee, singer and songwriter, to hear participants discuss issues related to housing insecurity in Ann Arbor.
AAHC analyst Arin Yu said she believes the AAHC is doing significant work by allowing people to understand issues like the housing crisis more personally.
“It’s giving the public a chance to stop and really think more deeply about these issues,” Yu said. “I think a lot of people know that housing is expensive in Ann Arbor, but there’s a difference between just knowing that and actually thinking, what if I was homeless and putting myself in that position.”
AAHC Management Assistant Bryce Allmacher added that the interactive element of Feel Good Friday is also helpful for the AAHC members themselves to build empathy instead of seeing issues as just numbers on a spreadsheet.
“I would describe this as a very personal experiment in empathy,” Allmacher said. “It’s easy for us at the AAHC to break down the housing crisis in general in terms of numbers, stats and figures, but this really puts a personal element and requires you to dig within yourself and empathize with your neighbors and the people around you.”
Daily News Reporter Joey Lin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daily News Contributor Sid Mehta contributed reporting.