“You can look things up on your phone,” “Don’t forget about side 2 of your ballot” and “You don’t have to vote for everything” are three pieces of advice Ann Arbor residents will see when voting at the pop-up City Clerk’s office at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) this fall. Painted in large block letters on the wall of the Irving Stenn, Jr. Family Gallery, the voting space is just one part of UMMA’s Vote 2022: Midterms Matter exhibit, transforming the museum into a polling and voter registration site from Sept. 27 to Nov. 8. For students living on North Campus, a second pop-up City Clerk’s office will open at the Duderstadt Center on Oct. 12.
The gallery marks the second time UMMA has hosted polling and voter registration, the first being during the 2020 General Election. Stephanie Rowden and Hannah Smotrich, associate professors at the School of Art & Design, co-founded and co-led the Creative Campus Voting Project, a nonpartisan initiative through the Art & Design School. The project aims to use creative action research to increase college-age voter participation. In collaboration with UMMA, the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s Office and non-partisan student organizations such as Turn Up Turnout, Rowden and Smotrich spearheaded the initiative to create a pop-up satellite’s office at the UMMA.
Ann Arbor City Clerk Jacqueline Beaudry said although she worked closely with Turn Up Turnout during the March 2020 primary elections to increase student registration at City Hall, the city hoped to find a more convenient spot on campus for students to register and vote for the presidential elections. She said Rowden and Smotrich’s proposal for a clerk’s office at UMMA helped students feel more comfortable navigating the election.
“The lesson for us is that (UMMA) felt really comfortable,” Beaudry said. “If you’re brand new on campus, you’re a freshman, you’ve never voted before or just turned 18, it isn’t a scary bureaucratic experience. It was more of a ‘Come on in, this is for you.’”
Briannon Cierpilowski, education program coordinator at UMMA and project manager for the Midterms Matter exhibition, said while voting often seems like an intimidating process to young people who may be disenfranchised by the political system, the gallery urges voters to understand that their voice matters.
“There’s wonderful implications of putting a voting hub in the most prominent, visible gallery in the campus art museum,” Cierpilowski said. “Make (voting) beautiful, make it congratulatory and fun, and, especially for the younger generation, get people interested.”
Voters strolling through the gallery will pass by a floor-to-ceiling rainbow collage of “I vote” buttons pinned to the wall, built as a backdrop for post-voting photos. A do-it-yourself button press is set up near the front door, along with a stand full of free, pre-made buttons for the taking. Students can also pick up a “Know your ballot” miniguide and “Vote Early” laptop stickers designed by Art & Design students before heading into the voting and registration spaces, both of which are designed by Rowden and Smotrich.
“We really thought about all of the graphics that are visible not only inside the space, but outside the space,” Rowden said. “(UMMA) also happens to be in the center of campus and I think there’s something really important about centering this experience in the heart of students’ lives, literally. We’re not telling people to vote in Ann Arbor necessarily. We’re just explaining what’s possible for them.”
UMICH Votes — a coalition of U-M-affiliated organizations that support voter engagement on campus, such as UMMA and Turn Up Turnout — employed a number of student fellows to help visitors navigate the exhibit.
Public Policy junior Hannah Jatsch, a UMICH Votes fellow, said her role at the exhibit is to be a nonpartisan resource for those who have questions about the voting process and to encourage students to exercise their right to vote.
“I think this project is really just trying to get to the heart of what we all care about at the end of the day, which is democracy,” Jatsch said. “It doesn’t really matter what you’re voting for, who you’re voting for, as long as you’re getting out there to vote.”
According to a national study on voting conducted by Tufts University in 2014, 59.6% of U-M students were registered to vote. The voting rate on campus, however, was 14%. Rowden said the disparity between registration and voting rates on campus inspired her and Smotrich to design the voting pop-up site for the 2020 election, which saw an 88.5% registration rate and a 78.1% voting rate on campus.
“As artists and designers, how can we use our skill set to help students move from intent to action?” Rowden said. “The more that we understood about student voting behavior and worked with our own students, we realized that there were certain attributes that were really helpful for students.”
In 2018, a Promote the Vote ballot initiative proposing same-day voter registration and no-reason absentee voting to Michigan’s election laws passed with more than 66% of the vote. Edie Goldenberg, professor emerita of public policy and political science and founder of Turn Up Turnout, said despite the increase in options for voting, students can face barriers to voting when the process is inconvenient.
“It’s kind of complicated for (students) because they have the right to vote at home or at their campus address, but most of them don’t know that when they arrive at college,” Goldenberg said. “Many of them have registered at home and think that that’s where they have to vote … But they also might like the convenience of voting right here on campus.”
Goldenberg said the central locations of UMMA and Duderstadt will help students who want to vote in their hometowns apply for, receive and turn in their absentee ballots on time.
Jim Leija, deputy director of public experience and learning at UMMA, said this year’s Midterms Matter has expanded since 2020 to include a celebration area for people to take photos after voting and a kiosk where people from outside of Michigan can learn how to vote in their home state and keep track of their absentee ballot deadlines.
“There’s also a separate space for casting the ballot now, so the product has gotten bigger,” Leija said. “And the thing I’m actually very excited about is that UMMA is working on a set of programs alongside the voting center for our Midterms Matter program.”
Philippa Hughes, creative strategist and featured resident artist for Midterms Matter, is no stranger to designing honest conversations across political, social and cultural differences, having facilitated conversations across the political spectrum throughout the United States. Hughes is curating two events for the exhibit, including a series of interactive art installations for UMMA’s Feel Good Friday series and dinner at the UMMA for attendees across the political spectrum.
“I’m sculpting space for relationships to happen, and the sculptures aren’t complete until people actually have conversations within those spaces,” Hughes said. “So each of those things are described for Feel Good Friday and the big dinner. But unless people actually connect with one another in dialogue, those artworks aren’t completed yet.”
As a part of UMMA’s Feel Good Friday series, Midterms Matter will host five interactive art installations from local artists on Oct. 14. Paired with community officials, the artists’ installations aim to engage the public in Ann Arbor issues through artistic expression, from a live comic book drawing of a conversation on transportation issues with Ann Arbor City Councilmember Erica Briggs, D-Ward 5, to a hip hop writing workshop based on housing issues.
“Hey, We Need To Talk”, the 125-person dinner event at the UMMA, will take place Nov. 3 to bring together people from across the political spectrum for an evening of discussion and community. Attendees are asked to register online and indicate their political leanings to ensure the recruited group is politically diverse. Hughes said the dinner needs attendees from across the political spectrum to be successful.
“Sometimes it’s hard to recruit folks from the right,” Hughes said. “I think people on the right think that people on the left are going to call them idiots and make fun of them in these conversations, and I have to tell them, no, the whole point of this is to listen. This is not about persuasion, it’s about understanding. It’s about being curious about other people’s viewpoints.”
According to Leija, the Midterms Matter exhibit is a part of UMMA’s five-year strategic plan to become a center for civic engagement and promote diverse communities and perspectives. The plan includes conducting listening sessions with communities that have been underserved by UMMA, investing in architectural changes to the building to enhance the visitor experience and reimagining collection galleries to respond to current topics.
“UMMA is really making big investments in making connections between art and the most important issues of our community and of our country and of the world,” Leija said. “And we see (Midterms Matter) as a big piece of that, which is to really activate our spaces for the community to do something really important as part of the democratic process.”
Hughes said she has enjoyed working with UMMA to make the museum more open to civic engagement.
“We have to start thinking about these museum spaces differently,” Hughes said. “To make them sort of relevant to contemporary society. They can’t just be places where you look at old dead masters, you know, old white guys. And I think they’re doing a really great job of reorienting the museum that way.”
Under the five-year plan, UMMA will continue collaborating with the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s Office and the Creative Campus Voting Project to deploy UMMA as a voter registration and polling site for every major election from 2022 through 2026.
LSA freshman Meriel Crowley-Wang registered to vote at the exhibit’s opening and said she believes voting is an important duty for college students to participate in.
“My grandparents were immigrants, they did not come from a country where voting was the norm,” Crowley-Wang said. “So to have the opportunity to use my voice and be able to express how I feel and have that translate into some semblance of government action or representation is pretty cool.”
Cierpilowski said she hopes the Ann Arbor community will come to view UMMA as a place for not just art installations, but as a home for civic engagement.
“Art and activism go hand in hand and have for all of time,” Cierpilowski said. “There is an essence of activism in just allowing people, students (and) community members to vote for what they believe in.”
Managing Editor Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.