Katherine Gressel

“It’s not about putting on a show for a limited number of people to look at, and moving it from place to place. We’re building communities in which an infinite number of people can participate.” ~ David Koren, founder and Executive Director, FIGMENT Project Inc.

FIGMENT began as a 60-project and 2,600-participant interactive arts event on New York City’s Governors Island in 2007. Today it attracts an average of 25,000 visitors to the island each year over a single June weekend, and approximately 200,000 people to its summer-long artist-designed miniature golf course, interactive sculpture garden, and architectural pavilion.

Since 2010, the nonprofit FIGMENT Project Inc. has been approached by an increasing number of cities around the world seeking to organize their own events. In 2013, events are tentatively planned for Boston (year 4), Jackson, MS (year 3), Pittsburgh (year 2), Washington, DC (year 2), Chicago (year 1), Seattle (year 1), The Bronx, NY (year 1), and Geelong, Australia (year 1).

According to its website, FIGMENT “is not a ‘regional’ or ‘franchise’ structure. Each new event in a new location is unique and special, but it’s also, essentially, a FIGMENT event.”

What has enabled FIGMENT to spread so quickly, to environments ranging from big northeastern cities to the rural South, and still maintain a core identity? What kind of infrastructure is needed to support continued growth? And what are the unique benefits and challenges of “scaling-up” this type of ephemeral arts event?

FIGMENT does not subscribe to any artistic or issue-specific agenda, allowing it to transcend geographic and cultural boundaries. Instead it operates according to a set of 11 principles, all centered around mutual respect, inclusion, and creative expression. Curators are told that their role is not to “say yes or no to artists” but to “nudge things in a participatory direction,” according to David Koren.

FIGMENT producers are free to define participation according to what will work best in their own communities: whether it is a high-energy game involving battles with sopping wet stuffed animals, or a more reflective project encouraging people to write wishes for the future on ribbons dangling from a bridge.

Some of FIGMENT’s founders’ roots in the Burning Man community influenced FIGMENT’s development of a culture that also attracts Burning Man veterans in other cities. Many of FIGMENT’s principles, such as “leaving no trace” at the end of an event, are derived from Burning Man, though there is no official relationship between the two organizations. In 2009, now-Boston producer Jason Turgeon reached out to Koren to start his own FIGMENT event after his first time attending Burning Man, “wanting to bring a taste of the art, creativity, and community [he] found in the desert back to Boston.” The presence of local Burning Man communities who already understand FIGMENT’s values has certainly helped facilitate expansion.

Yet individuals in smaller towns without many Burning Man veterans also approached FIGMENT early on, as in Jackson, MS whose goals related much more to urban revitalization. FIGMENT Jackson first grew out of urban planner Whitney Grant’s plan to revive an Old Coca-Cola Bottling Plant through the arts.

FIGMENT’s principle of “self-reliance” also contributes to its scalability; each event is designed to be volunteer-run with limited resources. Regional teams are responsible for the bulk of their own production and fundraising, but are also free from the burden of having to raise “staff” salaries or sustain long-term programs or physical property.

In some cities, being self-reliant is easier than in others; local government arts grants are more readily available in places like Jackson and Australia, vs. the more bureaucratic Boston, where the cost of the event is also higher because of the sheer number of required permits and inspections. Cities like Boston and New York depend more on individual donations than grants.

While FIGMENT has a strict no sponsorship and no commerce policy, there are often team discussions about how commerce fits in around the edges of the event. For example, food vendors are common in public space, and are a convenience for the public. How close can the food vendors be to the FIGMENT event? How much promotion can they do around the edges?

Each group in a new city is responsible for building its own team, which is carefully vetted for leadership potential and sustainability: “An event’s success is really about the people,” says Koren.

FIGMENT put the brakes on events in a number of cities where a strong team of supporting volunteers failed to materialize to help a singular producer create and run an event. The challenges of volunteer recruitment and dependency do go hand in hand with the benefits of volunteer labor.

Yet FIGMENT’s NYC-based administrative team also recognizes the importance of building a tightly organized, centralized infrastructure to support each city; this has been the focus of recent central fundraising.

“Our goal is to use the minimum amount of control we can to create the maximum result,” explains Koren. “We want people to feel they have creativity and ownership, but that it is based on an existing template, and that we are all working together to develop what FIGMENT is and what it stands for in all locations.”

A new online “how-to” manual has everything from mission statements to sample project timelines to marketing templates that ensure consistency of brand and message. A new artist-management system, built in the Salesforce CRM system, is being rolled out for 2013. A detailed legal framework includes a blanket insurance policy covering all cities.

To meet current challenges of presenting information clearly and concisely about both FIGMENT and its events in 10 different cities, the organization is overhauling its website for 2014. Though many of these operations are overseen by a volunteer administrative team, global expansion has also necessitated the hiring of FIGMENT’s first paid, full-time administrator.

One future challenge may be assessing the long-term impact of FIGMENT. Koren lists “transformation, joy and community” as the main indicators of success for each festival. These may be hard to measure, and difficult to connect causally to things like regional revitalization or social change.

Koren as well as other producers do hope to see strong year-round FIGMENT communities, like the one that has fomented in NYC over six years, develop in other cities.

While FIGMENT still hesitates to actively “recruit” new sites, Koren says, “Our main goal is to enable as many people to participate as possible. I don’t see a limit to how far we can grow at this point.”

So far FIGMENT seems to be succeeding by disseminating both a flexible definition of art and participation, and a tight values system and planning process that enables participation to happen.

4 Responses to “Scaling Up Participation: The Expansion of FIGMENT”

  1. Pam Korza says:

    This is such an interesting model. I love the principles behind FIGMENT, the “tight value system” that you describe that upholds a spirit and integrity of intent for these far flung events. There is a ritual quality to some of the activity that makes me think about the role of ritual in civic space and public life and how ritual is one of those things that, if it satisfies some deep need, can perpetuate and sustain and embrace a community…many communities. Thanks for this introduction and reflection on FIGMENT, Katherine!

  2. [...] The entire salon is worth checking out, and former Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel has an entry as [...]

  3. [...] For the past two and a half years I’ve been involved with FIGMENT, a non-profit organization that produces participatory art events in a growing list of cities, including New York, Boston, DC, Detroit, Jackson and Pittsburgh. When I first joined FIGMENT in 2010, it had already grown from a one-day event on New York City’s Governors Island attended by about two thousand people in July of 2007 to an annual weekend-long participatory arts festival attended by tens of thousands. FIGMENT had begun to expand geographically, producing a weekend event in Boston, and temporally, with a dedicated summer-long FIGMENT area on the Governors Island featuring an artist-designed minigolf course and an interactive sculpture garden. Since then, the organization has continued to grow, with events and members in cities across the United States, and even internationally—there are plans for FIGMENT events in Canada and Australia. Last year, FIGMENT received its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and this year it hired its first paid employee (the organization had previously been run entirely by volunteers). Also for the first time this year, FIGMENT will be providing some artists a small stipend beyond the cost of materials. Past Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel also works with FIGMENT, and recently profiled the organization’s growth in a piece for Americans for the Arts. [...]

  4. Boston Arts says:

    SearchBoston’s Arts and Entertainment is always blooming with exciting events and opportunities for businesses to be listed. With these interactive marketing events, it would also be a good idea to add them to the Community Forum where users can interact with residents and visitors alike on news and events.

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