The Idea Box at Oak Park Public Library is a new experiment in community participation and library programming that invites visitors to "explore, learn, and play." The 9 x 13 glass-enclosed space opened in March and has already played host to several popular exhibitions.
Before the Idea Box opened, the space was home to a cafe and coffee shop. When the cafe closed, library staff and leadership thought hard about what they could put in that space that would engage the community and create something new. Assistant Director Jim Madigan had the idea to turn the room into an arts-focused community space; the Idea Box was born and the scope of the project has expanded to include science and technology-based exhibits as well as art.
The Idea Box is highly visible; every visitor to the library walks past it, so everything that takes place there has to be interesting, interactive, community-focused and participatory. Another goal is that the exhibitions appeal to all age groups. For National Poetry Month, the library painted the Idea Box walls with magnetic paint and filled them with magnetic poetry that visitors could use to create their own poems. Customer Service Manager Monica Harris noted how successful this exhibition was in terms of engaging all age groups: 'You've got small kids in here, you've got senior citizens in here, you've got teenagers in here, and everybody is kind of doing their own thing and looking at each other's work…Everyone can really approach this on their own level and make it work for them."
The Real Art Work (RAW) exhibition featured 17 artists actively working on their art in the Idea Box. Artists were scheduled for every hour that the library was open during the three week exhibition period; they created all different kinds of art at all different levels of expertise. Pieces were hung on the Idea Box walls as the artists completed them.
"It has been really exciting to be in a place where the creative experience inside is always changing," says Harris. "The visual representation of the art has grown as the three weeks have gone on." According to Harris, working in public was a new experience for the artists too. Many of them were used to working in their own homes or studios, and have found it inspiring to work in a new space and with an audience When the RAW exhibition concluded, art created during the exhibition went on sale, with 20% of the proceeds benefiting Oak Park Public Library art fund.