The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By Bryan Malong
Salon (suh–LAHN), noun. According to Wikipedia, the salon is “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation.” The concept still holds up today even if the word “salon” sounds so, well, dated. This is the 21st century, after all.
While there have been permutations of the salon throughout the years — one could say that last decade’s model was the coffeehouse — in the world of zippy and viral social media, we are due for an update. And just as social media has exponentially expanded the continuum of communication, the modern salon needs to be more than a round table discussion.
For this, I submit exhibit A: a new type of club-cum-art-gallery-cum-workshop in San Francisco called Public Works. I call it new, not because of its age (Public Works has been around for about a year), but because of its mission to be an innovative, multi-faceted gathering place that exists at the nexus of art, conversation, and just a plain ol’ good time. It is a gathering place for gathering places, and one that has become really popular very quickly. Beyond that, Public Works just may have plugged into the zeitgeist of social networking and in doing so created a sustainable for-profit business model while paying it forward to the community it serves.
For co-founder, Jeff Whitmore, at the core of Public Works is a need to bring the community together. Formerly an owner of popular dance club Mighty, Whitmore was looking for a space that could support different types of media as well as a place to connect ideas. Citing clubs like 111 Minna Gallery that had already begun hosting drawing parties along with music and artists, Whitmore pushed the boundaries further by combining street performers and foodie vendors along with the standard club fare. Public Works also plays host to art workshops, sometimes in conjunction with other event firms such as Noisepop which has used the space to feature everything from artist lectures to tutorials on video production during its popular weeklong indie music festival. With further plans to implement infrastructure upgrades to host rock bands, the club is embracing a new paradigm of infusing streams of live entertainment under one roof.
Social media also played a role in the creation of the club. While technology may not be the focus of the product, it was an important component to transforming an idea into action. When Whitmore set out to refine the concept of Public Works, he went straight to the people using tools like Facebook forums. Mining feedback in this way allowed him to make sure that the experience of the venue itself offered an enticing value proposition. Sprung hardwood floors, a Funktion-One sound system, friendly staff and decent non-alcoholic drinks… These are just some of the things that respondents asked for, and in the spirit of serving the community, that is exactly what Public Works gave us.
But one of Public Works’ most exciting aspects is that its business model allows it to harness the power of the people to ensure that the arts remains supported and sustainable in the years to come. There are a few ways that this is accomplished. In addition to being an art gallery, Public Works offers studio space at no charge to as many as four artists at once. The studios can be used as a both a workshop for the artists in residence and a gallery to showcase their work. The artists get a free place to be creative while at the same time exposing the public to their work—an important symbiotic relationship for those that make art and those who consume it. Another way that Public Works supports the community is through donating portions of their proceeds directly to nonprofits such as Root Division, an arts and education organization. It is a great example of borrowing the concept of crowd funding from the online world and putting it back into face-to-face interaction.
There are a few important lessons to be learned here. Whitmore was able to create an original club by looking at something borrowed and something new, associating old models of entertainment venues while adding just enough new elements to the mix to keep it fresh and interesting. He adopted a user-centric approach to creating a club that the community wanted. For myself as a budding design strategist—someone who is interested in a holistic and human-centered approach to business innovation—it is a great case study in using social research to design a product and service.
Lastly, Public Works completes the circle by giving back to the community that supports it. From start to finish, what better way to make social spaces more social!
Bryan Malong is a first-year graduate student in the MBA Design Strategy program at the California College of the Arts.