April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Getting "In Your Face": Strategies for Encouraging Creativity, Engagement and Investment When the Museum is Offline

Gillian McIntyre, Ian Rubenzahl, Colin Wiginton, Art Gallery of Ontario; and  Martin Lajoie, Portrait Gallery of Canada, Canada


In 2007 the Art Gallery of Ontario ( closed its doors temporarily to complete the renovation and installation of a new Frank Gehry-designed facility. In the months leading up to this closure, the Gallery experimented with different ways to keep people connected to the institution. One of the most high profile programs to emerge during this time was the exhibition In Your Face that began with a call for submission asking the public to send in postcard-sized portraits.

The response to this project was unprecedented and resulted in the AGO receiving over 17,000 portraits that were initially presented within a gallery space normally reserved for blockbuster exhibitions. The success of this endeavor led the AGO to experiment with various on-line presentations of similar content that further demonstrated that museums can function as catalytic agents when open to experimenting with a combination of innovative programming and on-line access.

The success of In Your Face also attracted the attention of the Portrait Gallery of Canada (, a public gallery without a permanent home, and resulted in a partnership that made it possible for the exhibition to be re-mounted in Ottawa, and made it accessible to a national audience. Tracing the evolution of In Your Face through its various forms of presentation and partnership, this paper examines issues of significance to museums and galleries as their relationship to the public is forced to evolve in response to changing circumstances, including those times when collections may be inaccessible and the building itself is offline.

Keywords: Web 2.0, user generated content, social media, visual art, portraiture, actual/virtual, art museum, participatory, partnership, collaborative, community, creative, personalized, storytelling, exhibition


The face of Canada is changing. Of the 33,000,000 people in Canada, nearly 20% identify themselves as immigrants, and an equal number have indicated that their mother tongue is a language other than English or French. In Toronto, half of the population identifies as having been born outside of Canada, and as many as 150 different languages are spoken every day. For public institutions like the Art Gallery of Ontario, this stimulating and rich environment brings with it many challenges but also incredible opportunities (

In addition to these demographic shifts, the way people access information, spend their leisure time and interact with each other continues to evolve as the world becomes increasingly wired. Globally, Canada ranks among the top 20 countries in terms of the percentage of the population that uses the Internet. Canada ranks even higher in terms of broadband penetration and, within this context, Toronto has been referred to as the social media capital of North America and the Facebook capital of the world (

The proliferation of new forms of collectively created knowledge (Wikipedia), the popularity of Web sites featuring user generated content (Flickr, You Tube), and the emergence of social media platforms (My Space, Facebook) have turned traditional notions of expertise, cultural production and public space upside down. With the evolution of technologies that make it possible for people to share their knowledge, creativity and experience in new and novel ways, the old divisions between expert and enthusiast, producer and consumer, public and private, have blurred irrevocably. As contemporary culture plays itself out on-line, it is fascinating to see how museums and galleries are responding to the challenge.

In response to these changes, the Art Gallery of Ontario created the exhibition In Your Face and a complementary project, Collection X, both offering compelling examples of what can happen when a public gallery has an opportunity to experiment with programming. It involved a transparent process, a flexible structure, and an entirely open-ended outcome. The result was the emergence of an alternative programming model that privileged creativity and participation and, as a result, fostered new levels of audience engagement, public involvement and professional partnerships.

In Your Face at the Art Gallery of Ontario

In 2006, when the AGO was beginning a major reconstruction and reinstallation project, the organization made the decision to launch a community-generated exhibition called In Your Face – The People’s Portrait Project. Public programmer Gillian McIntyre and interpretive planner David Wistow had collaborated before on two experimental interventions in the Degas (2003) and Modigliani (2004) exhibitions, where the public was invited to create art in the exhibition space. One of the things learned from these interventions was how engaged visitors were with content produced by other visitors. Inspired by these examples, the planners built on their experiences to design In Your Face, an exhibition created entirely by and for the public.

At the heart of In Your Face was a public call for submission that went out through newspapers, via e-mail and on the AGO’s Web site. Members of the public were asked to submit postcard-size portraits in the media of their choice. The only criteria were that portraits had to measure 4” x 6”, be an original work of art, and be accompanied by a signed consent form. From the outset,  the decision had been made that the portraits would not be judged and there would be no limit to how many could be submitted.

The response to In Your Face was extraordinary. By the time the exhibition opened in July 2006, the AGO had received over 10,000 portraits, from across Canada and beyond, in various media, including drawings, oil paintings, watercolors, encaustic, papier mâché, acrylic, silk screen, relief print, photos and digitally-based imagery. Packages arrived containing portraits from individuals, whole communities, classes, and families. Many sent with their submissions letters showing a strong desire to share personal stories.

Figure 1

Fig 1: In Your Face portrait. © Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008. All Rights Reserved

Word of mouth also contributed to the success of the exhibition, and submissions started to pour in not only from across Canada, but also from other countries such as Italy, Germany, the United States, Great Britain, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Holland, India, Switzerland, France, and Australia. By December 2006, 17,000 portraits had come in. The range of responses was vast - from all ages, levels of ability, and types of communities. The images too reflected an enormous amount of creativity, effort and thought, and the humor, honesty, and ingenuity were moving.

As promised, all the works submitted by December 1, 2006 that met the original criteria were exhibited. The portraits were installed in prime exhibition space at the AGO and had to be hung floor to ceiling to accommodate as many submissions as possible. During the course of the exhibition, visitors dropped into the space during gallery hours to create portraits to add to the collection. Visits, phone inquiries, and e-mails continued for months; the exhibition’s run was eventually extended and it had to be re-installed twice in order to respond to the level of interest.

Figure 2

Fig 2: In Your Face, Installation shot with title wall, Art Gallery of Ontario. © Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Why the Appeal?

What was it that made this very straightforward exhibition so successful? Perhaps one reason is that In Your Face tapped into universal creativity as well as the usually unrealized potential of museums to function as catalytic agents. Indeed, much of the creativity that occurred around In Your Face happened off-site and in non-urban communities. Group submissions were frequent and contained the work of families, neighbours, schools, workplaces, lunch groups, and other community groups. For example, a package of 23 portraits of various adults and children arrived with the following letter:

Dear Folk at the Art Gallery of Ontario,

Please accept the enclosed portraits for display in “In Your Face”. We are members and friends of the Middle Road Community, an intentional community in rural Nelson, B.C. We had lots of fun working together to create these pictures. Thanks for your support of art and for sharing/spreading the word . . . art is for everyone, art is in everyone.

Within the exhibition itself, visitors to In Your Face were also able to make portraits at drawing stations and and could then leave them behind to be installed. Many visitors also photographed one another in the space, often holding up their portraits or pointing to mounted portraits they had previously submitted. In this way the exhibition became a social space bringing life to the institution and transmitting the life of the institution back out into the community. As an example of this, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Toronto chose to partner with the AGO to raise awareness for their after-school, weekend, and summer programs. In celebration of Boys and Girls Club Week they held a media event in the exhibition, during which the AGO’s director, Matthew Teitelbaum, said: “I think the challenge with a big institution is it seems elitist. This project says, ‘You belong here. This is your place.’ ”

Figure 3

Fig 3: In Your Face portrait. © Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Figure 4

Fig 4: In Your Face portrait. © Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Honouring a Genuine Response

Internally, at the AGO, In Your Face definitely gave pause for reflection at a time when the Gallery was undergoing significant change. Transformation AGO was not only physical, but conceptual as well, and led to a re-imagining of the Gallery’s mandate and vision. The Transformation AGO project created a space within which to question the values of the institution as well as the traditional ways of working - questions that needed to be asked in order to move the organization from traditional modes of working to more dynamic, contemporary practices. In Your Face has proved to be crucial to this process as it provided an opportunity to see the faces, and hear the stories, of some of the people to whom the gallery really matters.

As In Your Face evolved, it was necessary for the AGO to become more agile than usual in order to accommodate new work within the exhibition and to respond to public inquiries. Though challenging, somehow this need for increased flexibility, coupled with the open-endedness of the project, enlivened the institution and kept the exhibition in play for much longer than anticipated. The portraits contained within In Your Face also noticeably reflected far more diversity than is usually seen at the AGO, either on the walls or among visitors. Given the fact that Toronto is such a multicultural city, this proved to be an evolutionary step for the institution. Multicultural representation remains a deficiency that continues to be addressed. It is worth noting, however, that on several occasions school children from diverse backgrounds visiting the exhibition were able to point to portraits and say: “That looks like me.” That level of recognition and relevance is essential for inclusion, and In Your Face has helped to prove that museums and galleries can play a role in forging identity, a process that has to begin by honouring the value of the individual.

Figure 5

Fig 5: In Your Face, Installation shot with visitors, Art Gallery of Ontario.

For museums and galleries, achieving social inclusion means actively seeking out and removing barriers to participation. In choosing to program open-ended projects like In Your Face, public institutions can go a long way toward becoming relevant and inclusive. People enjoy being creative and want to explore their own creativity as well as the creativity of others in ways that are accessible, attainable, and engaging. If the museum can act as a catalyst for creativity - and the thousands of people who have participated in In Your Face have shown that it can - then what will happen if we allow our walls to become more permeable?

Extending the Experience: In Your Face and Flickr

While the In Your Face exhibition was being developed at the AGO, gallery staff suggested that it would be interesting to open up the call for submission by creating a parallel project on the Web site Flickr. The idea proposed, inspired by similar work done at the Brooklyn Museum (, was that Flickr could be used as a framework within which to solicit virtual contributions that could also be featured as part of In Your Face, but in the form of a digital slide show that would be incorporated into the gallery space.

The AGO decided not to proceed with integrating Flickr for this project primarily due to concerns regarding copyright, the public display of content that would be submitted on-line, and the corporate use of a Web site that is clearly intended for personal use only. The AGO did,  however, create a Flickr group that made reference to the exhibition and invited users to share their creativity on-line within that context of the Web site itself (

Although it was not possible to create a direct link between In Your Face and Flickr, the experiment did generate valuable experience in relation to social networking and has helped to inform the development of other ideas and projects at the AGO. It also demonstrated that these initiatives are relevant, evidenced by the fact that the In Your Face – Portraits group on Flickr still exists and continues to grow nearly two years after it was created. Some of the other conclusions that have been drawn from this experiment include: 

  • When audiences see themselves reflected in a collection, they can remain engaged over a long period of time. The In Your Face - Portraits group on Flickr currently features close to 10,000 photos contributed by over 900 members and continues to grow every day.
  • Active Flickr users submit their photos to multiple groups. People’s interests are naturally diverse and the relationship between groups is fertile territory for exploration.
  • There is a small group of very active Flickr users. The most active members of the In Your Face – Portraits group have submitted over 150 images each. Viewed over the long term, however, they have not dominated the content.
  • The right idea well positioned will attract people’s attention. People are naturally attracted to content that is relevant and meaningful to them and will remain involved if it is presented in a way that is accessible, inviting and social.
  • There is impact in numbers. People like to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. The fact that the In Your Face – Portraits group on Flickr features nearly 10,000 photos presented within the context of hundreds of million more photos is compelling.

In response to the Transformation AGO project, and out of a desire to assess the potential of projects like In Your Face, the AGO has invested more energy in community consultation to help ensure that the Gallery’s collection and program better reflect the needs of existing and future audiences. At a session, a young participant offered the following observation: “Art is social”. This comment has the potential to become a museum maxim that reverberates across programming areas. Museums and galleries have always been social spaces, but the explosion of social media demonstrates both a hunger for connectedness as well as a desire to see creativity itself fostered in a way that builds a sense of community and belonging.

The Actual and the Virtual: In Your Face and Collection X

While In Your Face kept evolving and growing, the AGO was also in the process of developing its own experiment in social media through the creation of an on-line initiative called Collection X ( Launched in April 2007, Collection X represents a programming and delivery approach that is purposely designed to challenge some of the fundamental practices of museums and galleries. As with In Your Face, Collection X provides a space within which to share user-generated content, but it takes this concept even further by inviting users to curate and interpret their own content using a range of Web 2.0 technologies and concepts such as self-publishing and tagging.

In relation to In Your Face, what Collection X offered was an opportunity to weave together selected portraits from the exhibition, along with a variety of installation shots, to create a virtual version of the exhibition. However, this on-line presentation of In Your Face through Collection X represents more than just a digital document of the original exhibition. In fact, it places it within the larger context of social media, creating an opportunity for an on-line audience not only to learn about In Your Face, but also, potentially, to expand upon the original exhibition by adding additional content or perhaps even creating their own parallel exhibitions to explore similar themes.

Figure 6

Fig 6: In Your Face, Screen shot, Collection X.

Structurally, Collection X is built around the relationships among three main elements: collect, connect and create. Within this structure ‘collect’ and ‘create’ function as headings that represent traditional museum practices, including collection building at one end of the spectrum and the creation of knowledge and meaning through research and interpretation at the other. The heading ‘connect’ literally provides the link between these two practices by inviting users to create on-line exhibitions and connections that are personally meaningful and relevant, using the content that is made available through Collection X.

In order to generate interest and model the kind of content that can be created using Collection X, the AGO worked with various project partners to seed content that includes images, video and audio and to create a range of on-line collections, exhibitions and connections. Collection X was also developed in tandem with another AGO initiative called ArtsAccess that was designed to bring together artists, community members and cultural organizations through art, art making and arts education. Together, Collection X and ArtsAccess were meant to foster creativity within a wider sphere, to encourage broader participation and to build relationships through a combination of on-line and community-based experiences.

For the AGO, Collection X represents a major leap forward in terms of program development and delivery on two fronts:

  1. it provides an opportunity to activate public collections by making them available in new and interesting ways, and 
  2. it makes it possible for the public at large to upload their own collections and create virtual exhibitions using the same application.

As a result, Collection X functions as what has been described as an ‘open-source museum’ that enables users to emulate museum practices while, at the same time, drawing upon a mix of content taken from public collections as well as from collections created by the public.

Collection X provides users with multiple points of entry and levels of engagement. They can:

  • Search and browse images, videos and audio clips
  • Contribute content in the form of images, video and audio
  • Create exhibitions using public collections and collections contributed by the public
  • Connect exhibitions together around themes, issues or ideas to create connections
  • Use tags to describe and identify all levels of content
  • Share thoughts and engage in dialogue through comments and e-mail exchanges
  • Subscribe to RSS feeds and podcasts to track new content

RSS feeds are integral to the design of Collection X as they provide a way to keep users connected to content that is constantly changing. The decision to use them was based on the realization that people need tools to help them sort through the vast amount of content that exists on-line. They also help to address the issue of motivation by delivering prompts to users who are subscribers when the content changes. Within Collection X, RSS feeds give users the ability to subscribe to any thread of content on the site - tags, exhibitions, searches, collections, user profiles - and to receive live updates using an RSS reader. The integration of RSS feeds also means that new content can be distributed and accessed through a variety of platforms and content personalization applications.

What a comparison of In Your Face and Collection X reveals are strategies that can be used to encourage creativity and engagement, even when the intended audience is quite different. Included among the strategies that have proven to be effective are the following:

  • establish structures and frameworks that are open and inclusive;
  • foster creativity without being prescriptive;
  • be democratic and ensure that the processes are non-hierarchical;
  • engage in dialogue and nurture relationships;
  • encourage a layering of voices and a plurality of content;
  • embrace a multiplicity of potential outcomes; and
  • honour the collaboration.

Based on the examples of In Your Face and Collection X, AGO has found that these kinds of endeavors can succeed if the idea being explored is authentic and engaging, the process is transparent, the structure is flexible and the outcome is open-ended. For public galleries in particular, such an approach has the potential to result in an expanded definition of art as well as the emergence of a new kind of aesthetic that is rooted in the authenticity of the experience, a critical mass of creative content and a willingness to allow the work to assert its unique identity. It is critical that these conditions exist so that the participants are able to see their knowledge, creativity and experience reflected back in ways that are meaningful and respectful.

Museums in Partnership: In Your Face and the Portrait Gallery of Canada

The Portrait Gallery of Canada, a programme of Library and Archives Canada, is part history museum and part art gallery. The Portrait Gallery's active program of traveling exhibitions, educational initiatives and community partnerships brings a unique collection of more than four million paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, photographs, films and caricatures to all Canadians.

Faces from the past and present, known and unknown, tell the story of Canada, while contemporary works explore today's issues. To broaden and deepen the Canadian experience, the Portrait Gallery is forming partnerships with other cultural institutions nationally and internationally. The faces and voices of past generations influence and inform Canadians today. The Portrait Gallery of Canada's mission is to honour, commemorate and celebrate those who have shaped this country, while redefining "portrait" for a new century.

Figure 7

Fig 7: Office of the Portrait Gallery of Canada. © Library and Archives Canada/Portrait Gallery of Canada.

Library and Archives Canada developed the National Portrait Collection based on works amassed since the 1880s, with the goal of documenting historical personalities important to Canada's development. In November 2007, The Government of Canada launched a Request for Proposals (RFP) to locate the Portrait Gallery of Canada in one of the following cities: Halifax, Québec city, Montréal, Ottawa-Gatineau (National Capital Region), Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. The RFP advertisement is closing April 16, 2008.

In early spring of 2007, representatives from the Portrait Gallery of Canada (PGC) met with colleagues at the AGO to discuss collaborative opportunities. Over the course of this meeting the institutions also expressed their respective challenges - the AGO’s challenge to continue to make In Your Face available during a period of renovation, and the PGC’s challenge to initiate real-time programming in the absence of a permanent building.

Back at Library and Archives Canada, PGC management approved the partnership. Staff secured an unused exhibition space and worked closely with the AGO and colleagues at Library and Archives Canada. They also initiated a great relationship with Wallack’s, who generously sponsored art supplies and frames for the exhibition space (a model inspired by the AGO).

On October 29, 2007, the PGC launched its first exhibition in Canada: an exhibition organized by the AGO, featuring approximately twelve thousand portraits submitted by the public. Portrait  submissions continued to be accepted on-site. Over 100 people attended on opening night; kids were making portraits; adults enjoyed portrait-tini’s; Canterbury Art Students provided a live portraiture demonstration; the podium was set aside and replaced by a television-inspired talk show format; three giant puppets greeted the crowd in the exhibition; and some great Canadian tunes had people moving about.

Figure 8

Fig 8: In Your Face exhibition in Ottawa, Canada. © Library and Archives Canada/Portrait Gallery of Canada.

Two weeks later, programming started and is still ongoing.

  • From November 2007 until June 2008, twice a week, two classrooms (grades 4-12) visit In Your Face and experience educator-led curriculum programming. Information about our programming was shared with teachers through a collaboration with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton School Board.
  • Examples of public programming include Video Portrait Mosaics, Eat Me, Valentine! and Portraiture 101. A self-portrait on a cake required an extra dose of creativity. Elizabeth-Todd Doyle, Curator Education, collaborated with the Billing’s Estate Museum and the Nepean Museum to welcome our programming into their space and into their community
  • Guided Tours of the exhibition were added in the New Year. The tours have increased the reach and helped to identify new publics such as English as a Second Language
  • Two teacher events allowed the sharing of techniques and new ideas for using portraits in the classroom
  • New Media Programming enhances and shares the experience through on-line exhibitions, news items, capturing and editing image, video and audio content for presentation onto the PGC Web site

The exhibition has been extended from March until September 1, 2008. Programming is currently in the works to accompany the duration of the exhibition. Coming this summer, Canadians will be able to contribute their portraits on-line through a simple service enhanced with an exhibition feature. The AGO and the In Your Face exhibition have clearly enabled the PGC to initiate programming. The catalyst that pushed PGC programming was the ability to see beyond a building. The museum is not the building. PGC staff are working on the foundation of the museum by challenging the interpretation of space and programming, both physical and virtual. Their commitment to reach out to a national audience remains at the forefront by proudly defining themselves as a gallery without walls.

Figure 9

Fig 9: In Your Face exhibition in Ottawa, Canada. © Library and Archives Canada/Portrait Gallery of Canada

The In Your Face exhibition has proven to be an energizing experience for both PGC and Library and Archives Canada. In Your Face is already being referred to as a model of public engagement and collaboration. Between this exhibition and other projects currently underway, it is challenging to take some time to reflect and share lessons learned and to explore ways to sustain this energy. Still to be addressed at the PGC is the question of what to do with portraits that the public has shared and entrusted to the Gallery. This type of engagement creates expectations on the part of contributors. Are the portraits to be acquired into the collection and cared for; made available as a study collection; digitized and made available on-line? Exploring ways to answers these questions will help to inform how the PGC will continue to engage with Canadians and how Canadians will choose to engage with us.

Questions Asked and Lessons Learned

What happens when public institutions like the AGO and the PGC function more as catalytic agents and increasingly relinquish control? What if, instead of positioning ourselves as gatekeepers, experts and judges, we strive to establish ways of working that are inclusive and that honour creativity in a broad range of forms?

The overwhelming response to In Your Face, in all its manifestations, would seem to offer one possible answer. Starting out as the seed of an idea, it took on a life of its own grew into something bigger than ever could have been imagined. It gathered momentum drawing on the strengths of the institution and the public and, along the way, captured the imagination of both. This strength was rooted in community collaboration, collective forms of creativity and a shared sense of ownership that demonstrates what can happen when institutions and the public work together as both producers and consumers of culture.

Within this context many other questions are being asked, including, “How do public institutions maintain standards of excellence while, at the same time, achieving accessibility?” At the AGO there has been a conscious shift toward a more balanced approach from ‘curatorial expertise is paramount’ to ‘visitor experience is paramount’. In order to achieve this balance, and in order to assist all areas of the gallery to share in this vision, a set of guiding principles have been developed to direct the work of the institution; they include relevance, responsiveness, creativity, transparency, diversity and forum.

As another element of the Transformation AGO project, all decisions regarding exhibitions, acquisitions, interpretive strategies and educational programs are now being made based on these guiding principles. Not surprisingly, such a move has prompted endless debate and discussion within the institution, a healthy sign of movement towards a more democratic process. Questions of quality and voice are still being argued, but, in order to remain relevant, institutions must pay attention to what is happening within the larger culture or risk being left behind.

Is it possible that, by functioning in a democratic way, museum standards may actually improve? As museums become more relevant to broader audiences, and include a multiplicity of voices and art forms from a mix of cultures and communities, what will emerge is much livelier and harder to define bodies of knowledge and expression around which to curate and program. The resulting juxtapositions, debates and discussions will keep museums alert, flexible and accountable. Within this new kind of museum environment expertise will be drawn from many different places and disciplines.

In developing strategies to encourage creativity, engagement, and investment when the museum is off-line, public institutions like the AGO and the PGC have found ways to be more creative in their approach. As part of this process, it makes sense to engage more fully with the kind of practices that have proven to be so successful within the world of social media and social networking. As museums and galleries evolve (as they must), the need to embrace a multiplicity of voices will continue,  as will the need to surrender institutional authority and control. As challenging as this proposition continues to be, it is also exciting, and provides perhaps the only strategy that will work if museums and galleries are to succeed at fostering new levels of audience engagement, public involvement and professional partnerships.


The Art Gallery of Ontario gratefully acknowledges the financial investment by the Department of Canadian Heritage in the creation of Collection X, an on-line presentation for the Virtual Museum of Canada.


McIntyre, G. (2007). “In Your Face: The People’s Portrait Project”. In K. McLean and W. Pollock (Ed.) Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions. Washington, DC: Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated, 122-127.

Cite as:

McIntyre, G., et al., Getting "In Your Face": Strategies for Encouraging Creativity, Engagement and Investment When the Museum is Offline , in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted