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Make Art, Meet Strangers

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Here’s a story that demonstrates the power of social media to create community: I met Jeff Greenspan via Twitter after I retweeted Michelle DelCarlo (@popupmuseum) when she wrote “Creating communal rather than ‘in tandem’ experiences – Selfless Portraits” I’d been keeping an eye on Selfless Portraits already, a non-profit undertaking which describes itself as “a collaborative art project aiming to bridge the gap between technology and humanity by encouraging small, creative gestures between strangers across the globe.” I think it holds many lessons for museums, as an intriguing example of a) fostering interactions between strangers (something museums often struggle to achieve) b) encouraging people to make art and c) harnessing the best aspects of the digital realm to the world of physical objects. Jeff, it turns out, is chief creative officer at Buzzfeed, and he has a long history of spawning cool projects. I invited Jeff to tell museumers more about Selfless Portraits, and how he envisions it might intersect with our work.

On February 12th, my creativepartner Ivan Cash and I emailed about 150 friends asking them to participate in an online project we were launching. It was called Selfless Portraits,and the premise was simple: draw a randomlyassigned stranger’s Facebookprofile picture and submit yourown to be drawn by another strangersomewhere in the world.

Two and a half months later, over 27,000 people have submitteda drawing of a completestranger’s Facebook profilepicture to These creative interpretations can all be seen alongside the original profilepics that inspired them by visiting the Gallery sectionof the site.

Submissions range from simple stick figures to highly thoughtfulinterpretations in a multitude of mediums. Visitorscan also search the Galleryby country of drawer/drawee. For example, one could find drawings those from Brazil have done of people from France. People can also becomeFacebook friends with those they’ve drawn or have been drawn by, and we’re excited people are actually forming connections this way.

Even though Facebookconnects people all across the world, there’s something a little impersonal about having to do so from behind a screen.This project encouragespeople to look closely at another human being, ponder their face, then go away from their computerand use analog tools and creativity to recreate their likeness. To us, this feels like a unique mix of high techand human touch.

To build this project, we relied upon the guidanceof our Producer, Luis Peña, and the talents of our development team at Rally Interactive. These collaborators haven’tjust built Selfless Portraits, but in essence have adopted it, putting in many hours out of a sheer passion for the project. What makes it so worthwhilefor our whole team is seeing participants tweet and make Facebook commentsabout how they felt making art. So many people shared how they didn’t think could draw, weren’t creative or weren’t artistic.However, once they drew someonethey were able to appreciate their creations and be less self critical. Many claimed they’ve been inspired to keep on drawing. Others felt this was the perfect excuse to pick up a crayon or paint brushafter resigning these tools to in the backs of closets and tail ends of childhoods. While we don’t feel people need an excuse to create, we’re happy to have providedone.

This project has helped us connect with members of the museum and arts communities. We’ve discussed how Selfless Portraitscould be used to help museum attendeesgain a better appreciation for not only portraiture, but also the creative process in general.One suggestion we’ve heard was to have some of the side­by­sides from the Galleryat be projectedonto the walls of a museum. These projections would be accompanied by “stations” (laptopswith SelflessPortraits loaded up) and art supplies.An expert on portraiture could then be guide the group through the process, helping participants focus their observations of their subjects and their process. Or, an event like a SelflessPortraits Draw­a­Thon could be a way to bring tech­centric teenagers into a deeper relationship with their local museum.

So far, peoplefrom over 115 countries have delved into SelflessPortraitsand emerged with a creation sharedin the site’s Gallery. We hope it inspires many more peopleto discover their own talentsas they bridge the gap between the virtual and the real.Should any museum orspace devoted to the arts want to explore a collaboration with SelflessPortraits, please email the project at
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