Outdoor Living Rooms Invite Community Input

A strange thing appeared recently on main street in our town of 800: a complete living room. An old padded leather rocking chair and floor lamp filled one corner. A green jacquard couch and a Norfolk Island pine welcomed passersby in another.

The coffee table, with a plate of homemade cookies, bore signs of a life without coasters. A garden magazine promised “25 Backyard Escapes!” The yellow Hoover stood sentry next to the television. Cups of hot coffee and cider greeted guests.

Why were these living room trappings set up on the street? It’s a new technique to encourage community input. The “outdoor living room” was conceived by artist Matthew Mazzotta. He’s used similar ideas in communities in Alabama and New Mexico, and now Nebraska.

Guests were invited to sit awhile, enjoy a warm drink, and share their perspectives. We asked, “What do you think about your town’s identity?” “What brings people together in this town?” and “What are some unknown histories of this community?”

The event is part of our rural art project, “Byway of Art,” funded by an ArtPlace America grant. With the funds, each of the four neighboring communities will create a socially-engaged art. “Socially engaged art” is a new field where success depends on partnerships between community members, community organizers, local service organizations, and artists. The outcome of a socially engaged art project is a work which is specific to its locality, is led by community members, and which engages issues for the public interest.

Maintaining or building community vitality is a struggle that small towns face globally. Local art and creative culture has proven to be a key element in successful long-term vitalization efforts.

The outdoor living room creates a cozy, informal, and familiar setting for community members to talk about their hopes, visions, wishes, and opinions. Because our events are leading up to the creation of works of art, we asked questions such as, “What have seen in another town and would like to see here? What’s missing?” “If we did a project, what would be a great location?” And, “Can you think of any underused resources in this town?”

We learned a tremendous amount. It was clear that many felt as though this was an all-too-rare opportunity to get to share their thoughts and feelings about their community.

What issues and topics need discussion in your town? Consider the outdoor living room as a way to move the conversation forward! We’d love to see images from living rooms hosted around rural America. If you host one, share your story with us on Facebook or #CenterforRuralAffairs.

Feature image: Community members gather for the Outdoor Living Room in scenic Oakland, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the Byway of Art facebook page.