Haight Street Rat, an oversized piece of street art by the internationally known Banksy, is currently at the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library in Kokomo, Indiana. Anonymous British artist Banksy creates stealth-art that serves as social commentary. His art nearly always reflects the events swirling around us. Earlier this year on the day of the French presidential election, he revealed a Brexit-themed mural showing a workman chiseling a star off the flag of the European Union.
In its original context, Haight Street Rat was presumed to be aimed at the practices of a nearby boutique that allegedly profited from street art without crediting or sharing revenue with the artists. True or not, there’s definitely an oversized, stenciled painting of a beret-wearing rat on exhibit in a public library.
Choosing a foray into street art had inherent risks. The public could perceive it as tacit approval of any and all graffiti. Relationships with business owners or other entities (e.g. police) could suffer if a spate of local spray painting sprang up. It’s a potentially divisive venture for the staff or board. We learned, however, that, just as in finance, greater risk also has the potential for greater reward. In this case, a medium-sized library’s story was picked up by the Associated Press, made news in multiple outlets in the nearest metropolitan area, was promoted state-wide, and continues to travel across the Internet. It is every marketer’s dream.
As is always true, having—and utilizing—a range of staff expertise was absolutely key. Dedicated employees who work with facilities removed and disassembled shelving, patched and painted a wall, and devised a trial run to make sure we could get the shipping crate into the building. Graphic arts literally worked overtime to implement Marketing’s vision. A cataloger, who happens to have great people skills, staffed one of the most vital areas during the event that followed the piece’s unveiling. A processor who is passionate about art arranged an exhibit with a local artist whose surreal style complements Banksy. While media coverage focused on the staffer who thought of bringing the Banksy piece to the library, ideas without implementation have little to no value. It took the whole team, with their varied skills, to bring the idea to life.
KHCPL also benefitted from employees who could think as if they were patrons. They realized visitors would want to do more than look at one piece of art. As a result, there is a display of matted prints of other Banksy work along with specially created handouts including a guide to other art to visit in our community. There is also a “What Would the Rat Say” caption contest for adults and a “Find the Rat” activity for kids. The traffic flow also routes visitors past a station where they are invited to sign a guest book, an act that reinforces the idea that the visit is noteworthy.
To make a potentially big event feel significant to your patrons, spending a little extra money can help to create a “wow” factor. In the case of the Haight Street Rat, a limited supply of commemorative pins has been a real draw. The Friends of the Library came alongside and took the financial risk on another extra, selling a custom-designed shirt. While there are times when it’s truly not possible to splurge, finding the right combination that creates a memorable experience for patrons can go a long way toward updating the community’s perception of what libraries do.
Your big project will probably won’t involve a rat, but the principles are the same. Consider saying “yes” to an idea that’s a bit risky, give staff the chance to grow the idea and let them shine, and look for ways to add in the extras that make it really pop.