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Renfroe’s Elevator – The Power of a Magnetic Museum

Bruce Renfroe operated a NYC subway system (MTA) elevator that carries passengers to and from subway tracks 10 stories below ground – a 40-second ride. As Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle recount in their recent book Magnetic: the Art and Science of Engagement, “Back in 1995 when he started the job, Renfroe noticed that everyone was somber, quiet, and unsmiling. One day, he decided to change all that.” He decorated the elevator with family and neighborhood photos, magazine pictures, plants and fresh flowers. He played jazz recordings, greeted every passenger personally, and sent each off with wishes for the day. “Soon his passengers were talking to one another, smiling, bringing in photos of their own to add to the wall, or a favorite CD they thought Renfroe and the others might enjoy. Those passengers became a community, even if only for the 40-second ride each day.”

It didn’t stop with Renfroe—his “vision of a better morning commute,” as the book calls it, was taken up by other MTA elevator operators who hung images, played music, and prompted conversation. MTA management eventually got wind of this artistic elevator renaissance, and – you guessed it – banned the practice “for safety reasons.” Big mistake. Magnetic recounts: “Thousands in the neighborhood came to Renfroe’s defense and signed a petition in favor of reinstating the elevator adornments. ‘It has forever changed the way people go to work,’ said Rosa Naparstek…who led the community efforts on behalf of Renfroe.” MTA eventually signed an agreement with a community arts group to develop elevator decoration projects.

Having recently led a planning process for the Chrysler Museum, one of the six “magnetic museums” profiled in the book, I was stirred by the story’s lesson. Just the barest of artistic content, available for the briefest moment of time, changed lives. Despite its simple realization, the vision was so powerful and accessible, and fulfilled such a deep and fundamental human need, that it drew a community of strangers together toward a common goal, influenced others to adopt a new and unfamiliar practice, empowered the powerless, and conquered an entrenched, unimaginative bureaucracy. Bergeron and Tuttle sum it up well:

Renfroe’s story illustrates how a powerful personal vision, authentically communicated and generously shared, can take root and inspire a movement. If an elevator man in a steel box can align a group of disconnected New York City commuters in under a minute, imagine what a cultural organization or a business with a compelling vision and resources might be able to accomplish.

Learn more at www.magneticmuseums.com.

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