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Wednesday, October 30,2013

Using the facilities

Stephanie Kribs helps people navigate the Broad — and use the washroom

by Lawrence Cosentino
Never mind the geometry of light, the relationship between memory and time or transitions in contemporary society. Among the most common queries heard at the Broad Museum is: How do you work the bathroom sink?

Student guide Kiran Webster considers any question, even that one, to be a teachable moment.

As it happens, clean design and clean hands are compatible at the Broad. Messy protrusions like faucets and soap dispensers are hidden under mirrors, activated by hand movements.

“Zaha Hadid’s team didn’t leave anything out, and that includes the bathrooms,” Webster said. “It’s a learning experience for everyone when it comes to working and visiting a building like this.”

On a recent football Saturday at MSU, facilities director Stephanie Kribs watched people filter in to the museum. “They’re looking for the restrooms,” she said. Apparently, there’s a certain look.

Kribs is used to all kinds of interactions with the public. It’s her job to track traffic patterns, make people happy and tweak whatever needs tweaking.

“We see a lot of families that have never brought their kids to a museum,” she said. “We don’t want it to feel like a stuffy museum where everyone has to whisper.”

A jovial man walked into the education wing and wandered into “Less Still,” a mes merizing kinetic installation by artist Lisa Walcott. He watched a set of eight orange racquetballs quietly rise and fall, sometimes hitting the floor with a soft “pwuk.”

“This is what drugs are all about,” he said. “They took a trip, never left the room and came up with this.”

The jovial man looked about 40, hailed from Grand Rapids and wore a jacket emblazoned with prison mug shots of famous people, including Jim Morrison.

It was a matter of time before he started to sound off about the shape of the building.

“You know the vehicle from ‘Star Wars I’” — he corrected himself — “’Star Wars III,’ that drives through the desert and steals the robots?’” (Sandcrawler, right?) “Yeah,” Kribs said. “There are a lot of analogies about the building.”

“In Grand Rapids, creativity is really frowned upon,” the man went on. “That’s my purgatory.”

Kribs took the Fifth Amendment on Grand Rapids and kept on smiling.

She grew up in Bath, which she didn’t consider purgatory, got a degree in environmental science and economics at MSU, and never thought she’d end up at an art museum.

After working at the Wharton Center as an usher, she ended up in the front office when a job opened up at the Broad.

At that time, it was known as that “spaceship” taking shape on Grand River Avenue.

“I felt the hostility in the community before I started working here,” Kribs said. “When I first came on, I still heard it: ‘I wouldn’t work in the ugliest building on campus.’ But I didn’t hear it nearly as much once the building was open to the public.”

Her staff is trained to recognize bewil derment and hesitation.

“Once they get into the building, they’re amazed and sometimes they don’t know what to do,” she said.

Kribs has learned to quickly identify recurring types of visitors. Architecture connoisseurs are easy to spot.

“They take one step in and they start looking at the concrete,” Kribs said. “They’ve been waiting to get in the door and scrutinize everything.”

Seasoned museum-goers walk straight up to the desk, ask for a map and ask how much admission is. (It’s free.)

Other people just wander in. “That’s what we want to increase,” Kribs said. “As many people as we can get into the door for any reason, to go to the bathroom, get a cup of coffee, the better.”

Once people come in, for whatever reason, their curiosity is usually piqued. Kribs had the same experience. “When I first came inside, it was a ‘wow’ moment because it’s completely different inside than outside,” she said.

It’s not surprising that the high concepts behind the Broad’s design don’t always translate to practical reality. Kribs explained that the museum was intentionally placed with its west entrance facing toward the center of campus and the east entrance facing Grand River, to suck the community in.

“It’s great conceptually, but it’s not actually the way people move through this area of campus,” she said. The west entrance gets much more traffic than the east entrance. “No one really walks down Grand River from that direction,” Kribs explained. On some days, Kribs parks the humblest of devices — a moveable sandwich board — on campus to direct people to events at the most conspicuous structure in the state.

Staffers on the floor get plenty of comments from patrons. Broad Museum security officer Marcus Bradley finds that people either love or hate the art, with little in between.

“They say, ‘That’s not art.’ A lot of the stuff, people don’t like,” he said. “Some of it they do. But that’s what art is. It just depends on how you look at it.”

Kribs would rather hear a complaint than get a blank look.

“Contemporary art can be a little intimidating,” she said. “But everyone can get something out of it, whether or not it’s the same thing thatīs written in the wall text or the exact thing the artist spoke about at a lecture.”

I left Kribs at the reception desk and wandered off for a while. The next time I walked by the desk, a man in an alumnus-ish sweater was approaching a student guide. The woman he was with looked a bit mortified. “Frank, come on,” she implored, but he was determined to speak up.

“How are you supposed to find the soap?” he demanded.

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