The Gift of Art

How we designed Art Gifts and why we're open sourcing the application

Greetings from Helsinki to all our colleagues working on the arts and events in cities around the world. Last year, at this time, Helsinki Festival took over our city with the arts. For 18 days from the opening Night of the Arts and a robot choir singing together with an over 2500 strong human choir in Senate Square, to dance, to concerts at the music center and our Huvila Festival Tent by the Helsinki Seaside.

This year as we couldn't safely bring audiences together, we wanted to bring art closer to the people of Helsinki. We sought to still provide a city-wide communal experience, employing as many freelance musicians and performers as possible, but in a safe way.

This spring many of us saw a video during lockdown of an Italian tenor on a balcony singing to his neighbours watching through open windows or on balconies. Take that image and multiply it across the courtyards of Helsinki. Over a three-day long Helsinki Fest weekend we will stage over 30 block concerts across the whole city. About 15 hours of these performances will be shown on live TV, Radio and streamed at helsinkifest.fi

As a prelude to Helsinki Fest, we presented Art Gifts, short 5 minute performances – of music, dance, circus and poetry – safely delivered in front of the recipients house or under their balcony.  Everybody could use a simple web app to send one to a friend or relative, free of charge.  We paid the selected 20 artists a fee per day in exchange for about eight Art Gifts to be performed around a particular district. Hundreds of Art Gifts were immediately booked.

We held to several design principles: 

First, we wanted scale - hundreds of gifts - so the best way to handle the bookings was with a mobile-friendly web app. In the past few years many people have become familiar ordering a car ride or take out meal. So, we thought why not, after this strange spring, offer the same for art performances.  

Second, we wanted a light, distributed production. We required that the person booking the gift be present at the performance welcoming the artist and guiding them to the location. This made the event a social experience and also meant, we didn't have to have additional on-site production support for hundreds of performances. 

Third, we wanted to cover all of Helsinki - including areas disproportionately hit by the pandemic - so we divided Helsinki into eight regions and allocated gifts and artists to each of these.

Fourth, we wanted an element of lightness and surprise, so the art gift - the artist and what they will perform - remained a surprise till delivered. In other words, the person booking the gift could not choose a particular artists or art form.

Fifth, from the very beginning we felt, that if the Art Gifts  were well-received - which they really were - we would share what we created with our colleagues around the world. Developing such a concept and application for just one week in one city is a real effort. By sharing the concept and code, we hope to encourage our peers everywhere to present Art Gifts with local artists, and to further develop the system.

So today we are Open Sourcing the Art Gift web application and the concept. This means that in a matter of days or weeks you could spin up Art Gifts in your own city, saving lots of time and allowing you to focus on the important things, choosing artists and communicating with audiences.

The application is easy to localise to your city and your visual identity. The web app code includes both the citizen-facing app as well as the admin interface for the production team to accept orders and allocate artists to regions and time slots. People ordering gifts and the artists delivering them are kept informed via SMS and email updates. 

We hope many of you will find the application code and our learnings useful, and will experiment with art gifts a part of your activities. As your teams modify and improve the concept and the code, we trust you will share your learnings back with the community.  

Additional materials and link to GitHub can be found at:

helsinkifest.fi/artgifts

A big thanks to Counterpoint for designing and developing the app with our Helsinki Festival team and to our media partner Helsingin Sanomat for launching Art Gifts in print and online.

While we wait for better times to come, and they will come, let’s do our best to keep sharing the gift of art.

Marko