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In a small room off the Burchfield Penney Art Center's light-flooded entrance hall, a small table stacked with paper coffee cups and a bean grinder welcomes visitors into an unusually homey space.

A red velvet couch in the center of the room clashes with a blue couch in the corner and some low-slung Eames chairs nearby. On the walls, drawings by local artists Harvey Breverman and Donald R. Haug hang above desks and tables, where visitors sit drawing on small squares of paper which will later be taped onto a huge grid on the room's east wall.

At a desk in the corner, you can often find artist Fotini Galanes, who designed the room and will also use it as her art studio through the end of November, scribbling away on a new drawing of her own.

This space, known as the Useum, goes against what we typically think of as the "museum experience." And since the small, interactive gallery was relaunched during the opening of the new Burchfield Penney Art Center in 2008, it has become the most successful local experiment in introducing contemporary art to new audiences.

Galanes' show -- which combines a comfortable setting meant to mimic the Boho vibe of SPoT Coffee with displays of her own work and an engrossing, addictive interactive art activity -- allows museumgoers into the artist's mind and artistic process in a new way.

It goes beyond the two generally accepted methods of wrapping our heads around challenging contemporary art. The first involves standing in front of a painting or sculpture and hoping against hope that the beauty or intelligence of its construction somehow seeps into your brain. The second is to nudge that process along with wall text, guided tours and catalog essays, the quality of which can vary wildly.

But the Useum concept, as the Burchfield Penney's Nancy Weekly explained, manages to bring down barriers between contemporary art and its perception among even the most stubborn members of the museum-going public.

"It makes art approachable, especially for people who think, 'Oh, contemporary art's not for me,' " Weekly said. "Yes it is. Here's a way in. Here's how to become comfortable with it."

Another popular exhibition that was on view last year, titled "Pat Farm," instructed visitors to attach a light to their heads and crawl on their hands and knees like subterranean creatures through a strange world created by local artist Patrick Robideau.

Weekly recalled demonstrating the interactive exhibition to local art collector and museum namesake Charles Rand Penney shortly before his death last April. "He laughed his head off," Weekly said, adding that the exhibitions have had demonstrable appeal both for the very young and very old.

Kathy Gaye Shiroki, who helped to relaunch the space in 2008 after a decade of dormancy and is responsible for its programming, characterized the Useum as a revelatory project for audiences and artists alike.

"I love when you can come in and the art isn't on a pedestal, it's right there in front of you and you can experience and learn along with the artist," she said.

In some ways, immersing yourself in the clever interactivity of Useum exhibitions is an acknowledgment that finding real pleasure in much contemporary art requires an uninhibited mind-set free from the preconceptions that often limit our ability to enjoy it.

The space challenges the artists to make their work more accessible and to offer, as in Robideau or Galanes' case, a chance to crawl into the artist's world or to inhabit their process. Interactivity breeds understanding and that understanding can lead to a serious addiction. And that's the potential glory of projects like the Useum.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com