Nina Barbuto of Assemble on Makerspaces



Julia Lewis, a recent graduate of the Master of Arts Management program at Carnegie Mellon University and a contributor with AMT Lab, recently sat down to talk with Nina Barbuto. Nina is the director of Assemble in Pittsburgh, an interdisciplinary arts and creativity space located within Pittsburgh’s East End. The interview is transcribed below. 

Julia: Nina, can you describe what assemble is and what your role is there?

Nina: Assemble is a community space for art and technology and we unite artists, makers, technologists, and learners to come and build things as a means to empower and unite diverse peoples made up of many kinds of people. These people then transform, learn, and create together.

Julia: What is your role there?

Nina: I am the Director and the Founder

Julia: Please describe what a maker space is as defined by Assemble.

Nina: Assemble is a maker space and a gallery. Makerspaces are places that people can come and make things, break things, and sometimes they are situated almost like a gym where you can use many types of equipment, other times they are as ubiquitous as an after school space or even the basement of a church. 

Julia: Since Assemble is a community space for arts and technology, how do you see those things come to life in the physical space?

Nina: So many different ways! It really comes down to how we define art and technology, also science, engineering, and math…we’re very much focused on STEAM education.  Everything comes down to the act of practicing and becoming, right? So when you practice science you are observing, the act of seeing the world around you and paying attention.  Then math is how you begin to prove it all. Engineering is how you change it all. Technology arises from the things you have created or changed. Art is really how one would communicate. Pulling things apart and putting them back together gives us that definition of STEAM and all of our programs from after school, monthly galleries, summer camps, painting classes for grownups, and whatever else may be happening all has to come back to this type of mentality where you are building confidence. 

Julia: How important is experimentation in all of this?

Nina: Assemble is a giant experiment! It is its own meta.

Julia: How do you see experimentation being purported by your teaching artists and the programs you offer?

Nina: I think it comes through everything because no one has really done this before. Even though we may be doing things with clay, for example, today we are doing it in a different way.  Or helping kids to see themselves in this new way. Its not just one thing or the other. That’s where the real experiment is, nothing is siloed. Everything is open for everyone to participate.

Julia: Experimentation doesn’t always work out. How does Assemble embrace failure?

Nina: One of our values of our organization is failure as an opportunity. That goes for the design process as well. We’re never done and it can always be better. If it didn’t work out the first time, like it didn’t light up, its not a failure.  You keep trying until it works, this helps to build confidence.

Julia: How do you ensure that these values are being reinforced daily at Assemble?

Nina: We utilize information from surveys, and things of that nature to get a better view of the qualitative side of things.  There is also qualitative data that we can collect, we can do better through these things. Some of our offsite, after-school programming relies on interviews and user accounts. These play out like a confessional, as you see on reality tv. This way kids can talk about their projects in a confessional way so they speak into the Ipad and detail their process. This information is then interpreted into something more tangible, like what was the before and after?

Julia: And finally, what is the most important tool that you use in your office?

Nina: Google calendar. It is a very important tool. As well as document management and other tools. We all need a high level of planning, collaboration, and organization here. Of course laser cutters are important, hammers are important, pencils are important, cleaning supplies…but things that are helping the meta-management have been most important.  I live and die by my calendar. It’s important. Simple, but important.