Q: How many curators does it take to mount a good art exhibit?
A: 4,259 isn’t enough.
Yeah, that's cold. But before I get into it, let me tell you a story. It starts as stupidly as it ends.
A few years ago a friend and I were accidentally included in an email invitation to have brunch at a museum with an acclaimed curator. He was in town on account of an exhibit he helped organize. When the museum PR person learned she’d sent the invite to the wrong folks, she insisted that we could still come anyway. OK! We arrived mid-Saturday morning. With time to kill before the brunch, my friend and I wandered the museum, looking at art. The night before, there’d been an open house to celebrate the new exhibit. Wine and cheese and hors d'oeuvres flowed. My friend had been in attendance; I hadn’t.
One of the activities at the open house was a series of “interventions.” A handful of local artists were invited to work the event and stage performances that would interact with or respond to artworks in the exhibit proper. That’s more or less the concept of such an “intervention”: It’s meant to enrich or expand the experience of an artwork.
One of the interventionists brought some spray cans of fake fog. I don’t think the museum folks knew about it or condoned it, because it turns out if you have anything approximating aerosol cans in a museum, THAT IS NOT OK. But this bad-boy artist did, and he used them during the open house.
The next morning, as we walked through the exhibit, my friend located two leftover canisters of aerosol fog tucked away in a corner of a gallery. The artwork they were near consisted of a single theater spotlight pointed straight at the ground. Shoe-gazingly minimal. The contraband fog had filled the room during the open house, when no one was looking or caring. It probably curled and billowed prettily in the cool shaft of white light.
So that Saturday morning, as the two of us passed through the artwork, we sprayed some fog. It wasn’t even exciting. But thinking this was a way we were supposed to interact with the work and that it would make a nice teaser photo, I snapped a few iPhone pics of my friend leaning into the spotlight, haloed in a fine plume of fog, and posted them on Facebook.
In the days that ensued, you would've thought we slashed the eyeballs out of the Mona Lisa or peed on a Picasso. By institutional standards, we committed a grave infraction. I removed from Facebook. Apologies and wrist-slappings were exchanged.
Why am I telling this story? It illustrates an institutional paradox: the recurring hit-or-miss attempts by art museums and galleries to create a party environment and/or sense of contemporary relevance that sometimes result in a botched attempt to activate an otherwise static exhibition. I would lump the Frye Art Museum’s recent exhibit in this category.
For #SocialMedium the Frye asked the public to vote online via social media platforms, nominating favorite works from its permanent collection. Everyone’s a curator! The most popular artworks would be exhibited. The results aren’t terribly surprising: old Frye fan favorites like the ducks are there. Franz von Stuck's Sin is there lurking lasciviously next to a bunch of angelic Bouguereaus. The only dark horse is a painting of a peacock that went viral.
While conceptually semi-adventurous and very much on trend, the flesh and blood reality of #SocialMedium is uninspired. In their current context, the paintings cradled in their magnificent, gold gilt frames seem cheapened, as an effort has been made to turn the galleries of the museum into a walk-in Tumblr, with garish yellow-and-white color blocked walls and vinyl wall text to mimic social media comment sections. Each painting is flanked by a tally of the number of “likes” it received and an assortment of goofy or poetic comments from the peanut gallery curators. One of von Stuck’s paintings—a portrait of The Artist’s Daughter in Spanish Costume—has 87 likes, but no comments. Its little, speechless vinyl comment bubble floats beneath the painting.
A good exhibit these days must do a lot of work to keep your attention. It must take you to the circus and teach you something about social justice (or similar) and please the board of trustees. It has to justify tearing you away—for dear minutes at a time—from soaking up not-paintings-of-ducks-you’ve-already-seen on Instagram. As a novelty and as a way to get people to look at art online, #SocialMedium is a success. But as a framework to experience the art in the museum in a fresh way, it fails to translate from digital to terrestrial.
I'm guessing interactive crowd curation and crowd-sourced exhibits will continue to be a thing. The real upside of such one-dimensional exhibits is that they demonstrate the value of an expert curator, someone who weaves unexpected narratives from disparate sources, who unearths forgotten history, who forges introductions between audience and artist, who picks an appropriate color of paint for the walls. #SocialMedium doesn't even offer a story to be skimmed.