Art in the time of Instagram

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I was politely asked by the staff not to photograph The Blue Dancers by Edgar Degas. I walked around it, committing the details to memory. The next week, a friend and I stepped into Color Factory’s pop-up museum in Lower Manhattan, and they handed us a card with a QR code. “Every room has a camera. You just have to scan this card, and it will take pictures for you — how many ever you want,” the staff confirmed.

We stood in a giant room with sharp red disco lights and scanned the cards repeatedly. We lay down on a giant pie chart, and the cameras on the ceiling flashed furiously. Inside a room full of floating balloons and a giant pool of blue balls, we took enough photos for a holiday album. As soon as the photos were clicked, they were sent to our inbox. By the time we were out of the venue, we were comparing our Instagram hits.

The 20,000 sq ft Color Factory — which opened in San Francisco in 2017 for a month, but kept its doors open for eight, before coming to New York last year — is among a new strain of museums that is emerging around the world. At first sight, they may appear as glorified studio rooms. But on a closer look, they are a hot melting pot of art, brands and social engagement.

Art in the time of Instagram

Recent proliferation

What kick-started the trend probably was the Insta-popular Museum of Ice Cream, which opened in New York in 2016. Celebrities including Beyoncé and Katy Perry posted pictures of themselves standing next to giant popsicles and a pool of sprinkles, transforming it into an important pop culture spot. Nearly 30,000 tickets were reportedly sold under a week. The museum, which had close to 30 corporate sponsors, became such a hit that now it has a pop-up retail brand called The Pint Shop with its own signature ice cream flavours.

In the last three years, a host of such places have emerged: Happy Place in Los Angeles, with a room full of marigold flowers, a pit of gold plastic coins and a rainbow-grilled cheese sandwich; Egg House in NYC, with its giant egg crates and a pool filled with white and yellow balls; and Candytopia, which travelled to New York from Los Angeles, with recreations of popular works such as Mona Lisa and Starry Night, done in candy. Not to mention the All Avocado Museum (imagine walls made from skins of avocados) in NYC, the Museum of Pizza in NYC, which has a cheese cave and a pizza beach, and WNDR Museum in Chicago, an art and science pop-up with a zero gravity ball pit.

Art in the time of Instagram

There is none in India yet. “We are still grappling with bandwidth and telecom spectrums here,” says Bose Krishnamachari, founder member-president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation.

Some call the new art spaces Instagrammable museums, and others, selfie factories. All of them are pop-ups (averaging six months in one city), can be toured in less than 45 minutes, and are designed to be photo perfect. Most have artists and brands they collaborate with. For example, Museum of Ice Cream’s corporate sponsors included American Express and Tinder. And two of Color Factory’s rooms are sponsored by Maybelline and Gymboree.

Tina Malhotra, Chief Operating Officer of Color Factory, says their first priority was creating a space where the visitors do not just see but experience art. “We created Color Factory as exhibits of colour and experiences... those two things just happen to be very translatable on social media.” Clarifying the difference between these and traditional museums, Kassia St Clair, a London-based author and colour expert, who collaborated with the Color Factory, says, “There’s an immediate value — things to eat, touch, hear and do — that only visitors can experience and which make your visit feel special and unique.”

Art in the time of Instagram

The new art patron

But unlike in MOMA or the Whitney Museum of American Art, there is no room to sit, contemplate and study artworks. Everybody follows a take-a-photo-and-move-on philosophy. “Social media has truncated the museum experience of contemplation towards a more instant gratification experience,” notes Katherine Page, curator at The Delaware Contemporary museum. The pop-ups cater to the obsession with keeping a well-polished and lively identity on the web.

But can they be taken seriously in the art world? “I would not dismiss them as gimmicks. They add to our kaleidoscopic experience of art in particular and culture at large. We should be responsive to a wide array of cultural stimuli, without trying to arrange them in a fixed hierarchy of presumed importance,” says Ranjit Hoskote, art critic and poet.

According to art historian Patrick Coue, they teach us more about society in general than art or visual culture. “A millennium museum must be interactive, fun and ‘instagramable’,” he says, adding, once the images are online, “the number of likes, acknowledgements, re-sends have become an important factor in deciding to go see a particular museum or exhibition”. So much so that “traditional museums have had to rethink their interactions with the public and how artefacts are being talked about. A lot of them are making a point to revisit, rereading their collection, contrasting and challenging artifacts so they can speak, educate and entertain most visitors,” he says.

Art in the time of Instagram

Keeping up with the times

According to Hoskote, a social media presence undoubtedly raises the saliency of an artist or an art exhibition. It draws wider attention, reaches out to an inter-generational audience, and allows for a measure of global access. In 2015, the popular Renwick Gallery in Washington DC opened Wonder, an immersive artwork with site-specific installations. It soon became an Instagram hit, and reportedly brought in more visitors during its six-week run than what the gallery sees in a year. The National Building Museum in DC, as part of its summer exhibit in 2018, had a pyramid of cushions and a styrofoam igloo that people could walk into. The Indianapolis Museum of Art rebranded itself as ‘Newfields’ in 2017, into a place of social engagement and art, complete with a beer garden, a performance space, and an artist-designed mini golf.

In 2018, when Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s exhibition opened in the 148-year-old Museum of Fine Arts Boston, there was a line on the wall that read: “If you don’t share a photo from this exhibition, did you really visit it?” And with technology and the advent of high-quality images, the boundaries between the real thing and a photograph are getting blurred. “So we shouldn’t be surprised that artists and cultural institutions are using the same visual “marketing” techniques as other businesses through polished and enticing images,” says Coue. This library of floating pictures on the Internet is definitely a crowd-puller. “It’s only time before it becomes a default marketing system,” Tyler Baillet, co-founder of Rosé Mansion, a Rosé wine-themed art space in New York, adds.

However, the art pop-ups, while redefining what museums stand for, are not so much heralding a new art movement. “Instagrammable museums are only an addition to the way we experience art. It is an appendage to the selfie syndrome. The traditional meaning of museums can’t be changed just as a library or theatre can’t be replaced,” concludes Krishnamachari.

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Printable version | Apr 29, 2021 9:36:38 PM |

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