Above: Hermann Corrodi’s “Venice”: Image courtesy of Frye Museum
A certain Irish writer and poet once said life imitates art far more than art imitates life. So what happens when social media, a real-time documentation of life, enters the arena? The result might be something similar to #SocialMedium, an exhibition currently on display at the Frye Art Museum. The exhibition melds the distinction between physical works of art and the intangible commentary of the internet community at large.
Instead of being assembled by a traditional curator, images of the Frye’s Founding Collection of 232 paintings were posted around the internet on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram. Every “like” represented a vote, and every comment had the potential to appear next to the painting in the exhibit. In total, 4,468 “citizen curators” from around the world chose 40 paintings through thousands of “likes” and hundreds of comments. The result is a diverse, thoughtful, surprising and sometimes humorous look at what happens when you let the internet assemble an art exhibit.
The exhibition is on display until January 4, 2015, and in keeping with the Frye’s core values of accessibility and openness, is free.
“[For this exhibition], we acknowledged that there’s more than one way to interpret a work of art,” says Jeffrey Hirsch, the museum’s communications director. “The traditional authoritarian means of a ‘curator’ — putting something on the wall and saying ‘this is what it means’ or ‘this is what it’s about’ — is old fashioned and not in keeping with the ways museums have remained relevant to audiences in the 21st century. We took it to the world and we said, ‘Hey internet, what do you think?’”
“It’s the internet. Who knows?”
The idea for a “citizen curated” exhibition came from the museum’s Director and Chief Curator, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. Danzer had wanted to display some type of internet-curated exhibition for some time, but the idea wasn’t put into motion until this past fall.
Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Communications Associate, explained that the Frye is constantly exploring new ways to strengthen the audience’s connection to the Foundation Collection. Hosting an exhibit that exposed the paintings to the vox populi of the internet introduced the works to people around the world, while beefing up the museum’s social media presence overall.
“We have 232 paintings that are on display at all times, and we are constantly looking to re-contextualize them. People love the paintings,” Werner-Jatzke says. “We have a strong membership that grew up with the Frye, and what we’re hoping happens is that a younger population and a new generation will become involved in it. We asked people to take stakes in the paintings through their comments and likes.”
To encourage participation, Werner-Jatzke posted the images on the four social media outlets. Before the exhibition, the museum did not have an established Tumblr presence, which ended up being where the majority of the comments and likes came from by the time the voting ended. One painting attracted so many likes and comments on Tumblr that it ended up being the winning work in the entire exhibition. Titled simply “Peacock,” this 20th century work by German artist Julius Scheuerer features a beautiful, fantastically detailed portrait of the bird.
“On Tumblr, users can re-blog and tag a painting, and someone must have done that with the peacock painting because overnight it got something like 3,000 votes in the last few days of voting,” Werner-Jatzke says. “It ended up being the winning painting.”
“That was sort of a come-from-behind that was a surprise to us. It’s been shown in exhibitions before but we never noticed — the speculation is that the peacock, in addition to being a pretty bird, has symbolic meaning for people of various faiths or cultures around the world,” Hirsch added. “That may be why. But again, it’s the internet. Who knows?”
Keeping it Simple
The voting for the exhibition may have ended, but Werner-Jatzke says people can still participate by recording their thoughts on the paintings and submitting them for other people to listen to as part of the #SocialMedium 2.0 audio tour. The tour is hosted through Soundcloud, and anyone is welcome to upload their thoughts.
“We’ve had a number of notable writers contribute poems or micro-nonfiction. We’re hoping to see that grow,” Werner-Jatzke says. “We’re not expecting huge numbers or along the lines of the people who voted, so we’re mostly hoping that people will listen. We’ve never had an audio tour and we’re excited to offer that to an expanded audience.”
Overall, both Hirsch and Werner-Jatzke attribute the exhibition’s success to the proliferation of social media in people’s everyday lives. People weren’t asked to do anything they weren’t already doing in order to participate.
“Everything that people do to interact with this exhibition, they can do directly from their phone,” Werner-Jatzke says. “You can use whatever you have in your pocket or your bag — we’re keeping it simple.”