Thursday, November 6, 2014

Crowdsourced Curating

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) Bohémienne 1890,
deaccessioned by the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts despite popular protests.
Should art museums allow ordinary people — people like you and me — decide what goes up on their walls?

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, some museums have tried the idea. This winter Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History will put on a show called "Everybody's Ocean," which will combine the work of established artists with images and videos contributed by local residents. The Frye museum in Seattle has allowed people to choose the images for an entire exhibition, and the Chicago Museum of History has even allowed people to decide on the theme for an upcoming exhibition.

There are several ways of bringing the public into a curatorial role:

  • 1. The museum curator can choose 50 works and use an online poll to narrow the list to 30.
  • 2. Let the public choose a favorite painting from the collection and feature it.
  • 3. Choose a theme and let the public vote on pieces from the collection, and open part of the show to works lent by—or created by—museum patrons.
  • 4. When deaccessioning artwork, put the decision to a vote.

Alma Tadema's Spring. One of the most
popular paintings at the Getty Museum
in LA, but for many years consigned to
the gift shop. 
Most of these ideas have already been tried, most often to great success. The Santa Cruz museum increased its foot traffic, donations, publicity reach, mailing list, and overall budget.

But not all curators like the idea, and some have quit in protest when proposals have been raised in planning meetings. According to the WSJ article:
"Helen Molesworth, the newly arrived chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, balked at the idea. 'You’re left with 10 paintings that may or may not make sense together, or may or may not be interesting together, or may or may not teach anything about the history of art—it’s not the stuff of knowledge or scholarship,' Ms. Molesworth said. When museum crowdsourcing is raised privately among curators, she said, the subject prompts a reaction of 'silent dismay.'"
I can imagine some reasonable arguments against the idea. There's the "echo chamber effect": The public might tend to choose the same popular warhorses over and over, while lesser known but deserving artists might continue to be overlooked. And it takes a dedicated professional curator to do the research and legwork necessary to put together a comprehensive show that breaks new scholarly ground.

This issue cuts to the heart of the basic functions of the art museum: collecting and preserving artwork, presenting artwork in a meaningful context, encouraging the community to make art, and recognizing the work of living artists.

Let me know what you think in the comments. Are there any favorite paintings in your local art museum that are consigned to the basement? Are there kinds of art that you wish your museum would feature? What advice would you give to professional curators about how to better engage the public?

Read the article in WSJ: "Everybody's an Art Curator"


Mitch said...

While the idea seems "democratic", I have always assumed curators were chosen because they were more educated about Art and Art History than the typical Joe on the street, and they provide a service to the public in shepherding their collections.

My initial reaction was: "Should we send diners into the kitchen to tell the chef how to prepare the meals or what to put on the menu?"

arturoquimico said...

From a practical point of view, art and music are a commodity. Do you want to play a 4hr jazz gig for $75 at a small restaurant and educate or a one hour wedding combining Bach with the Beatles for $200 and entertain rich folks? Museums have overhead and the WSJ shows that going the "entertainment"/crowdsourcing route increases the cash flow and patronage. Once your crowd gets big enough, then you can educate...

S. Stipick said...

Ooh boy! Im going to put my foot in my mouth! Did this hit a nerve! Having worked in a museum and various Art Non-Profits Ms. Moleworth's quote perfectly sums up" some" of the back room arts bureaucratic aristocratic arrogance I have been unfortunate to witness. If the quote is to betaken in the context t is presented Ms. Molesworth's assumes that the public is either less educated and\or less intelligent. While that may be the case in some demographics, and I am aware of a widening gulf of arts illiteracy in poorer social economic demographics, individuals in her shoes should keep in mind the inverse is also true. I think it would benefit many curators today to remember that there was a time in antiquity when professional working artists curated and ran many of the worlds great museums and various departments. Many of those same working artists would have balked at the idea of how museums are curated today. This doesn't make modern incarnations of museums any worse, rather it marks a shift in the conservational methods, exhibition paradigm, and world views on art and arts accessibility.

Perhaps a shift in the paradigm is needed once more. As less and less money is available through federal and state funding creating an incredibly competitive grants and development market, ticket prices rise, and museums push memberships and money gouging special exhibits like never before, It might be in the best interest of a museum to view increased public participation (beyond walking through the hallowed halls and a docent's tour) as beneficial and maybe even necessary. This I believe will become more evident in our ever increasing digital connected world. If involving the public more, however that may be, means more opportunities for the organization and that the curators get to keep their jobs, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Paradigms change and that is okay.

S. Stipick said...

I wish there was an edit button. Always typos! Always typos! Sorry folks.

nimotei said...

It would be nice to have both - a public choice hung next to a reasoned pairing to offer contrast or insight into art history.

S. Stipick said...


I couldn't agree more. No question that there is a compromise to be had. I would expect that too much public involvement might cause similar opportunities as those described in the post to be viewed as mundane, redundant, and average. I suppose there is a fine line to tread.

ElaineB said...

As with most complex topics, success will probably come in the form of hybrid solutions.

I have reservations about trusting curation entirely to public tastes. (Just look at the dismal quality of commercial television to see where catering to enertainment trends can lead.)

But I also have reservations about curation done exclusively by people who have spent their entire professional lives ensconced in the world of academic art. The use of "art-speak" -- the infuriatingly verbose, pretentious, and ultimately meaningless inflation of words used to discuss art -- has made most exhibition catalogs irrelevant beyond the pictures. The fact that curators continue to cultivate ideas within this framework of exclusionary language (i.e., if you can't understand what the hell they mean, obviously the artwork itself is beyond your understanding) is really discouraging. It's as if they cannot imagine how to talk about art and beauty and the creative process in terms that would be understandable to the layman.

Combining increased public participation with the skills of professional curators could be an interesting project, one in which both groups come to a sort of reckoning about what is the real value of art to our society. It will be interesting to follow what happens over these next years.

Unknown said...

From a community outreach point of view, I don't see how a museum could pass up the opportunity. If you could get several thousand people in your area to page through a slideshow of available works and vote on the ones they would like to see; what an enormous benefit! When else would many people take a moment to comb through the offerings of a museum?

Yes, it is more work to interface with the public in such a way, but clever curators could construct the process in such a way that the show is already somewhat curated by the options presented. The voting presentation itself could be seen as a type of interactive exhibit. Combine that with a commentary by the museum about why the pieces that made the cut may have been popular, what pieces they wish had been seen, and other points of interest and I think you could have a really interesting public dialogue about the art.

Dialogue, after all, is the core of good education, though it seems that many would prefer monologue (or at least a restricted dialogue between preapproved parties.)

I personally think making museums more accessible is a great thing for art. The success of comicons and fantasy shows and books should tell us that we have a public who loves artifice and make-believe, and tapping into that zeitgeist to transfer some of that enthusiasm to great works of art would be great. Helping someone see the connection between the master painters of the past and say, the Donato Game of Thrones calendar would be swell.

Wonkey the Monkey said...

The biggest issue I have with crowdsourcing of this kind is that history has proven people are terrible at predicting what new experiences they will and will not like. Whether the subject is art, music, technology, or fashion, letting the public choose what comes next is a recipe for more of the same.

Crowdsourcing an exhibit, if not handled with great care, will be like writing a movie script based on focus group testing. You will end up with something generally pleasing (if you’re lucky), but at the expense of any singular vision that might challenge the viewer.

Shaun Stipick’s objects to the idea that the public is less educated or less intelligent than trained curators. While I agree that there may be many members of the public who are as educated or more educated than the curators, we aren’t talking about individuals. We are talking about “crowds,” which by definition will be of average education and intelligence when taken as a whole. Could any one of the most intelligent members of the public do as good a job of curating as the professionals? Maybe! But why would you assume that 50 highly educated people, 100 people with average education, and 50 uneducated people, all with an equal say in the process, would be anywhere near as good at the job as one trained professional?

Karen Eade said...

On the whole, I think it is better to have exhibitions professionally curated, otherwise we risk never - well - taking a risk. The old adage of "I know what I like" usually just means "I like what I know" and if the exhibits were all popular choice, chances are we would never learn anything. I am including myself in this absolutely, by the way. I need kicking out of my comfort zone as often as possible.
But why not have a visitor's choice room? Most museums are big enough to accommodate this. It is arrogant to put the Bouguereau in the basement just because you think it is out of fashion, when many of your visitors come especially to see it. This is particularly true if your museum is publicly funded as is often the case in the UK.
If an open choice visitors' room is too democratic a prospect, you could I guess give visitors a long list of paintings to select from so that at least their selection will "go nicely together".

Sesco said...

My question would be: "By what metric do we evaluate how well a curator is doing?" Conversely, "By what metric would we evaluate how well the public does wearing the curator hat?" If that metric is income for the museum, then I think we can infer the answer with a competition and simple math. If the 'education of the public' is critical to the mission of the museum, then by what metric can this be measured? If none, then I see no reason why curators cannot live symbiotically with public input. All museums are not equal: some are able to procure established masters' paintings, or paintings of which the public is aware and willing to view for a fee. Museums which cannot afford this cannot compete to the same degree, but what they are able to do is expose the public to lesser known artists. I don't think the general public WANTS to be educated. They already respond to beauty and skill. It is The Educated that want to improve upon The Public's experience of viewing beauty and skill. Scientific research shows that The Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines are impossible to rank anywhere near the published ranking in blind taste tests using the same so-called experts a second time. Again, I see no reason to do away with professional curating, and public input is not a bad thing.

James Gurney said...

Thanks so much, everybody for all these well reasoned and well expressed points of view. The consensus I'm hearing is that curators and the museum public need to adapt to new ways of working together as our respective roles evolve in the digital age. By all accounts, this is already happening at many museums.

A few more thoughts to add to the discussion:

1. We all have to adjust to the new transparency afforded by museum putting files of all their work online, sometimes in high resolution. In the past, the public didn't really know exactly what museums kept in storage.

2. Professional curators do a lot more than write captions or choose paintings for shows. They also negotiate for loans with private collectors and other institutions; the write grant proposals, they work with conservators, they deal with insurance— and those aren't things you can't crowdsource. They also do original research in specific topics, and we can all cherish the museum's role in fostering that professional activity.

3. In a given particular field, such as—let's say—pulp illustration or animation history, the most studied experts may well come from outside the field of museum curation, or indeed outside of academia altogether, and it behooves museum curators and academics to bring them into the process to assemble and interpret artwork for public consideration, and to surprise us with stuff we didn't know about.

4. It would also be exciting to see more exhibitions co-curated by museum professionals and by experts brought in from other fields. Imagine, for example a Renaissance portrait show co-curated by an art historian and a costume historian—or a social historian. Or imagine an academic painting show that benefited from the expert perspective of a contemporary atelier master who could explain and even demonstrate the subtleties of the painting process. The Tate and the MFA in Boston have been pioneering having practicing artists trying to replicate and demonstrate methods used by Turner and Sargent, for example.

If I may toot my own horn here, we experimented with co-curation with a Dinotopia show held at the Smithsonian, where we had one of the Smithsonian's dinosaur paleontologists co-curate the show, and he had a completely different point of view than you would expect to find in a regular painting exhibition.

S. Stipick said...

I can't deny everyone here has valid points and opinions. As usual I have to respect and admire your clearly articulated comments which manage to bridge most of the opinions offered on this topic. All of this is great food for thought. I will quite a bit to think about on my long journey home tonight.

Andy said...

In the Western Australian gallery, almost all of the country's historical art is effectively consigned to the basement.

It's actually an historic building, separate from the much newer main gallery, and is accessed by stairwell or elevator, but there is very little signage to inform visitors of its existence. Many people have no idea it's there.

The main gallery features mostly massive modern kitsch with the usual scrawls, daubs and scribbles. I can usually spend ten minutes up there and feel like I spent too long.

The historic gallery is like a magical wonderland by comparison. But, for some reason, they want it kept hidden. As such, my opinion of public gallery curators is not high.

S. Stipick said...

I have pondered the many view points, in agreement, opposition, and those that find merit in the delicate space between and while there is probably no need to interject any more, I feel compelled to do so. Probably to my detriment. Before I do, I feel that it is best to warn you, this may be a long one. Should you find yourself old a decrepit by the time you finish reading this post... you have been warned!

As Mr. gurney rightly pointed out and as I alluded to vis-a-vis “[sic] ...changing world views on conservation and arts accessibility.” The role of the curator is indispensable. They are important as art moves continually from the hands of the private collector and into public forums. For everyone with the ability to partake in this bounty of publicly available art, this is a monumental victory, as we no longer have to appeal to the powerful select few to enjoy great masterpieces, little studies, etc. One of my favorite books (its a compilation), which resides on my night stand, is Delacroix's Journals. It is always fascinating to read a diary entry describing a visit to so-and-so's house to view a Rubens, or a Titian, or some other great master. Every time I read a passage on the musty brown crumbling paper, it is a humbling experience; because today in my country, should I wish to view a grandiose collection of some of the finest masterpieces, I only have to travel 20 minutes in any direction. If I want more another hour, and if I want even more an hour and a half, and then 2 hours, and then 4 hours. The amount of art that is accessible to me, and my fellow citizens of similar proximity is astounding. To previous long since deceased inhabitants of this pale blue dot, the enormity of publicly available art, spanning so many disparate tastes, cultures and subject matters would most likely be incomprehensible. I am truly lucky. So it must be internally appreciated and publicly recognized that none of that would be possible without teams of highly educated, most likely underpaid, and passionate curators and conservationists. Their contribution should not be underestimated and certainly appreciated and respected.

Despite being a necessary and important cog in the wheel of art conservation and exhibition, how much influence should a curator or any academic have on public taste? How often have they been given this honor over the last century and how is\has it been used so as to change or shape the public image of what constitutes good art? Is this morally and ethically important? If it is, how so?

to be continued...

S. Stipick said...


To Illustrate:

There was an incredible exhibition of 15th-16th century Italian drawings at a prestigious university museum this year. I went no less than 5 times. I must absolutely state that this was a exhibitive masterpiece. I don't suppose I will ever see a show like this again in my lifetime and if that is indeed the case, I will forever remember fondly the experiences I had. To watch great deified Disgeno masters struggle to find volume and form like us mere modern mortals, was humbling. To watch a drawing evolve from those struggles on the same page to nothing short of a miraculous work of art in miniature, the heights of which I will probably never achieve was heartbreaking. Never in my life (all 37 years, a short time I know) have I been so captivated at any art exhibit. This was nothing short of amazing. But! There is always a but. Residing within this display of virtuosity were two Modigiliani drawings. Out of place and awkward, uninspiring and jarring, these two drawings didn't belong and were like graffiti on a beautiful historic building. Why were they there? Was it attempt to demonstrate the evolution of art? Was it to offer counterpoint? I filed this in the back of my slightly firm yet gelatinous barely evolved gray matter that occupies my skull and decided to revisit. The second cisit I brought a prolific and professional comic book inker, a modern technician of multiple figure perspective in confined picture planes and similar mark making techniques. The third visit I was accompanied by a modern master of the Disegno movement as it exists today, a skilled painter and draughtsman who currently paints medium and large scale commissioned works for the Catholic Church, whose process and subject matter is not much different than the same masters on display. Truth be told we went there to look and be awed. However, eventually we would talk about these two ugly ducklings and their importance or lack there-of in regards to the show. The conversations while direct and short, both came to similar conclusions. The Modigliani drawings had no relevance and we were left with a couple of conclusions. The first conclusion was that maybe this was an attempt to assert the concept that the Modigiliani drawings were of the same quality and importance as the great masters. Secondly, perhaps a founder, sponsor, or some individual of perceived greater importance than the curator insisted the Modigliani drawings were to be included. If it was the later than some level of empathy and sympathy should be offered. These are the concessions we often make when we are passionate about a project and will do most anything to give birth to our creation. However, if it was the former, than one has to revisit the questions above, and perhaps consider as a society looking at potential paradigm shift, and ask whether or not as part of the educated public, do we want select individuals who depend on public participation and often funding with access and control to the majority of art, deciding what is in good taste? A complicated confusing matter and line of thought to be sure.

to be continued...

S. Stipick said...


People would line up around the block to view a Maxfield Parrish landscape when exhibited in a department store window. Yet try to find this master colorist's works in a major museum is trying at best, however Matisse is everywhere and is seen as a colorist beyond compare. Better than Maxfield Parrish? Has or was public taste dismissed? Michael Aviano languishes in anonymity, a modern master deserving of prime real estate in all of the best museums, but I know that almost know one knows of this incredible living treasure. The most popular painters of the 19th century are denigrated and resigned to kitsch for 100 years, only recently becoming popular once again. Norman Rockwell is considered “just an illustrator”, although thankfully public perception is quickly changing in this regard. Who makes these designations? I suppose it is a complicated issue, resigning itself to several parties such as popular practitioners of the visual arts, art historians, collectors, curators, and other academics who are in control of the artwork, various publications, and educational policies. Who has the ability to change and alter these designations and increase or decrease public awareness? The very same people. Its a frustrating system bound to the tastes a group that claims art is for everyone, can be made by everyone, but then frequently discredits the very same individuals that that constitutes the concept of “everyone”. Where frequent public outcry is often met with “you just don't understand” and those of the public with similar passions and educational qualifications are continuously dismissed because they don't belong to that specific clique.

I do not wish to dismiss or diminish the importance of the current system that is in place. Its is important and will hopefully ensure the survival of many great works of art for many millenia to come; barring a mass extinction or some other sort of global catastrophe. Aa a general rule of thought, I hope to see a more complete inclusion of many different viewpoints from many disparate sources. It will be difficult and often problematic, but all things of great undertaking are. It will create a better market place for art and make it more accessible to public consumption (intellectually speaking, please don't actually eat artwork, unless its performance art, but then again it still seems like a bad idea to me). We stand at a great precipice where our technological advances allow us many privileges and solutions to past problems. We should embrace these opportunities, learn from them, and create incredible experiences that reinvigorates the public's desire to experience great visual art in all its forms

S. Stipick said...

And as always there are typos. Never obvious in this little box, always obvious after clicking the publish button. My apologies.

jeff jordan said...

Change always begins with a few brave people having the opportunity to do something new. At first it's reviled, then they see there's $$ to be made by doing it that way, there's a general exodus in the new direction. Sounds like the Smithsonian exhibit you did, Jim, would be an example of the possibility to change the paradigm.

Sorry to hear that Bouguereau got deaccessioned. I've been to the MIA several times--an amazing place!

James Gurney said...

Shaun, Thanks for taking the time to write down what you've been thinking. You raise a lot of frustrations that many of us share about the way some museums seem to be run, regardless of our individual tastes.

Whether curators follow or lead public taste is an open question, but there are encouraging signs, and that's partly because magazine critics and museum curators no longer have the central cultural role of tastemakers; they have to share the job with many kinds of citizen journalists. It's much more common these days to see Rockwells and Sargents in important museums than it was when I started going to art museums in the '60s and '70s.

I have had the opportunity over the last 10 years or so to have dinner with a lot of art museum directors, and I always try to bring up the perception that I hear people articulate that "Museums have some ideological predisposition against illustration/fantasy/realism/academic/popular/comics"-- or whatever category you wish to put in the slot.

What I hear back, sincerely and convincingly, is that museum directors are probably the most openminded of anyone in the art world. Their primary concern is keeping the museum on sound financial footing, and they have to be open to anything that helps them do it.

The smaller museums away from the big cities, the museums who really know their public, are often the most adventurous, putting on shows of artwork that really break new ground (such as skateboard art or Broadway costumes). And sometimes the contemporary art museums put on shows like the art of Tim Burton that bring in huge crowds and give courage to other more conventional curators.

Let me mention one other exciting culture-jamming trend, and that's the ability of people to create their own custom audio podcasts on mobile devices to guide people around museum shows: the true citizen curator. Here's a link to a website about creating such an audio tour:

Anonymous said...

James, I like the idea of #4 that you offer halfway down -- but that is not quite crowd sourcing, because you are tapping into a different type of specialist with a different way of looking at the subject. I'd like to get Calvin (and Hobbs) to curate a show about dinosaurs. Might get a whole new way of looking at the creatures.

I think a room in a museum dedicated to some sort of "crowdsourced" show or an occasional show is not bad, but good curatorial skills are invaluable. And bad ones teach nothing.

I grew up in Los Angeles and went several times as a kid interested in art to the LACMA, and regularly in college. Not even once was I thrilled, and often wondered why Picasso, for instance, was such a big fricking deal (teenager talking.) Art teachers droned on in college, boring me to death, and I never once saw their point (didn't major in art but took several classes as an architect.)

At 21 I saw Monet at the MET and feel in love. At the Whitney I fell in love with Calder. At MOMA with Kandinsky. Good curators, all, presenting me with amazing artists. (And don't even get me started about Rothko -- at LACMA they pushed him up next to paint flingers. Didn't even give him his own quiet corner for contemplation.)

In Paris I saw the best curated show ever, and understood Picasso without ever once reading a single word (French.) A visually brilliant curator had hung a show with contemporary artists next to each other in various years. I could see the man stepped off the deep end in creativity with a point. Amazing. I also began to understand that some painters pain light, and some paint objects.

The point is, there are many bad boring curators, but a good curator will excite the public. A couple of years ago I joined a local museum because of a Rothko exhibition. I wanted to be able to see it many times, and so the year seemed a good deal. We went to several shows, and all of them were so bad. So. Bad. This curators only move is to put a lot of art in a small space and turn off the lights with some pinpoint focus spotlights and it reminds me of a garage sale, stuff all around the room.

Some of the reason museums are suffering is bad curation. Some is that they are too expensive (for the reasons Shaun outlined.) I think a balance could be struck, especially if the curator can't excite the public with a good show.