This museum gift shop sells art you can’t hang on the wall

May 27, 2015 at 6:10 PM EDT
In Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center is offering art lovers a new thing to collect: intangible experience, direct from artist to consumer. Jeffrey Brown reports on how customers can purchase personal dances, ringtones, even the chance to stage their own art exhibit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: an experiment in personalized intangible art, direct from the artist to a consumer like you.

Jeffrey Brown has the story from Minneapolis.

WOMAN: I’m going to have you walk towards the bridge. And when you see a person in an orange shirt, the show has begun.


JEFFREY BROWN: The show has begun.

I’m just going?

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had been told to meet with performers from the dance group BodyCartography at Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis.

I think I have arrived at the performance.

But it was all very mysterious, especially when this man in an orange shirt began to dance, and he seemed to be dancing just for me. Was I supposed to join in? Confusing me a bit, it turned out, was intentional.

WOMAN: There’s a lot of playing with your comfort and your discomfort to kind of engage you physically in what’s happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. There is discomfort, right, I’m sure, for a lot of people.


JEFFREY BROWN: This personal one-on-one dance is part of what’s touted as a new kind of art commerce, e-commerce, to be precise. The seller is a very prominent museum, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Emmet Byrne is the Walker’s design director and one of the creators of this so-called Intangible shopping experience.

EMMET BYRNE, Design Director, Walker Art Center: In essence, we’re selling ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it a product or an artwork?

EMMET BYRNE: We struggled a lot with the terminology during this whole…



EMMET BYRNE: I think, when you call it artwork, it gives it sort of the reverence that it deserves. When you call it a product, it has a certain honesty that I really like.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Walker is one of the nation’s leading museums for contemporary art. And like museums everywhere, it has a gift shop. But Intangibles is something different, intended to encourage a deeper relationship between artist and audience. And experience seems to be the mantra.

EMMET BYRNE: I also think people are looking for more personal experiences with artists. I think they understand the museum experience and they’re kind of looking for different ways to kind of both interact with artists, but also be a collaborator in the artistic process.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, for example, you could have a personal experience, via e-mail, with Nico Muhly, one of today’s leading young composers. For $150, Muhly would compose an original ring tone for your cell phone, whether it’s a stressful family call or booty call. His 12 offerings were so popular, they sold out in just days, according to retail director Michele Tobin.

MICHELE TOBIN, Retail Director, Walker Art Center: What is so special is that, for $150, you get this exchange with Nico Muhly, a personal exchange. That’s a lot of access to an artist for not very much money. And then you have something at the end and you own it. So it’s a very — it’s a pretty tangible Intangible.

MONICA LARSON: And I’m also trying to cover up the holes in the wall.


Monica Larson was one of Intangibles’ first customers. She bought what was advertised as a potential art exhibit by the design team known as ROLU.

MAN: Maybe the doorway that I was just talking about could come in a little bit.

JEFFREY BROWN: When we met her, that exhibit was becoming a reality in her own living room. After purchasing a zip drive of images and videos, she selected or curated the pieces she wished to display, and then with the help of ROLU designer Matt Olson began installing them.

MONICA LARSON: I love the idea of taking this art and putting it outside of the museum or showcasing it somewhere else.

MATT OLSON, RO/LU: It seems like the Internet is teaching us that institutions and galleries are great, but that there’s another level available to us to interact with art.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was that interaction with an audience that attracted photographer Alec Soth to intangibles. Normally known for large-scale landscapes, he’s recently begun experimenting with his smartphone.

ALEC SOTH, Photographer: Watching my daughter sort of live in this world where a photograph is not something to keep a memory. It’s something to just speak with. It’s language.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, communication, rather than — than, what, a county?

ALEC SOTH: Yes, communication, rather than documentation, exactly, which is the opposite of what my career is based on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Soth’s retail offering, which also sold out quickly, was a series of Snapchat photos, images that disappear just seconds after they are received.

ALEC SOTH: So, this was an opportunity where, with the Walker, I could play with this tool and have these new friends that I’m sending pictures to that disappear.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there was one aspect of all this that made Soth uncomfortable.

ALEC SOTH: I didn’t want to pretend to be a conceptual artist that charges $10,000 for an experience. It’s just not what I am. I’m a photographer and I make prints. And people buy a print, and I understand that. But I’m uncomfortable with buying an experience.



JEFFREY BROWN: An experience vs. an actual printed thing, an object.

ALEC SOTH: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eventually, he and the Walker settled on a price of $100 for 25 images. The money charged for the intangible items is split between the artist and the museum. All noble sounding, but I had to task.

Is this just a gimmick for the Walker?

EMMET BYRNE: The museum already deals with intangible experiences every day. So, seeing a performer, seeing a performance is intangible. Seeing a film is intangible. Even walking through a gallery which features tangible objects is an intangible experience for the viewer. So it made a lot of sense for us to sort of just translate that into our gift shop.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back in Loring Park, dancers Otto Ramstad and Olive Bieringa said selling their dance experiences has raised interesting questions.

Are you comfortable with the fact that your art, your dance is being sold in a gift shop?

OLIVE BIERINGA, BodyCartography Project: It’s exciting and, yes, it brings up a very interesting conversation around art. Where is the art, right?

OTTO RAMSTAD, BodyCartography Project: And how do you put value on experience?

JEFFREY BROWN: You are commodifying that experience.

OLIVE BIERINGA: Which is a beautiful irony for us, because our early work started in response for me not wanting to be part of the art market at all and wanting to just make dance in public spaces.

JEFFREY BROWN: But here you are in the market.

OLIVE BIERINGA: That’s right, full circle.

JEFFREY BROWN: And here am I, Jeffrey Brown, dancing through Minneapolis, for the PBS NewsHour.