Artechouse founders Sandro Kereselidze and Tati Pastukhova insist their Washington, D.C., art space wasn’t made with social media in mind, but cellphones snapping photos were a common sight during the press preview for their latest show.
“Kingdom of Colors,” which opened Nov. 10, is a mesmerising, undulating video montage of swirling color projected onto 27-foot walls. Two French artists filmed paint, soap and oil with a macro lens to create the piece, and the sumptuous result is the stuff Instagram dreams are made of.
While museums have learned to capitalize on social media to promote exhibits, the way they curate and plan shows may be changing with social media — and especially Instagram — in mind.
A 2017 report by marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen called “Culture Track” suggests that the definition of culture is changing. Participants in the study said they would much rather be entertained than educated, and preferred social interactions, as opposed to quiet reflection, when attending cultural events like exhibitions.
The study also found that 81 percent of responders wanted digital experiences when visiting museums.
Among the galleries that have fully embraced the Instagram wave is the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, which implores patrons to take and share photos.
In 2015, representatives from the museum told The Washington Post that attendance for their exhibit “Wonder,” which included large-scale installations made from unexpected materials like index cards and rainbow string, brought in more guests than the entire year’s attendance combined. Just this week, the museum released an Instagram story with a hashtag that currently boasts more than 77,000 images.
Art critics have increasingly wondered if Instagram-friendly aesthetics are good for the art world.
In the Guardian, cultural critic Kyle Chayka wrote about his dismay at widely shared interior design he said looks pretty homogenous: “reclaimed wood, industrial lighting, cortados and fast internet.” As these looks increase in popularity on our social feeds, Chayka argued, algorithms begin to shape our tastes and push us to find the same kinds of aesthetics desirable.
And in his review of Renwick’s “Wonder,” Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott argued that the exhibit’s seemingly made-for-social-media presentation invited “the visitor to treat it superficially.”
A study by psychologist Linda Henkel of Fairfield University in Connecticut found that participants remembered less about museum objects if they were taking photographs versus simply observing. She dubbed this phenomenon the “photo-taking impairment effect.”
The Hirshhorn Museum is another popular draw for the Instagram generation, especially its recent exhibit of Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” (now in Los Angeles at The Broad). Kusama’s shows attract large crowds, and her work’s transfixing repetition seems to promotes selfie-taking among visitors.
But allowing visitors to craft the perfect selfie has risks, as the Hirshhorn discovered when one such selfie photographer lost his footing in one of Kusama’s infinity rooms, damaging one of her iconic polka-dot gourds and requiring the room be closed for repairs.
Rian Kochel, premier membership manager at the Seattle Art Museum, said he loved seeing the lines around the block for the Kusama exhibit when it came to Seattle.
Kochel called it a “blockbuster of a show,” with social media fueling engagement with new audiences. “It wasn’t a Black Friday, it wasn’t a sporting event. People were this excited and engaged in art in their community,” he said.
But he also felt social media usage hindered the experience, for some users, of an exhibit designed for quiet reflection on the idea of infinity. “Instead, people went in there and were like, ‘I only have 30 seconds to take the best picture, the coolest picture,” he said.
Kereselidze of Artechouse has a different take. He believes that viewers don’t want to be passive, they want to be part of what they’re seeing, add to it and share it with others. While he said social media was “zero percent present” on his mind when developing the Artechouse idea, the gallery now has more than 9,000 posts with more than 1,300 tags devoted to Kingdom of Colors since its opening day.
Artechouse’s other shows have been equally successful on social media. “XYZT: Abstract Landscapes” the gallery’s summer show, garnered more than 9,500 posts on Instagram.
Co-founder Pastukhova said the urge to Instagram is all part of the storytelling process. “Things that we see people capture is an art form in itself,” she said.
Other art spaces seemingly made for instagram, like the colorful and interactive Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles, demonstrate the popularity of the Instagrammable art experience, so much so that the museum is expanding to Miami Beach in December to coincide with Art Basel. Its tag on Instagram, #museumoficecream, yields more than 96,000 results.
In 2014, the Frye Museum took its relationship with Instagram to a new level and curated an exhibit with paintings that received the most “likes” on their social feeds. In addition to hanging the crowdsourced paintings in their halls, they also included the names of the online voters and their comments.
Lev Manovich, director of the Cultural Analytics Lab at New York’s City University Graduate Center, has analyzed more than 16 million digital photos for his book “Instagram and Contemporary Image,” and said his studies found that about 10 percent of tags from selfies were art-related.
Manovich, who has been studying Instagram images since 2012, said that “spectacular” works at museums and galleries lend themselves well to what his research found is especially appealing to the Instagram generation: iconic shapes, simplicity, good lighting.
At the National Building Museum, monumental, immersive installations put up in the summer are especially popular according to Cathy Frankel, the museum’s vice president of collections and exhibition.
For its 2015 summer exhibition, “The Beach,” designers filled 10,000 square feet of floor space in the museum’s great hall with 700,000 white plastic balls. For “Icebergs,” the museum erected faux glacial peaks out of reusable materials, which could be actively explored in and around by museum visitors.
Thirty percent of their annual attendance comes in July and August when these shows are running, according to Frankel.
Frankel said the museum remains cautious about putting too much emphasis on Instagram moments, but owns fully to considering the social feed when designing the patron experience. “I think we would be foolish not to, honestly,” she said.