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Instagram-Worthy: Sharing Art in the Age of the Museum Selfie

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By Ariel Thilenius of The Woodruff Arts Center
Fellow museum-goers, there’s no more denying it: the art museum selfie is here to stay.
Its ubiquity has even required museums to proactively manage its presence. The next time you visit an art museum, note the ways in which selfies are encouraged—are you invited to participate in AR experiences while you’re there? Does the space have a mobile app encouraging branded photos? Do you take part in #MuseumSelfieDay?
But the onsite picture you take at a museum is now more than just a digital memory. Millions of dollars have already been spent strategically creating the above experiences, all in the hopes that you will share your photo and tag the museum on your social channels. After you hit “post”, it’s free advertising in a multibillion dollar industry, and museums around the world have taken notice.
One museum in particular has made a killing off of plagiarizing the works of Yayoi Kusama, Chris Burden, and the Museum of Ice Cream. In a recent piece by artnet News, an Indonesian museum described as a “selfie paradise” called Rabbit Town has garnered viral social media attention for its unsolicited reproductions of Instagram-worthy installations. It’s obvious that more than just the concept for an Instagram-friendly gallery was taken from Kusama’s Obliteration Room and the Museum of Ice Cream; these knockoffs are a way to attract local patrons and get viral social media press for unoriginal ideas.

“The Obliteration Room” (2002). Collaboration between Kusama and Queensland Art Gallery, commissioned by Queensland Art Gallery. Artworks © Yayoi Kusama.

Amir Sidharta, an art researcher and auctioneer, told The Guardian that Rabbit Town is just following suit in the wake of the demand for social media content. “‘I think Rabbit Town is the kind of place in which the owner is very responsive to what people are looking at in museums,’ he said. ‘People are going to museums not for their knowledge enhancement but more for taking selfies.’”
Responding to the market isn’t the issue, here; the problem lies in replicating the creative process of someone else for one’s own profit. In the world of paid social media, it’s really the medium that pays. I personally support museum selfies* and the efforts created by museums in earnest to educate, even if it’s in a moment of self-indulgence. However, I can’t stand behind the experiential medium of installations being ruined just so hotel magnates like Henry Husada (Rabbit Town’s chairman and chief executive) can have their “selfie paradise”.
So, how can we restore an organic experience to an industry obsessed with paid media?
Don’t support knockoff “museums”. I hope this one is already clear, but it never hurts to reiterate: if you know a pop-up event or exhibition plagiarizes the work of an artist, don’t support its existence. Don’t pay for admission and don’t attempt to pass off their work as the work of the original artist. Every tagged photo is another marketing opportunity for them; the only way to affect real change is to affect their bottom line.
Call it out on social media. Rabbit Town officially opens later this month but the backlash stemming from the comment sections of its Instagram photos will surely affect its long-term attendance. Users noticed a particular installation copying Chris Burden’s Urban Light and comments tagging the Instagram account for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (@lacma) poured in, including a special shout out from Instagram’s favorite knockoff police, @diet_prada.

@Caveal in the Krog Street tunnel circa 2015

Share the real artists behind your selfies. The next time you take a photo at Marcia Wood Gallery or share a video as you ride through the Krog Street tunnel, tag the artists whose work is featured in the (digital) frames. When the real Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibition visits the High Museum of Art in November, you can bet I’ll be first in line to share my experience and her art with my friends on social media. If the artist doesn’t have a social media presence, at least share their name as a hashtag so others can find their work. It’s the easiest way to give them credit for their creation and may even inspire you to learn more about their art.
Whether your phone acts as a paparazzo or a docent on your museum visits, use digital media to help you engage with the artist and share the work you see as an educational resource (or aesthetic inspiration) for others. Do it for the ‘Gram, but more importantly, do it for the art.


Column by ARIEL THILENIUS, Communications Manager, The Woodruff Arts Center
*except where prohibited or where doing so damages the integrity of the piec

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