Museumgoers generally have plenty to say about the art they see, but rarely do they get to choose what is on display. This summer, however, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis invited visitors and web surfers to select content for “50/50: Audience and Experts Curate the Paper Collection.”
“This process challenges curatorial models that many of us grew up on,” Walker Art Center chief curator Darsie Alexander says. “I’m sure a lot of voters didn’t know much about art at all and were looking at this as a fun thing to do in ten minutes. The spirit for “50/50″ is meant to be open and generous and lighthearted.”
To assemble “50/50,” 183 images from the Walker’s paper collection—ranging from a Charles Demuth drawing to a Helen Frankenthaler lithograph to a text-only Kerry James Marshall relief print—were displayed on the museum’s website and in a kiosk set up inside the museum. For six weeks beginning August 1, some 1,900 voters offered 231,719 positive or negative evaluations of the matchbook-size scans. When the show opens December 16, crowd-pleasers will be arrayed on one side of the gallery, while on the other side, Alexander will respond with works she has selected.
Alexander describes “50/50” as an experiment aimed at rethinking the relationship between museums and their constituents. “People always have opinions. This exhibition gives those opinions a little bit of agency so that people feel they actually have a voice.”
The Walker show follows a larger trend of “crowdsourcing” cultural fare, ranging from American Idol–type television contests to museum solicitations for public input regarding labels, programming, and, most recently, exhibition content. For the past two years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ArtPrize has invited such venues as taverns, bookstores, and libraries to exhibit art and then have viewers vote on it. The artist with the most votes wins $250,000. The Brooklyn Museum, inspired by James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, staged a 2008 photography exhibition titled “Click!” that ranked entries according to feedback from museum visitors and online voters.
The Walker’s engagement with citizen curators spawned some quirky choices. Works by Picasso, Warhol, Hockney, Ruscha, Miró, Chagall, and Matisse finished in the middle of the pack. British artist Fiona Banner’s 1998 Break Point earned the most votes—868. Inspired by Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action movie Point Break, the screenprint takes its shape from dense text descriptions that appear illegible when rendered on the small screen. Edgar Arceneaux’s graphite and gouache House Upside Down (2000) was runner-up, with Chuck Close’s 2000 Self-Portraitprint grabbing the number three position.
For the “curator’s wall,” as she calls it, Alexander selected works by Joseph Beuys, Jasper Johns, Tetsumi Kudo, Kiki Smith, and Kara Walker. “I waited to see what people voted for before I planned my side,” Alexander says. “The public wall has a freeform, scattershot look, really conveying the experience of browsing images in daily life. The curator’s wall is about depth, looking closely, presenting the artists with more than one example of their work, which is how we try to collect.”
Hugh Hart is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer and musician who reports on art, design, and pop culture for Wired.com and the New York Times.