"We are the people's museum!" PR guru Jeffrey Hirsch exclaimed at the Frye Art Museum last week. This fall's exhibition, #SocialMedium, dethroned the curator and let the people vote on the art. The result is 40 paintings paired with comments posted about them from online participants in lieu of curators' labels. Untranslated comments convey the reach of "the people's museum"—and #SocialMedium drew people from every populous part of the globe.
Their voting booths were Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. On those four platforms, the Frye posted its founding collection in JPEGs and opened voting for 11 days in August. By the end, 4,468 amateur curators had voted for their favorites among the 232 paintings. The museum chose the top 40—Casey Kasem would be so pleased—and selected comments for the wall text. Printed on the walls below each gilt frame, in cheery blue vinyl, are hearts and word bubbles with numbers to indicate votes and comments garnered.
"I like big ducks and I cannot lie," commented "Vanessa Lazo Greaves" on a 114-year-old painting by Alexander Max Koester of a heap of furiously molting ducks, now forever associated with Sir Mix-A-Lot and Nicki Minaj. The very fluffy ducks are everybody's Frye favorite, and have been for years. But the ducks were the victims of a mysterious coup when another bird went viral during #SocialMedium. Nobody knows how, but an obscure portrait of a peacock got 3,525 votes. The ducks got 206. There's IRL, and there's online reality.
A stipulation in the documents that founded the museum back in 1952 says the Frye must always display its founding collection, meaning that #SocialMedium is the latest in a line of experiments to try to pump these paintings with new life. It mostly works, but you may feel vaguely sorry for them. #SocialMedium adds little to the experience of the paintings, beyond a handful of insightful comments—with one gobsmacking exception. She's Stella, a huge, cheesy nude that has never made the cut out of storage before. Ninety-nine voters championed her. (She has so very much hair.) Her spectacular coming-out highlights a hidden perk of #SocialMedium: All paintings needing restoring, including Stella, had to be prepared because the Frye didn't know what voters would choose. #SocialMedium turned out to be a conservation project.
At the entrance to #SocialMedium, two giant walls are covered floor to ceiling with the printed names of the 4,468 curators. Staff members had to transcribe all 4,468 names by hand—even the sort of digital automation that allows an Iraqi artist to respond to a 19th-century German painting in Seattle has its limits.
Meanwhile, the curator is dead. Long live the curator! The Frye says #SocialMedium expands the "citizen curator" spirit it's been cultivating since 2010, when it allowed a group of high-school students to organize a show. Two years later, a randomly selected regular visitor did the job. What's funny is that the Frye, as much as any museum anywhere right now, owes its reputation to curators.
Robin Held, Scott Lawrimore, and Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker (the director who also curates) have transformed the Frye from oil-painting cemetery to contemporary art center in one short decade. Their stardom is of the generous variety: They've remade the Frye by commissioning new works, exhibitions, and publications by living, often local, artists, bringing much-needed air and light into the museum (and tackling that riddle attributed, maybe apocryphally, to Gertrude Stein, that a museum can be either a museum or modern, never both). But this people's museum, with its "citizen curators," is a curatorial strategy, however well-disguised as a curatorial abdication.
That doesn't mean the Frye's critique of curating is not sincere, or right on time. #SocialMedium joins a growing strain of resistance to "curationism," as David Balzer describes it in his new book Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else. At least as far back as 2003, even star curators were promoting "community curating" and declining to call themselves curators, inventing titles like "agents" instead. In 2013, the Essl Museum in Austria claimed it organized the first collection show selected by Facebook likes, same as #SocialMedium. And in the Art Everywhere project, which began in the UK and now spreads across the US, online voters pick art to be mounted on billboards.
Why have even curators soured on "curator"? Balzer's book gives a terrific detailed history. When art became more about ideas than objects in the 1960s and '70s, and later, when every city on the capitalist globe sprouted a sprawling biennial that had to be herded by a curator, curator-kings replaced dealer-kings as presenters, explainers, and legitimizers. Curators assumed the position of the new dictators of the art world at the same time as their power was evaporating in a larger culture that decided anyone could be a curator, including iTunes, Amazon, and the guy with a not-bad idea for an art show in a bar.
"A lot of the curatorial process has moved away from that personal contact between the object and a person," Birnie Danzker, the Frye's director-curator said at last week's opening. Curators, in other words, do not say things like "I like big ducks and I cannot lie." Before you dismiss the comment as a dumb quip, consider its dumbness in context: Maybe it's a perfectly valid human/art experience when fluffy feathers short-circuit the brain.
"Curating has become a business," Birnie Danzker said, "hyperintellectual, competitive."
Well, yes, and it doesn't have to be. But maybe all this talk about curating overcomplicates it. Good curating is self-correcting, full of surprises, driven by deep and nerdy knowledge yet generous, and has little to do with popularity. The institutional truth underneath #SocialMedium is that the Frye's head curator, Scott Lawrimore, left the museum this spring, and has yet to be replaced. The search begins in 2015. Word is that Birnie Danzker asserts a strong hand in her double role at the Frye; both Held and Lawrimore didn't stay with her long. Maybe Birnie Danzker is prepared to welcome more pushback. After all, she was the only one at the opening last week who didn't have a giveaway tote bag with a pin reading "I AM THE CURATOR."
This article has been updated since its original publication.