How “Instagram traps” are changing art museums

There’s a warehouse in Brooklyn that feels like stepping into a dream. It’s an art exhibit but the only picture frames you’ll see are right here, on smartphones. This exhibit is part of a new generation of pop-up art experiences designed to look good in person and here on Instagram. There’s the Museum of ice cream, the Museum of selfies, the Museum of feelings. Others have themes around colors, dreams, pizza, eggs, candy, and Rosé wine. Basic admission can run around $40 and they often sell out months in advance. These places might not feel like real museums and instead more like a trendy fad with ball pits, but right now they’re shaping how we consume art. In these pop-up museums the room and you are the centerpiece. So that’s what makes it Instagramable, is that you are you are immersed in the actual art. This format, interactive art pieces separated into themed rooms, is hot right now, but it isn’t new. It comes from traditional museums. In the 1960s artists started using museum rooms to create immersive three-dimensional artwork designed specifically for a certain space. It was called installation art. Suddenly, art wasn’t just confined to the walls of a museum; it was immersive and interactive. Viewers were part of it. You can see installation art’s influence on today’s pop-up museums pretty clearly. Just look at the obliteration room, first developed by Yayoi Kusama for the Queensland Art Gallery. It’s a white room where visitors can place colored stickers wherever they want. The Rosé mansion, an Instagram-friendly pop-up has its own version of that. Or infinity room, a series of mirrored rooms that Kusama has been producing since 1965 that has a pretty identical version at the dream machine pop-up museum. Installation art invites the viewer to participate in creating a piece of art or to physically see themselves in it, often alongside brightly colored lighting and simple, elegant shapes. And that made for museum experiences that were inherently photographable. Pop-ups figured out that there was a business to be made out of that photographability. even if it wasn’t attached to a well-known artist. Now the explosive success of those pop-ups is making traditional museums rethink how they do things. People who work at museums are very concerned. It changes the nature of what artwork is most attractive to consumers and so in order to compete with the trendy, colorful exhibits that are popping up, you have to add some of those components to the more traditional exhibits. That conversation often starts here, with museum photography policies. Many museums have traditionally banned photography to protect copyright and light-sensitive paintings, but now that museums are becoming more social media friendly, their policies are changing. Like the Renwick gallery, which started posting “photography encouraged” signs in 2015. It was our way of saying, boldly, it’s okay. You can be who you are, mediate your experience in museum however feels right to you. It’s very rare that museums are no photos anymore. I mean that change has just been in the last five years. And when museums host selfie-friendly shows, they become blockbusters. The exhibit Wonder helped break the Renwick Gallery’s yearly attendance record in its first six weeks. 2015’s summer show “The Beach,” at the National Building Museum brought in 30% of annual attendance in just two months and when the Hirschorn held a three month show of Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, the museum increased its membership by a whopping 6,566%. Instagramability drew in a crowd that might not have come to museums otherwise. Honestly I’m here just to take pictures, you know. I saw lots of pictures on Instagram and that prompted me and my friends to come here. Ow! But for museums who still have rules about taking photos, it’s hard to keep visitors from snapping pictures. Like this 2013 installation in the skylight of the Guggenheim Museum by James Turrell. The colors and simplicity made it serious Instagram bait. Thousands of people posted photos of it, even though the artist asked that no photos be taken since they would detract from everyone’s experience. That concern is real and research is starting to prove it. Just the act of photo taking itself and choosing what to capture, changes the nature of your experience and that alone is changing how people go through museums. Research Barash conducted found that when museum goers were instructed to take photos for social media, they enjoyed the experience less. Having the intention to post or share photos in mind while you’re taking the photos, can actually remove you from the experience. Now both Instagram pop-ups and traditional museums are facing a tricky question: limit photography and potentially limit who shows up, or allow it and possibly change the experience. At Refinery29’s pop-up experience, that means having some rooms where phones are supposed to be put away. I think it’s time you put those cellphones to bed, what do you say? How about we Insta-connect with one another? At the end of the day, even if social media is a big part of why so many people show up, people are showing up. And if this means more people engage with art they wouldn’t have paid attention to otherwise, that feels pretty promising for the future of art. Thanks for watching The Goods and thank you to our sponsor American Express. Amex has a credit card feature that gives you choices for how to make payments big or small called “Pay it, plan it.” Play it helps you reduce your balance by making small payments throughout the month and plan it can help you make payments that cost $100 or more over time. You can check it out at And thanks again to American Express. Their support made this series possible.


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