One could argue it started with “Rain Room.”
The “gimmicky diversion” of “dubious value”, as described by NY Times art critic Ken Johnson, made its debut at the MoMA in 2013. It was devised by rAndom International as part of “Expo 1: New York”, a series of installations created to inspire contemplation about our earth’s environmental stability.
It was intended to provoke thoughtfulness and curiosity. It was meant to offer visitors the awe-inspiring experience of wandering through a storm while impervious to the rain. It was somewhat of a miss with the critics.
It also incited mass social hysteria and obsession the likes of which had never been seen before.
“Rain Room” was a catalyst for a fresh approach to art that is rapidly gaining popularity among museums; it turned the gallery experience into a social phenomenon, encouraging interaction, engagement and an onslaught of Instagram posts. Though not the first experiential exhibit to reside at an art institution, it drew unprecedented crowds, with wait times up to 5 hours – on weekdays.
Witnessing the explosive success of “Rain Room”, museums nationwide have started to adopt their own versions of social art, aiming to entice people not only with culture but with social currency, appealing to audiences that had previously been untapped.
Nicholas Bell, Curator-In-Charge of the Renwick at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is working ardently to cultivate an entire gallery experience that reflects the social, engaging atmosphere for which “Rain Room” received such a positive response. “Wonder” is a contemporary artist takeover that is, in the Smithsonian’s own words, “transforming the entire museum into an immersive artwork.”
“People are reacting to art. They are lying on their backs, gazing up all day. People are doing yoga. We had a pop-up wedding,” Bell said in an interview with the Washingtonian. In contrast to the oft-perceived rigid environments of art museums, “Wonder” offers culture without constraints. Photos are encouraged, discussions abound and engagement is the goal. At the Renwick, you don’t necessarily need to know about art to appreciate it. And that attitude has succeeded in keeping the museum thriving.
Social art is indisputably expanding the reach and appeal of museums. The New Museum’s “Pixel Forest” was the establishment’s most popular exhibit, ever. The lure was largely due to artist Pipilotti Rist’s esteem in the world of multimedia art, but the tempting lounge pillows scattered across the room and the Instagram-worthy backdrop didn’t hurt, either.
It’s a mutually beneficial cycle. Museums are avidly sniffing out untraditional artists and giving them international exposure while creating an environment that feels more approachable to a person who might not have typically considered themselves an art patron.
And both parties get a little boost of social media clout. According to Bell, the concept of social art should be embraced by museums in order to “remind people why museums as physical places need to exist.”
When LA’s newest art museum, the Broad, opened, the aspiration was to draw crowds rivaling “Rain Room”. Their key installation was “Mirrored Room”, Yayoi Kusama’s room of endless mirrors and glowing orbs of light, which has also gifted society the “infinity selfie”.
Considering the museum had more than 820,000 visitors in its first year, they may have done something right. With food trucks parked outside to accommodate the lines, chatty and cheerful “visitor service associates” wandering the galleries to discuss the art and, of course, the now iconic “Mirrored Room” as its keystone interactive exhibit, the Broad may have crafted the formula for the art museum of the social age.
Adele even produced a music video for “When We Were Young” in “Mirrored Room”. She discovered it on Katy Perry’s Instagram.