By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
5:54 PM EDT, June 15, 2012
It's entirely possible that one of the august and influential guest curators for "Public Property," the summer exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum, was none other than your plumber. Ditto for your postal carrier and your daughter's softball coach.
"Public Property" consists of 106 items — paintings, sculptures, manuscripts and jewelry — adhering to the theme of "creatures" and taken from the Walters' holdings. What makes the exhibit unique in Baltimore history is that the show's title, themes and artworks were chosen by more than 53,000 votes cast online and by museum visitors.
The kind of collective collaboration that "Public Property" represents is increasingly common — and controversial — at picture palaces nationwide. Administrators from the Smithsonian Institution to Florida's Orlando Museum of Art are courting public opinion before deciding what to hang on gallery walls.
"From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, there's something afoot in our society about taking greater ownership of our civic and collective destiny," Walters director Gary Vikan said last week.
"One thing that's changing is the whole notion of what 'authority' means, of who gets to decide. Our collections were put together to benefit the public. We're saying that the decision-makers don't always have to have Ph.D's in art history or ancient Greek or other stuff."
But the wisdom of asking nonexperts to make aesthetic judgments has been disputed since the day in 2008 that the Brooklyn Museum opened "Click!" — said to be the first crowd-curated art show in the U.S.
Some critics accuse museum administrators of pandering to the lowest common denominator by running an art show like a reality TV singing competition. Museums, the detractors say, are abandoning their traditional duties to set standards, make aesthetic judgments and educate the public.
"Art is not a popularity contest or a platform in which the viewer gets to be heard," Lance Esplund wrote in the New York Sun in his 2008 review of "Click!" "A museum's mission is to offer us cultures' highest artistic achievements, regardless of whether or not the general public takes notice."
There's always been a tension between popular art and less accessible works. Some masterpieces were universally acclaimed from the day they were created. Most were not.
"Every museum struggles to strike a balance between getting people engaged with their subject matter and delivering a high-quality product that helps the audience appreciate excellence," said Elizabeth Merritt of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Museums.
The Walters likes to think that it's doing both. Unlike some crowd-curated exhibits, all 106 works in "Public Property" are part of the Walters' permanent collection and have been previously vetted as aesthetically significant.
Visitors to "Public Property" will find 23 of voters' top-rated paintings hanging on the showroom walls, including "Before the Race," Edgar Degas' vivid 1882 depiction of a group of horsemen, and Jan Breughel the Younger's "Diana and Her Nymphs After the Hunt," which was done during the 1630s.
The remaining 83 artifacts listed on the exhibit's "wall of fame" were deemed too delicate to move into the gallery where the exhibit is being held, though they are displayed elsewhere in the museum.
But while the pieces in "Public Property" all possess an immediate and undeniable appeal, they're not particularly representative of the Walters' overall holdings.
In a museum famed for its collection of medieval and church art, it's striking that hardly any overtly religious pieces made the top 106. And even the few exceptions convey their spiritual message indirectly and through symbols.
For instance, casual viewers might not realize at first glance that Portuguese artist Josefa de Ayala's contemplative portrait from around 1680 of a white sheep lying on a table is titled, tellingly, "The Sacrificial Lamb."
It's also noteworthy that the exhibit provides minimal information about the specific works highlighted. Instead, visitors can pick up a list containing little more than the name of each piece, the artist and the year it was made.
"We deliberately decided not to include too much explanation because we wanted to give people a chance to immerse themselves in the art," said Emily Blumenthal, the Walters' manager of family programs. She and Dylan Kinnett, the Walters' social media manager, were the two "team leaders" for the exhibit.
Instead, viewers are encouraged to reflect on their decision-making process.
One item on display — a statue of a blue baboon from Egypt — was relatively unpopular among the survey respondents, according to the wall text. Visitors are then asked whether they'd like the ugly monkey any better if they knew that it may have been created as long ago as 664 B.C., making the sculpture nearly 2,700 years old.
"We want visitors to focus on what they liked, what they didn't like, and why," Blumenthal said. "That's something we haven't seen in other crowd-curated museum exhibits."
All told, it took the Walters' staff about six months to select the top vote-getters. Work compiling the favorites list began in November, when visitors to the museum website were asked to browse images and tag those works that they'd like to collect.
At the beginning of this year, museum patrons were asked to select among four potential motifs. After another vote, "real and imagined creatures" became the exhibition theme.
The Walters' staff then winnowed the artworks down into those fitting the "creatures" category and asked viewers to rank them. More than 53,000 votes were cast in February and March by people who visited the museum either in person or online.
Advocates of crowd-curated exhibits often say they've been inspired by James Surowiecki's 2005 book, "The Wisdom of Crowds."
The book wonders why large groups of people tend to make more accurate predictions than experts when it comes to guessing everything from the weight of a prize-winning steer to the number of jelly beans in a glass jar.
Perhaps, museum officials speculate, the same rule also applies to opinions and judgments, and not just verifiable facts. Crowd-curated art exhibits are aimed at testing that hypothesis.
Merritt of the national museum association said that in the four years since "Click!" debuted, she's heard of perhaps two or three art shows a year in which the works were determined by popular vote.
In fact, Baltimore-area residents now have a second chance to experience a crowd-curated exhibit.
A show exploring the evolution of video games as an aesthetic medium is a big hit at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. The exhibit runs through September before departing on a 10-city national tour.
The 80 games on display were chosen from an initial pool of 240 by a public vote. More than 3.7 million ballots were cast by 119,000 people from 175 countries in early 2011, according to museum spokeswoman Laura Baptiste.
At times, the line to get into the video game exhibit has extended for more than two city blocks, she said, and visitors have waited for more than an hour to gain entrance.
It's because of responses like these that "crowd sourcing" — in which an organization solicits the expertise of nonexperts — was named by the American Association of Museums as one of the top seven trends in the art world in 2012.
"I talk to museums every day that complain that they're broke and not making money," Merritt said. "You can't just whine that no one is supporting you. You have to do something fun that people want to engage with, even if it means overturning the power structure.
"You can't just say that you're always going to be the expert and you're always going to be in charge. If museums are going to survive, they'll have to start giving up some of their traditional authority."
If you go
"Public Property" runs Sunday through Aug. 19 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.
"The Art of Video Games" runs through Sept. 30 at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum, at 8th and F streets N.W., Washington. Free. Call (202) 633-1000 or go to americanart.si.edu.
'Public Property' events
The Walters Art Museum has scheduled three events that encourage the public to get up close and personal with their favorite works of art:
'Game Show' The June 23 opening event will feature an "American Idol"-style competition from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Artworks will be the "contestants," there will be a panel of celebrity judges and an audience vote will determine the winners. Visitors can sample wares from food trucks parked outside the museum.
'Art Bytes' What's being billed as Baltimore's first art museum "hackathon" will be held July 27-29. Members of the public and invited guests from Baltimore's technological community will spend the weekend writing computer programs. Their aim? To solve challenges facing museums and to enhance the experience of future visitors.
'Wiki Loves Monuments' Walters visitors are being asked to help the Maryland Historical Society preserve the city's monuments. Exhibit-goers who pick up a map of the city's public art sculptures will be encouraged to take photographs that document the statues' conditions and any needed repairs. Then, on Aug. 11, participants at the museum will upload their photos onto Wikipedia from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and create an online archive.
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