As you enter the space
containing the museum’s summer exhibit, you notice black letters on a white wall to your immediate left. “COME IN! WE’RE OPEN!” it beckons. Or maybe your eyes are drawn to the positively gargantuan painting of a lion bearing down on a mass of people huddled in prayer. Or the photo of an oddly worried-looking Japanese duck sculpture made from sperm whale tooth. Undoubtedly, you’ve noticed the large flat-screen television and the fleet of iPads mounted below it.
There are paintings and sculptures on display within the Walters’ newest installation, but it’s not an art exhibit. That is to say, it’s not an art exhibit in the traditional sense. More accurately,
is an art experiment. And we’re the lab rats.
The inspiration for what would become
can be traced back to, of all places, a column for the Baltimore News that ran from 1909 to 1910. A weekly platform for art critic W. W. Brown, “Baltimore in the Fine Arts” put the spotlight on works of art owned by local private collectors. The only criteria for a work’s inclusion in the feature was that Brown happened to like it. “These works of art were chosen by a single individual claiming to represent the public taste and aesthetic preference of a particular time and place,” one of the exhibit’s many bright red placards notes of Brown’s curatorial practice.
Flash forward a hundred years or so to December 2011, when the Walters announced a publicly curated show and posed a series of questions through Facebook, e-mail, and its web site: “What should we name the exhibition?” “If you could choose five works of art from the Walters to collect, which artworks would you choose?” After a year of analyzing visitor data and trends, a theme emerged from the zeitgeist: “Creatures.” Using an internet app developed by Princeton University called Photocracy, visitors were provided with pictures of hundreds of works from the museum’s collection and asked to vote on what would become the contents of Public Property.
Once inside the exhibit, you are presented with 23 paintings and a smattering of photographs of sculptures and artifacts (most of which are on display elsewhere in the Walters). As you walk the room, it becomes apparent that “Art” and “Choice” are intrinsically woven together; the visitor is tasked with observing and reacting. The museum provides you with a couple of very different ways to accomplish this. The previously mentioned iPad/flat-screen set up? Use it to access Photocracy and click between two randomly generated images of art within the exhibit. (It’s the same principle as that bit in The Social Network where Zuckerberg uses an algorithm to rank coeds but without the horrible misogyny.) At the end of each week, the museum will post the top 10 picks by the room’s entrance. A few of the iPads had difficulty hosting the program so it’s fortunate that there’s an analog option for participation as well: simple clay poker chips that can be placed in slots corresponding to each painting. The end result is that the chips form a neat-looking 3D bar graph. By noon on the opening day, two favorites had emerged. The clear winner was Hector Giacomelli’s “A Perch of Birds,” a brightly hued watercolor over graphite on heavily textured woven paper. Coming in a not-distant second was “The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer,” a large Roman Colosseum scene that catches the eye as you enter. Why do visitors favor two such dissimilar pieces? The birds are cute and appealing? The religious iconography of faith in the face of death strikes a primal chord? We can only speculate. And that’s the point.
It’s worth noting that one of the side effects of the Walters’ grand experiment is that it takes works like impressionist Edgar Degas’ “Before the Race” and Brueghel’s “Diana and Her Nymphs After Their Hunt,” which would be otherwise located in separate wings, and places them together in one condensed space. Their proximity reveals that, despite being created over 200 years apart and during wildly different movements, they possess much in common—the enduring relationship between human and animal, their use of strong earth tones—connections highlighted by their juxtaposition in this show.
While Public Property has several such fine and fascinating works on display, the specific contents of the exhibit are ultimately almost trivial. The small room can be leisurely enjoyed in about 10 minutes. But the questions the show raises last much longer. It pushes visitors to think about not only what they’re viewing but also about what they themselves bring to it. How is liking or disliking a work of art informed by emotional, analytical, or reflexive factors? In other words: Why do we like what we like? The exhibit offers no answers, but cheerfully provides the tools to draw your own conclusions.
On a far less abstract level, Public Property provides a valuable service to the museum that houses it and to the public at large. By strategically placing the installation by the entrance (it’s practically impossible to avoid), the Walters arms you with the tools to better appreciate and interact with the creatures on the wall of the exhibition—and perhaps those we encounter outside of the museum, on the streets. It’s certainly a sentiment that Henry Walters, who bequeathed his vast collection to the city “for the benefit of the public,” would approve of.