If you have visited the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in the past few years, perhaps you saw Mario Testino’s British Royal Portraits. Perhaps you wandered through rooms filled with the clothing of the Woodstock generation, pink dresses from Evelyn Lauder’s collection, or the fashion photographs of celebrity photographer Herb Ritts. These exhibitions are the initiative of current museum director Malcolm Rogers, who throughout his 20-year tenure has been accused of constructing an excessively populist museum experience. Populist shows concentrate thematically on subjects that are more popular to the general public than a traditional exhibition might be; they can feature jewelry, clothing, or cars, and often incorporate celebrity names in an attempt to gain social currency.
Supporters of these exhibitions argue that they attract people who might not otherwise visit and allow museums to stay relevant in the pop-culture-centric environment of contemporary society. They help raise museums’ revenue while simultaneously engaging with new visitors, who may stay to discover more conventional museum fare. Christine Anagnos, the executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, recently told Andrea Shea for WBUR that “as audience expectations are changing, museums are changing as well.” Many museums are trying to stay relevant by inventing unique architectural experiences, upgrading their cafés, and adding new technology to their galleries, like the Cooper Hewitt Museum described on page 26. These exhibitions are simply part of a larger movement to create an alluring and consumer friendly environment for individuals who may otherwise find museums time-consuming and obsolete.
However, the legitimacy of these popular subjects’ place in the conventional art world is often debated among critics. A show that falls flat can come under heavy criticism not just for its design also for the genre of which it’s a part. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently provoked scathing reviews in response to its retrospective on the career of the Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk. Many critics don’t attack the show’s inherently populist subject but instead blame its defects on the weak curatorial efforts of MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach. They argue that the exhibit fails to provide enough context to explain and validate Björk’s place within the framework of a modern art museum; as Ben Davis writes for artnet, “It neither convinces that it makes sense to present its subject as an artist… nor figures out a way to capture any of the excitement of her as a unique flavor of pop star.” A show in this vein gives the genre a bad rap, though supporters of pop culture exhibitions argue that they have the capacity to belong solidly to the art world when skillfully contextualized and curated. For years, Biesenbach has been infamous for high-profile relationships with celebrities that often spill into the museum’s landscape (think Tilda Swinton napping in a glass box). The shortcomings of this exhibit in particular have much of the art world calling for his resignation.
MoMA is not unique in their use of popular culture to attract audiences. In 2013, Australia’s Powerhouse Museum updated their galleries and initiated efforts to incorporate pop-culture references to iconic national figures like the Wiggles and The Chronicles of Narnia. The Brooklyn Museum has utilized similar strategies throughout the past 15 years, spotlighting hip hop music and the Star Wars films in an effort to engage the community after attendance rates dropped in the early 2000s. By 2010, their efforts hadn’t been successful—attendance was up only slightly.
Opponents of populism in the art world aren’t surprised. In the aftermath of the Powerhouse’s remodels, former trustee Leon Schofield described upgrades as “the whoring of a great and eclectic collection in pursuit of misguided populism.” Maxwell L. Anderson, a former director of the Whitney Museum, told the New York Times that there was “no residual value” from visitors of the Brooklyn Museum who came to see a single popular show. Several critics argued that the museum was losing long-time art appreciators and cheapening itself by failing to showcase its world-class collection.
Despite these hiccups, in the past several years the Brooklyn Museum has become more adept at communicating meaningfully with its patrons. The key to any museum’s continued relevance in contemporary culture does not lie solely in its ability to attract audiences with popular references. More importantly, a museum must cultivate its capacity to engage with the surrounding community through exhibits that are significant to and encourage discourse between those involved. In order to create an environment open to visitors who might not feel welcome in the dominant white, Western-centric art world narrative, museums must incorporate stories that have not previously been told and strive to include a plethora of voices. Al Jazeera‘s Ned Resnikoff wrote recently that the Brooklyn Museum’s Kehinde Wiley show is working to promote discourse around the Black Lives Matter movement. Wiley’s oil paintings provide a reaction to historic art, replacing the subjects of paintings and sculptures with people of color—particularly black men—that he seeks out on the streets. Resnikoff asserts that though the featured pieces date back to ten years ago they are “deliberately at odds with many images common in American mass media.” Their presence at the museum promotes conversation around a movement whose press coverage has quieted in the past few months.
Ultimately, exhibits on pop culture are not enough to attract and maintain an active audience, although they certainly boost attendance and provide an introduction for first-time visitors. It is crucial that curators continue to consider their communities as they develop exhibitions. They must utilize a mix of “high art” and pop culture done by artists with diverse identities in order to create an experience that resonates with visitors from a plethora of different backgrounds, and to truly serve the communities of which they are a part.