When Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” opened at Seattle Art Museum earlier this year, images of the avant-garde artist’s eye-catching installations began showing up on social-media feeds all around town.
With Kusama’s polka-dotted, light-strewn, selfie-friendly installations populating Facebook and Instagram feeds, the exhibition became the ultimate FOMO (“fear of missing out”) visual-art event of the summer, generating lines around the block and selling out completely.
The rise of social media in modern society has changed the way people experience and share many parts of their lives, from food to friendships. And art is no exception. In recent years, social media has had a profound impact on art institutions and visitors alike — in Seattle and elsewhere — influencing not just the marketing but also the creation and curation of art.
Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, acknowledges that social media played a role in the popularity of the Kusama exhibit, although that role can be hard to measure, she said. Manchanda calls the Kusama exhibit “an extreme example, a special example” of how social media can contribute to an artist’s popular success.
“Social media can be an incredible tool for generating excitement about an exhibition if it captivates people’s imagination,” Manchanda said, in a way that advertising or other museum-led communications may not be able to do.
“If a friend is saying, ‘You have to go see this exhibition, it’s amazing,’ that’s more compelling to me than a billboard,” said Ingrid Langston, communications manager at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum.
However, not every exhibition automatically lends itself to becoming a social-media phenomenon. “There’s more than one ingredient to that,” Manchanda said.
The Kusama exhibit apparently had plenty of such ingredients. The show got an extra social-media boost because the exhibit’s U.S. tour started in Washington, D.C., before coming to Seattle. SAM received inquiries about tickets before they were even available, which “ordinarily does not really happen,” Manchanda said.
Although SAM knew the show would be well attended, its extreme popularity was a surprise. Whether a show that did well on the East Coast with a different audience would be successful in Seattle was an open question, Manchanda said — but not for long.
Half of the tickets available for the show’s total run were sold in advance, and those were snapped up within hours of sales opening. The other half of the tickets were released daily in limited numbers. People waited in line for hours to get their hands on those tickets to become one of 130,000 people who saw the show in Seattle.
In 2014, the Frye created an entire exhibition, #SocialMedium, based on public votes from various social media. The most “liked” paintings from the museum’s Founding Collection were shown in the galleries along with the names and comments of nearly 4,500 people around the world who voted.
The campaign boosted the Frye’s social-media presence substantially, with its number of Instagram followers increasing by 349 percent, Facebook page likes increasing by 86 percent and Twitter followers increasing by 25 percent from the previous year. The Frye now has around 21,500 followers on Twitter, 13,500 followers on Instagram and 32,500 Facebook page likes.
Having a greater social-media presence aids the museum in its mission, Langston said. “For a museum of our size, we have relatively high numbers of social-media followers,” she said. “It really broadens our community beyond what a lot of museums of our scale are able to accomplish. We love building community beyond our walls.”
SAM has also seen a big jump in social-media followers. The museum started its Instagram account in 2013, and in 2014, it had around 2,500 followers. Now it has more than 63,000, according to Rachel Eggers, SAM manager of public relations.
SAM has also used crowdsourcing for campaigns such as asking Instagram users to vote on which Kehinde Wiley artwork to use on its promotional poster for last year’s “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” exhibition.
Social media also inspires artistic commentary. A current exhibition at the Frye Art Museum, “One Gray Hair,” by artist Alison Marks, includes elements — such as a large set of holographic vinyl wings — that the artist hopes will inspire selfies.
Marks “really engages a lot with social media herself, but she’s also got this wariness about it as well,” Langston said. “It’s artists like Alison who are thinking it through who I think will help guide the conversation.”
The popularity of social media has also shaped the modern experience of visiting museums and galleries. Traditionally, art institutions have frowned upon the idea of visitors taking photographs of exhibitions, mostly due to copyright concerns. Now, if a visitor attends an exhibition without snapping at least a few mobile-phone photos, it’s the exception rather than the rule.
SAM changed its policy in 2010 to allow noncommercial photography of its permanent collection. However, taking photos is still prohibited for certain works, usually at the request of the art’s lender. Since 2013, the museum has aimed to get as many special exhibitions as possible to align with its general photography policy. The issue is part of negotiations when SAM is considering a show, according to Eggers.
The result is that an increasing number of shows allow photography, and more and more visitors are taking advantage of that opportunity.
The ubiquity of visitors’ documenting and sharing has its pros and cons, however.
“These are new ways to create community and share excitement in a really organic way; that’s a really positive thing. And it’s a way for people to share something they love or an experience that they have that is really powerful to them,” said Langston.
At the other extreme, visitors who are more focused on capturing the moment than watching where they are going can cause physical damage, as one visitor who may have been taking a selfie did to a pumpkin sculpture at the “Infinity Mirrors” show at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., this spring.
“That’s a real concern that we have to think about and talk through — where are people going to want to stand to take that photo and how do we keep the work safe?” Langston said. Neither SAM nor the Frye allow selfie sticks in their galleries for that reason.
A more philosophical danger, Langston says, is that “people will mediate their experience through this little screen. I think people become really fixated on documenting their experience and that takes them out of the present moment.”
In the case of the Kusama exhibit, for most visitors, “The main point was to be there and to document themselves being there with a photograph,” Manchanda said. “However, you will have a very different experience … if no one takes a photograph and you are just looking and having a meditative experience. Which of course, in 1965, when [Kusama] thought of doing that very first room, that was the intention. And it’s still her intention, but people have to make a personal choice.” That choice can certainly involve both taking the experience in and documenting it as well, Manchanda said.
For art institutions evolving with technology and visitors’ tastes, it’s a delicate balance.
“In the end, it’s, ‘How do you have a meaningful experience of art?’ and the answers will depend. From a curatorial perspective, I just want to make sure that the traditional and core mission of the museum lives on,” Manchanda said.
What’s certain is that the art experience will continue to change.
“Technology always shapes our lives. As always, we just have to learn to all be smart users of that technology so that it can really enhance our experiences,” Manchanda said.
For Langston, technology also offers intriguing artistic possibilities.
“I’m excited to see what happens in Seattle as a tech hub. There’s a lot of room for creative exploration. I think as institutions, we can do a lot more reaching out to partners in tech. And I’m excited to see how artists lead the way, too.”