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Curating By The Public: When Is It Good, And When Not?

I don’t usually root for bad reviews of art exhibitions — I can’t think of an example when I did, in fact — but I am now.

Tomorrow, the Plains Art Museum in Fargo (which I have noted here with pleasure) opens something called You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection.

youlike.jpgIt’s crowdsourcing, of course. I don’t oppose crowd-sourcing, but I think there’s a limit to it, and that it must be done with — at museums — real curatorial involvement. At the Walker Art Center’s experiment, 50/50: Audience and Experts Curate the Collection, the public voted on just half of the exhibit. Curators chose the other side. There was value in comparing the two.

At the Plains, the selection began and ended with the public. Here’s how the process was outlined in an article in In-Forum:

The show opens Thursday. But the idea came much earlierafter Mark Ryan, the Plains’ director of collections and operations, started with a loose survey to see what kind of art people liked: abstract, representational, landscapes, figure studies, paintings, photographs or sculptures. By running those results through a database, the 3,800 pieces in the collection were eventually winnowed down to 100 suggested works. A group of community curators pared the number down to 75, which were then posted online by the museum, asking folks to vote on each piece and leave comments. The 50 pieces that received the most votes are in the show, arranged, roughly, in order from most to least liked.

bldg.jpgSo where were the museum’s curators in all this? Nowhere? Not in selection or exhibition?

There’s more:

The Plains’ curator, Megan Johnston says the final selections, which range from an antique chair and Native American moccasins to Catherine Mulligan’s colorful resin cast tubes, show that patrons’ tastes are “eclectic,” though she points out that the top six (and nine of the top 10) vote-getters were for landscapes. And …the judging isn’t over. Guests to the show will be given ballots to vote for their favorites through Jan. 15. Visitors are also encouraged to leave Post-it note comments on the east wall of the gallery. Community curators also had a say in the show’s design, suggesting works be displayed in nontraditional ways, on the ceiling and at angles or on the floors. Some ideas, like bringing in a recliner, are easier to pull off. Plains staffers took the suggestions to heart and are thinking of different ways to display and view works. “They didn’t want to come in and see white walls with art hung. They wanted to see something different,” Johnson says, adding that one curator told her, “We don’t want it to look like a Plains Art exhibition.”

I understand the desire to involve people in art. But I don’t understand why museum directors want to so devalue the curatorial profession. For their part, curators are probably loath to say anything lest they be deemed uncooperative, backward-thinking, and unpromotable.

But consider some analogies: should we all vote on what is taught in primary school classrooms? Should people vote on the medical treatment of an ailing loved one? Do chefs let their clients vote each morning on what they should prepare?

It really is time for the Association of Art Museum Curators to speak up.




  1. frank bramblett says

    Last night I sat before the television surfing from one news station to another to hear someone announce that there was no truth to the rumor of the death of Steve Jobs. As the reality sank in, I felt a great loss …. but why? …. Although I have a lot of his objects, I am far from a tech guy. I sat there in a daze for over an hour listening to those who shared their thoughts about the man, his accomplishments and his conviction. Many spoke with admiration as they struggled to address the enormous relevance of his contributions not just to technology and commerce, but to society.
    Suddenly a remark leapt into my ear, “Steve Jobs offered to everyone what they did not yet know that they wanted”. I then realized that what was common in the many words that everyone contributed in their efforts to describe Steve Jobs was very simple: he thought what had not yet been thought, saw what had not yet been seen, and made what is not yet been desired.
    I later learned that in a rare interview, he was asked a question about what kind of marketing research he did, or what sort of focus groups he used. His answer was, “it was not the job of the consumer to know what they want.”

  2. I have to respectfully disagree with you on this topic. I think it is great that the Plains Art Museum has embarked on this crowd-sourcing project, and I especially applaud the last line on their site: “We invite you to see the show you had a hand in creating. While you’re at it, we invite you to consider this idea of crowdsourcing – we are, and we plan on taking the experiences we learned from You Like This and using them in future projects.”
    Clearly, the Plains recognizes that people today want a more participatory experience in museums, to equal the participatory experiences they have in the rest of their lives. One has to look no farther than the many tributes to Steve Jobs online to see that technology has changed our world. People today are used to being polled, sharing their opinions, and commenting on what they see and hear. This is what tools like Facebook are built on. The Plains is embracing and encouraging these behaviors in their exhibit.
    Ignoring these facts and encouraging the Association of Art Museum Curators to speak up is ignoring the reality of today’s public. Curators and museums – like the Plains – realize they need to try new approaches and make their collections relevant to their constituents. Museums who don’t realize this won’t be around much longer. And wishing the Plains Museum poor reviews because you don’t agree with them trying something new? That seems unnecessary.

  3. Julia Moore says

    As a one-time project I think there is value in what the Plains Art Museum has done. It gets the museum in direct touch with the public, it shows quite graphically which specific pieces are most valued and as a snapshot of community taste, it serves a purpose. I really don’t think any curators’ jobs are endangered, nor will it end up creating a setback to the cause of art appreciation. The true danger is if mass opinion is taken as a directive to the museum.
    It would be interesting to repeat the experiment in, say, 20-25 years to see if strong curatorial practice and vision have had an impact on what people select.

  4. Thanks for your comment. Just to clarify my position, I did not mean literally that curators would lose their jobs; I meant that their positions were undermined and devalued.

  5. Barbara Chalsma says

    From any museum, I seek edification–to be informed, as well as delighted and inspired. I go to an art museum to view the works of art that have been selected over time by those people who have spent the majority of their lives focussing on these creations. The results of voting on them by my everyday peers is mildly interesting, but not the reason I would ever go to a museum–nor would I want a curator to fix my plumbing.

  6. Ljiljana Bursac says

    as an artist I can say that is great idea, it is not easy to find open door among the galleries

  7. If the public were taking over all curatorial functions i would agree with you but that is not the case. I would guess this is being done once and will be repeated if successful.
    Asking the public to participate in the process forces them to focus on what it is that they think demonstrates quality. What do they like. For once the curator is not dictating what they should like.
    Saw an exhibition today of a highly lauded artist, just not one that i put on the same pedestal as the accredited art historians do.
    This process certainly does not demean the role of the curator. If the subject were picked for the public, such as put a Rembrandt exhibition together i would agree with you but that is not the case.
    I want the public to participate in every possible way to get them involved in their museum and its art. Maybe they will teach the curators somethiing.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Gerald. However, where did I say the public could not be involved at all? Nowhere. My point is that curators can, and should, be involved at the same time.
    Second, there’s a lot of kool aid being passed around on this topic. Where is the evidence that people become more engaged, that this has a lasting, positive impact on their engagement with art?
    Third, why aren’t curators, who mainly have PhDs, comparable to educators or doctors? Yet, as I said, we don’t vote on what should be taught in primary school or what medical treatment people should receive. Input? Yes, where appropriate. Complete decisions, no.

  9. Hi, Judith, and thank you for taking the time to discuss this important issue in respect to our exhibition ‘You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection.’ I also appreciate the other comments on this subject. The Association of Art Museum Curators did contact us for a response but I see this more as a conversation that a blog response. And I encourage more dialogue too. For me as a curator, I’ve been thinking about your comments and believe that you have hit on a couple of key issues that, ultimately, we welcome as part of the discussion surrounding this exhibition.
    Plains Art Museum stands behind this project as an innovative way to engage the public. We believe in innovation and in public engagement and this exhibition is one example of that kind of approach. In the ‘You Like This’ planning meetings we had open, frank, and transparent discussions about open-ended process, about art, and about the way the public views art (in a variety of ways). The community curators understood their role of being advisors to what the broader community had voted upon and to the pragmatic demands of the space and available resources. They took that role seriously and discussed at length, and with surprising constructive conversations and divergent views, how the process should unfold. This is community curating, which has long been utilized in museums, particularly in history museums, but also in more alternative exhibition sites and now more commonly in art museums.
    As a staff and organization I can say, without equivocation, that this has been a fun experience for us, one that broke down the curator-as-expert barrier and offered the opportunity for self-criticality. It is also allowed the Museum to be exposed to the diverse opinions of our audience, an important engagement methodology and one that is utilized extensively as a tool … but not a demand. Museum Curators were in fact part of the conversation the entire time with seminar-like discussions in meetings, online discussions, and final selections. We’ve openly communicated these questions and comments, gathered throughout the ‘You Like This’ process, and will follow up on them with further evaluation throughout the run of the exhibition – please keep an eye on our blog at to see what conclusions we’ve drawn from the entire project. In some cases, we will likely agree with your concerns. In others, we won’t.
    Personally, I have dedicated more than 20 years to my curatorial practice in a variety of ways—from curatorial projects, collaborative work, publications, and community projects. I value education and expertise. My practice has been informed by both an MA in Visual Culture as well as working on my PhD. But, as some say, ‘Just because you have a PhD, it doesn’t make you smart.’ I don’t know everything and don’t pretend to. I appreciate what other people bring to the table in relation to viewing and experiencing art. In that respect, I believe that any curator who does not care about the audiences should quit their job and go home. I think we work for the public and the artist.
    Thank you once again for your comments, which we have printed and will hang as part of the comment wall in the ‘You Like This’ gallery. They underscore a vital part of the discussion in which we are engaging, one which I (and many others like me around the world) must take seriously in terms of the shifting role of museums today.
    Further discussion can be found (and is encouraged) on our blog at

  10. Dear Megan, thanks for your comments, as well. I am sure, based on your posting of my post, that I am very unpopular in Fargo at the moment.

  11. Megan Johnston says

    To the contrary! You and your blog are a hot topic of discussion. Thanks! In fact, all of the Universities here (three of them + community colleges) are taking note. We are one of several cities awarded the Our Town grant award by the NEA and the arts sector here is really interesting. COME AND SEE US SOMETIME.
    I now have a lot more discussion about ‘just exactly what DO you do?’ I’m going to write more about this project as part of our ongoing blog. My deadline: next Tuesday. I think you will like it. (Maybe not, but then… onto the welcomed debate!)

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