INSTAGRAM VS. THE INSTITUTION
Perhaps the most popular contemporary Los Angeles landmark is Chris Burden's "Urban Light." Erected at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008, the public art installation features 202 repurposed streetlamps, and is swarmed by photo-taking tourists (and locals) at all hours of the day.
LACMA claimed to be the fourth-most Instagrammed museum in the world in 2016, a statistic confirmed by CNN. This is due largely in part to free public exhibits such as "Urban Light." In fact, according to LACMA's Senior Communications Editor, Chi-Young Kim, 60 percent of LACMA'S 1.4 million visitors in 2016 visited the museum for free.
"We kind of feel that we are one of the pioneers of social media for museums and art collectives," said Miranda Carroll, senior director of communications at LACMA. "Other places do have very strong social media presences as well, like the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But I feel that maybe on the West Coast, we were one of the first pioneers in that media."
As a self-proclaimed "pioneer of social media," LACMA has embraced this shift in the way people view and experience art both online and at the museum itself. LACMA was the first museum to join Snapchat in 2014, and won a Webby Award for Snapchat Culture & Lifestyle in 2016. Even their latest exhibit, "Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage," has its own Snapchat room, where visitors can take selfies on various mounted iPads and use face filters to try on the various Chagall stage costumes from the exhibition.
"I'm focusing a lot on how do we create channels that people want to visit as channels on their own, not even if they're able to come here or not," said Eva Recinos, LACMA's Social Media Manager. "Because they want to see what's going on at LACMA, they want to hear our voice."
Part of this push toward cultivating LACMA's voice involves inviting other artists to enter the conversation through LACMA's already-popular social media platforms. Earlier this summer, LACMA announced its first-ever Instagram Artist in Residence featuring archivist Guadalupe Rosales. Rosales was given control of LACMA's Instagram account for six weeks, during which she shared her own archival photographs chronicling the Southern Californian youth subcultures of the 1980s and 1990s, curated photographs of her favorite LACMA exhibits, and engaged in artistic and cultural discussions with LACMA's nearly 600,000 followers.
Rosales is the founder of her own successful Instagram accounts, with more than 140,000 followers combined on @veteranas_and_rucas, "Dedicated to women raised in Socal from '90s and earlier," and @map_pointz, "Documenting SoCal 90s party crew/rave scene."
"What happens with Instagram is that I write a few sentences, maybe three max," Rosales said. "Then, the image does most of the work."
Rosales uses her existing archives to open up a dialogue about Latinx subcultures in East Los Angeles, thus elevating and reframing subcultural histories that, in her opinion, would otherwise go unseen. By having her voice on LACMA's platform, Rosales believes that social media has given accessibility to folks who would not typically be given the chance to participate in conversations about art.
"I want these conversations and the way people view art to intersect," she said. "Everything is valid. One person is not smarter than another; 'This person knows more about art,' or whatever. We're all experiencing something at the same time."
Jade and Lily, LACMA visitors, talk about taking pictures in museums for social media.
While the response to LACMA's Instagram Artist in Residence initiative has been largely positive, others are not so keen on LACMA's open-armed embrace of social media. David Pagel, long-time art critic for the Los Angeles Times and self-proclaimed "old-fashioned critic," called LACMA's Instagram Artist in Residence "deeply wrong-headed."
"I think Instagram's a great thing and museums are great things, but Instagram and museums together isn't such a great thing," Pagel said. "I think it's the institution trying to be all things and everything to everyone when it is counterproductive. It's actually just kind of gross and sad. It's like a corporation trying to be hip. It's like, be an institution."
While critical of LACMA's social media use, Pagel is less condemnatory of The Broad and its seeming tendency to pander toward the Instagram audience.
"The Broad thing is kind of cool, because The Broad let hipsters do their thing with it," he said. "And now this is like LACMA trying to pay the hipsters to do the thing."
Rosales, however, knows that sharing her archival work and engaging with audiences on Instagram is critical for expanding the type of discourse that exists within the art world, thus subverting institutional expectations.
"What institutions teach us, I think people start to think that's the only way that we learn about art or that's the only language that we have to talk about art," she said. "But I don't believe that's true. That's the work that I'm trying to do. I want people to feel comfortable going to museums and looking at the art and actually relating to it in any way that they can."
A SPRINKLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
After a two-hour drive from San Diego to Los Angeles, Summer Edwards and Katrina Villarreal exited the Museum of Ice Cream with giddy, ecstatic smiles on their faces and plastic sprinkles stuck to their skin.
The pair's shared love of ice cream brought them to the Los Angeles pop-up, brandishing matching ice cream tattoos on their forearms.
"We both have ice cream tattoos," said Edwards. "And we love art. Who doesn't love art?"
Ironically, the Museum of Ice Cream happens to be the hottest ticket in Los Angeles. The traveling pop-up— founded by creative strategist Maryellis Bunn and former investment banker Manish Vora — set up shop in the Los Angeles Arts District in April following a successful run in New York City. The Los Angeles location has extended its stay through October of this year, and will be opening a third pop-up in San Francisco this September.
And while many have seen the museum's vibrant hanging bananas and now notorious sprinkle bath as the backdrop of numerous Instagram posts, the Museum of Ice Cream's self-proclaimed title of "museum" comes into question.
One visitor, Michelle Magalong, noted that when her niece found out they were spending the day at the Museum of Ice Cream, she became endlessly curious.
"[My niece] was like, 'Are we gonna learn about the history and the creation of ice cream?" Magalong said. "And we were like, 'No.' It's not the Smithsonian, it's not curating anything. It's not that kind of museum."
The FAQ section of the Museum of Ice Cream's website attempts to tackle this question head-on. It reads: "Is this an official museum? A museum in our opinion celebrates creativity, passion, history, innovators and innovations and we created Museum of Ice Cream in this spirit. While we are neither a non-profit nor an official museum, we are built upon the foundation of sharing and celebrating ice cream."
But aside from Magalong's niece, it seems as if many visitors to the Museum of Ice Cream are less concerned about the museum's role as a bastion of artistic merit within the LA Arts District. In fact, the museum's visitors are incredibly transparent about their motives for visiting the museum — to post on social media and show everyone else that they did it.
"Exactly what this museum is built for is social media," said Amy Horwath, another museum visitor. "They wouldn't have opened, and everybody wouldn't have come here had it been for all the Instagrams."
While institutions like LACMA and The Broad seem to be actively encouraging the democratization of art and art-related discourse through social media, for-profit pop-ups like the Museum of Ice Cream encourage the proliferation of #FOMO at $29 each. For the price of admission, the average person can bathe in the same synthetic plastic sprinkle bath as Beyoncé and Blue Ivy once did.
"I like American rogue museums like that," said Pagel, about the Museum of Ice Cream. "But now, it seems like there's a corporate gloss that's been painted over that."
Tickets to the Los Angeles location are sold out through October, and those who have not gotten the chance to enter the hallowed, banana-lined walls of the sugary mecca find it elusive; exclusive even. And for some visitors, those photo opportunities are enough to justify the museum's existence.
"We took photos of literally everything," Edwards said. "Even in the bathroom. The sprinkles, on the floor by the toilets. It was disgusting, but very entertaining."
"I really feel like I got my money's worth," said Villarreal upon exiting. "Other museums, I pay, I go, and I'm like, 'That was it?' This one, I'm feeling, like, excited right now!"
FOLLOW YOUR ART
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles is located across the street from The Broad. While The Broad has a winding standby line — which is kept track of daily by its own Twitter account, separate from that of the museum — MOCA does not appear to have the same amount of foot traffic as its neighbor. According to MOCA's Social Media Coordinator Nevin Kallepalli, however, museum attendance has actually increased since the museum opened its Instagram account in late 2011.
I think more and more people will be interacting with art on the Internet as opposed to seeing it in a gallery."
- Nevin Kallepalli, social media coodinator at MOCA
"If you actually look at the statistics, the amount of people who are engaging on social media," Kallepalli said. "It actually is perfectly correlated with the number of people who come to the museum."
While MOCA would not disclose its attendance data, this follower-to-attendee trend has been monitored by other museums as well, including LACMA. Since starting its Instagram account in 2012, LACMA's attendance increased from 1.2 million to 1.5 million visitors per year. In the last year and a half alone, LACMA's Instagram followers have nearly tripled.
Though the attendance data shows that visitors seem to be visiting museums more due to exposure via social media, the question remains as to whether or not these online-turned-IRL audiences are engaging with the art once they see it in person. Freelance art critic Matt Stromberg said that social media — specifically Instagram — encourages users to engage with art offline.
Matt Stromberg, freelance art critic
"For me, it encourages me to go see it," he said. "I use Instagram a lot — not to see art, but to keep track of what's going on. I don't see it as the end-all in my steps in my exposure to art; I see it as another way to keep track of what I need to go see. If anything, I think it encourages people to go out and to take their pictures to post on Instagram."
Kallepalli said that many visitors that walk through MOCA's outdoor plaza stop to take selfies in front of the "trash sculpture," a 25-foot collection of airplane parts by sculptor Nancy Rubins. Whether or not the selfie-takers know the context behind the works they're photographing is never certain. But MOCA's Instagram hopes to offer a contextual perspective on each piece it features by using artists' quotes as captions for its posts.
"We always try to prioritize the artist's works, rather than me taking it upon myself to interpret what their work is about," said Kallepalli. "We really want the artist to speak for themselves."
In the age of for-profit pop-ups like the Museum of Ice Cream that seem to be made specifically for Instagram, elevating artists' voices is crucial. Social media becomes a democratizing platform, allowing artists who are often strapped for resources to reach audiences that they would not have access to otherwise.
Miriam Cortez, Instagram artist
"If you want a career [as an artist], it's unrealistic to not have social media," said Kallepalli.
For artists like Miriam Cortez (@miriamcortez_), social media has acted as a platform to elevate the voices and images of women of color, who are oftentimes misrepresented in mainstream artwork.
"I used to create art selfishly," Cortez said. "I wouldn't even really share it."
Now, Cortez uses Instagram to collect photographs of women of color which she illustrates for free.
For photographer Samone Kidane (@lavender.honey), Instagram acts as a networking tool, allowing curators to contact her to show her work in galleries. She also encourages gallery-goers to snap photos of her photos in person.
The work of the aforementioned artists has not been featured at institutional Los Angeles art museums. But this increasingly social media-centric model opens up the possibility for social media-curated exhibits to be the future of contemporary art. While museums like LACMA, MOCA and The Broad have yet to cite social media as having a significant role in curatorial practices, it seems as if it is only a matter of time before we are seeing "Instagram artists" on display alongside Kusama and Chagall.
"I love seeing people engage with it," Kidane said. "It's a really amazing feeling to see other people interact with your art."