This summer brought us a new, Instagram-friendly kind of gallery/”museum”: the “pop-art pop-up,” you could call it, a traveling cluster of interactive installations with lots of eye candy—and lots of selfie and Instagram possibilities—designed to be easily enjoyed by any kind of audience, art-world outsiders and children included. The first to blow in, Happy Place, arrived in May, “a new traveling circus—the Instagram trap,” the Reader‘s Ryan Smith called it (a slideshow by Reader photo editor Jamie Ramsay is here). The “experience” 29Rooms, promoted by the media company Refinery 29, made its appearance in July. Now there’s a third, more ambitious pop-up: the Wndr Museum.
At a preview last month the “museum” opened its doors to a select and diverse group of mostly women, a number of them “social media influencers.” There were futuristic drinks and hors d’oeuvres as well as free manicures. Among a handful of interactive installations are a couple “infinity mirror rooms” by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, a savvy choice for legitimizing an exhibit as something other than a stage set.
Truth is, though, traditional museums themselves started this trend. Wired magazine has pointed to “Wonder”—a series of installations made by nine contemporary artists that was mounted at the Smithsonian in 2015—as the catalyst of the “selfie with art in the background” phenomenon.
Those who are into these “experiences” are often mocked as mindless dupes—the Wired article calls pop-ups “selfie factories,” which seems to sneer at the people, supposedly vain and shallow, who like them.
True, fans can kind of seem like dupes in the hands of masters—Happy Place, for example, was founded by Jared Paul, who manages artists like New Kids on the Block and produces the Glee Live! tour. The 29Rooms exhibit “partnered” with brands like Samsung, Clinique, and Netflix so effectively that you could consider its donation of a portion of its proceeds to nonprofit partners such as Planned Parenthood a similarly cynical case of window dressing.
That said, where museums often promote art that is inaccessible to a large portion of the population, these pop-ups excel at connecting with their audiences, something I’d argue is art’s main purpose (or at least one of them).
As for the selfies being central to the experience of these pop-ups, a 2016 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that taking pictures makes people enjoy what they’re doing (and viewing, and experiencing) more, not less. It’s the engagement and activity—particularly the social sharing—that complete the experience.
As Mark Twain said, “Grief can take care of itself; but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.” Now let me share with you the most stylish outfits I saw during my visit.
Wndr Museum Through Oct 22. 1130 W. Monroe, wndrmuseum.com, $32 (group packages available).