Instagram shaking up the art world

Instagram is changing the way we experience art, and that’s a good thing, write Adam Suess and Kylie Budge.

With 800 million users and growing, it was inevitable that Instagram would shake up the art world.

The social photo platform has been accused by the media of fanning a narcissistic selfie culture. But in galleries, research is showing that the negative aspects are far outweighed by the positive.

Instagram is changing the way we experience and share our visits to exhibitions, and how we perceive art. In fact, arts institutions are now actively courting Instagram users.

The Museum of Ice Cream in the US is considered one of the most Instagrammed exhibitions, with over 125,000 hashtagged posts.

The show included such Insta-friendly displays as giant cherries, suspended bananas, and a rainbow sprinkle pool, inviting the visitor into a colourful space of neatly guided photo opportunities.

The current ''Triennial'' exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria features several large, Insta-friendly installations. Visitors are invited to lie on Alexandra Kehayoglou's carpet work, Santa Cruz River (which depicts a river in Argentina that is at the centre of a contentious damming proposal), and take their photo in a mirror on the ceiling.

Artist Yayoi Kusama uses light, space, colour and patterns and attracts a strong Instagram fanbase to her exhibitions. Kusama's obliteration room is another popular, Instagrammed experience, which invites visitors to stick colourful dots all over a white room.

Perils and possibilities

Increased visitor photography at galleries and museums has proved controversial. Recently, a visitor to Los Angeles pop-up art gallery The 14th Factory destroyed $200,000 worth of crown sculptures. The sculptures rested on top of a series of plinths and, while attempting a selfie, the visitor fell, knocking the plinths down in a domino-style chain reaction.

In another instance visitors damaged an 800-year-old coffin at the Prittlewell Priory Museum in the UK. The visitors had lifted a child over a protective barrier into the coffin in pursuit of the perfect photo. Their actions caused the ancient artefact to be knocked off its stand resulting in a large piece of the coffin breaking off.

Many exhibitions still place restrictions on photography, and most galleries prohibit selfie sticks. Reasons often cited for these restrictions include copyright considerations, concerns over the visitor experience, and potential for damage to works caused by manoeuvring selfie sticks and flash lighting (although it is debatable whether flashes do damage art).

Banning photography on the basis that it interferes with the visitor's experience could be seen as cultural elitism; expressing a view that art can only be appreciated in an orthodox manner. It also ignores the potential of Instagram to bring a new dimension to artists, curators, exhibition designers and visitors.

Recent research at Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art ''Gerhard Richter'' exhibition showed that visitors use Instagram as part of their aesthetic experience. A number of participants posted Richter's works on Instagram creatively immersing themselves in the image, wearing clothes matching the art, and copying Richter's signature blurred style.

Another study at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences' ''Recollect: Shoes'' exhibition in Sydney found that audiences used Instagram primarily to engage with exhibition content; not by taking selfies. Visitors mostly photographed the intricate details of the shoes' design.

This finding was echoed in a larger study that focused on Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. Far from the narcissistic selfie-obsessive behaviour that much media coverage insists is occurring, Instagram offers visitors authority and agency in sharing their experience.

This connects audiences with museum content in a way that they can control and is meaningful to them. New research shows how this activity is also tied to place - the museum, and the city beyond it.

Using Instagram in public spaces such as museums and galleries is complex. It's tied to broader research that shows how social media use in public spaces is challenging a range of social norms.

Dunedin Public Art Gallery director Cam McCracken believes that social media technology is positive for the gallery.

''It's a really interesting new marketing tool, which can reach new and potential audiences in a cost-effective way.''

Having people take photographs ''carefully'' in front of works and posting them online shows they endorse the gallery's programme, he says.

''Its nice. It means they consider the gallery to be a great place.''

There were always going to be some restrictions on photography or recordings put in place by particular artists and some material had cultural sensitivities to be considered, but gallery visitors understood that.

Calamities, such as the ones in LA and the UK, are very rare and the galleries generally take great care when laying out exhibitions to ensure vulnerabilities are checked.

''We also have very vigilant visitor hosts, who can head off potentially unsafe behaviour.''

- From The Conversation,  additional reporting by Rebecca Fox

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