Public Property

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Public Property photo
Walters Art Museum
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Editorial Review

And the crowd goes mild
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 22, 2012

The most interesting thing about “Public Property” isn’t the art on the wall. It’s how it got there.

A typical museum exhibition takes about three years to put together, from conception to opening. This one -- featuring 23 paintings and works on paper from the permanent collection of the Walters Art Museum -- took six months.

But the speed with which the museum turned the show around isn’t the only remarkable thing. “Public Property” is notable for the fact that its contents were chosen not by curators, but by popular acclaim, with members of the public voting on which pieces would be included. All told, patrons cast 53,000 votes.

The origins of this showcase of animal-themed pictures -- which are displayed, salon style, on a single, long wall opposite a photographic display of runners-up -- elevate what would otherwise be a pretty but forgettable installation of art into a provocative meditation on taste, the mechanics of decision-making and the growing trend of crowd-sourced culture. It’s a phenomenon that can be seen everywhere from “American Idol” (and its ilk) to the comment sections of newspaper Web sites: People increasingly demand a say in matters that used to be the exclusive province of experts.

Who’s to say that your opinion is less valid that anyone else’s?

This idea, in the art world, is not entirely new. Most famously, a pair of Russian-born conceptual artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, produced in the mid-1990s a series of paintings based entirely on national polls of art preference. Their tongue-in-cheeky “People’s Choice” series featured both “America’s Most Wanted Painting,” a large landscape incongruously featuring George Washington, a hippopotamus and some deer, and “America’s Most Unwanted Painting,” a tiny abstraction of orange and yellow triangles.

So what does “Public Property” say about us? Not much, it turns out. Though certain leitmotifs can be identified -- a romanticization of farm life, hunting and the pioneer spirit, for instance -- none are very surprising, given the limited pool from which the pictures were selected. If anything, “Public Property” is evidence that the voters’ tastes line up nicely with those of museum founder Henry Walters. That, at least, is the interpretation of Dylan Kinnett, the museum’s social media manager, who helped to organize the show.

However, there are a few surprises among the more predictable choices.

Hector Giacomelli’s “A Perch of Birds” and Constant Troyon’s cattle-themed “Repose” are crowd-pleasers; they’d look great reproduced as postcards in the museum shop. But Josefa de Ayala’s “The Sacrificial Lamb” (circa 1670-84) is almost startlingly morbid. Along with other pictures featuring dead or soon-to-be-dead animals, it makes for an unexpected if perverse pleasure.

Perhaps that’s less surprising than it seems. The show’s theme of “creatures” was one of four broad subjects -- along with death, adornment and war -- that were initially identified and voted on by the public. Oddly enough, death was the second most popular theme.

That embrace of the difficult, or at least the unpleasant, may ultimately say something about the success or failure of an experiment that could have easily gravitated toward safe, lowest-common-denominator art. “There was a real risk that we would end up with 11 of those,” Kinnett says, gesturing, almost dismissively, toward Troyon’s “Repose.”

That “Public Property” didn’t suggests that there may be a wisdom to crowds, or at least a willingness to look beyond what’s tame.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, June 22, 2012

“Public Property” is the latest in a series of exhibitions at the Walters that have tried to engage the museum’s audience in fresh -- and participatory -- ways. “Beauty and the Brain,” a 2010 collaboration with the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University, invited visitors to look at a bloblike abstraction by sculptor Jean Arp and then vote on their favorite of several digitally altered versions of the work. Earlier this year, “Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture” allowed viewers to handle replicas of small figurines in order to consider the role of tactile pleasure in the art experience.

“Public Property” doesn’t end with the art on the wall. That’s only where it begins, continuing in the conversation and questions that its organizers hope it engenders.

To that end, the gallery has several interactive stations where visitors can vote, via touch-screen, for their own favorite from the 23 pieces on view and others from the collection. Visitors also can express their preference in a more low-tech way by placing a token in one of 23 tubes. (Unfortunately, it’s not a terribly democratic process. As with “American Idol,” you can vote as often as you like.)

One final note: “Public Property” was not an entirely curator-free zone. Marden Nichols, the museum’s assistant curator of ancient art, acted as a faculty adviser of sorts, weighing in on what could or could not be shown. Certain objects were simply too fragile or too tiny to display, such as a bird, carved from a tooth, that looks remarkably like a rubber ducky.