Erin Dickey

Digital Art History, Feminist Art

DAH Post #11: Crowdsourcing and the sources of power


Now that Web 2.0 has become fully integrated into the way we seek, discover, process, and share information, it’s no secret or surprise that the GLAM world continues to refine engagement activities and outreach tools to bring in new and hopefully larger audiences. The increasing deployment of digital platforms to build visitor/user interaction with exhibitions, initiatives, and objects dovetails with the general decline in top-down institutional authority associated with a privileged class of makers and sellers, and with the move away from the reverent focus on the art object in favor of events, process, and interaction. This shifting of priorities and authority, however, is still in tension with the way the art world (and more specifically the art market) has traditionally functioned and continues to function, in which more exhibition attention in larger institutions is focused around those names that tend to draw higher prices at auction, still the usual suspects of 20th century male artists, as well as high-earning popular contemporary artists and makers.

In and of itself, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing–though often receiving mixed reactions, exhibitions like MOMA’s mass-appeal shows under Klaus Biesenbach, exploring the likes of Bjork, Yoko Ono, and Marina Abramovic, have the potential to spark in new audiences interest in art beyond that of the famous names they came to see. At the same time, they can recontextualize a lifetime of work or provide a space to reconsider the scope of a large, tradition-bound art institution.

In “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion in the Age of Social Media,” Nancy Proctor, Head of New Media Initiatives at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, explores the reconfiguring of digital media and institutional control in the proliferation of digital engagement possibilities, as well as the role of the curator in the feedback loop of institution and audience. Procter is referring specifically to crowdsourcing initiatives that employ user-generated content and collaborative tasks, rather than simply to marketing via social media or mass-appeal exhibitions. In her discussion of the changing role of the curator, Procter cites the exhibition American Furniture/Googled at the Decorative Arts Gallery in Milwaukee as an model of the way in which the curator is shifting from singular authority to access point of information in the public domain: “Like a node at the center of the distributed network that the museum has become, the curator is the moderator and facilitator of the conversation about objects and topics proposed by the museum, even across platforms not directly controlled by the museum.” 1Nancy Proctor, “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media,” Curator: The Museum Journal 53, no. 1 (January 1, 2010), 38. In another example, Procter discusses the, citing Nicholas Poole, of the notion of the “citizen-curator”, whose participation in the interpretation of museums’ collections allow for the building of a rich, complex social history of art.

Once museums open the door of participation to their visitors however, the door is very hard to shut. In class last week, we discussed the possibilities that relinquishing some control provide for institutions, as well as some examples of movements that take the acquisition of dispersed control afforded by social media beyond the point that the institution intended or wanted to allow.

JJ brought up the example of Occupy Museums’ participation in a protest of the Brooklyn Museum for its leasing of space to real estate developers responsible for gentrifying the very neighborhoods that the Brooklyn Museum primarily served. The Brooklyn Museum responded to the protest in a novel way, by adding pieces created those protestors to their exhibition Agitprop!, which documented artwork geared towards political change. Compare this strategy to the Boston MFA’s dismissal of the initially tongue-in-cheek “Renoir Sucks” movement, which began as an Instagram account and morphed into a group of protestors agitating for the MFA to “take down” its Renoirs on the basis of their alleged suckiness (as well as the comparative over-estimation of Renoir in the art market, a serious issue relating to the inextricability of the art market, museums, art historical scholarship, and interpretation of aesthetic value that is arguably the subtext of the Renoir kerfuffle). Museum Director Matthew Teitelbaum’s brief response/non-response marveled, “We live in an era in which authority of the time can be questioned, with many different voices expressed and heard.” Or compare Agitprop! to the Guggenheim’s reaction to an Occupy Museums/art collective Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) protest/art action of their construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, a development site home to egregious labor violations, according to the Human Rights Watch. The art action entailed the protesters’ infiltration of the Guggenheim’s exhibition Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe during the museum’s crowded pay-what-you-wish evening in order to chant slogans, toss leaflets, and draw attention to the Guggenheim’s ignoring of the plight of migrant workers by choosing to site the new museum on Saadiyat Island. In response to the protest and seemingly ignoring its basis, Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong said that construction on the new plant had not yet begun.

These examples demonstrate the possibilities for communication afforded by social media and protest movements (both physical and digital), as well as the ways in which institutions attempt to take back control either by refusing to respond or by developing cooperative patterns of discussion with community members (or inoculating gestures, depending on how you read the Brooklyn Museum’s handling of their protest). Though it is unclear which of the actions above is the most powerful (from the perspective of the museums), it seems pretty clear which option is at least the most successful in the arena of public relations (as well as resonant with the political urgings of some of the artworks displayed inside each museum). It would be quite interesting to study the correlation between the understanding of where curatorial and political power does and should lie as articulated by institutional leaders (and their digital media personnel) and the lines by which their museums strike a balance (or fail to strike a balance) between their various stakeholders.

GLAMwiki project proposal: In the past several posts, I’ve focused on general research in the area of art-and-technology as the basis for data used in various timeline and network visualization applications. Taking the upcoming Art and Feminism Edit-a-thon at Sloan Art Library as inspiration for proposing a GLAMwiki project, there are several notable women artists who contributed in significant ways to the history of art and tech in the latter half of the 20th century whose biographies and impact are only minimally sketched out on Wikipedia, if at all. Artists who experimented with internet art as a specifically feminist form, such as former members of the influential 1990s feminist art collective VNS Matrix Josephine Starrs, Francesca da Rimini, and Virginia Barratt, would be a good start. Given both the lack of representation of and information about women artists on Wikipedia, as well as the outnumbering of women in the tech sector and the small percentage of women Wikipedians, this proposal seems, to me, particularly on-the-nose.


1 Nancy Proctor, “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media,” Curator: The Museum Journal 53, no. 1 (January 1, 2010), 38.


  1. It has been interesting to shift back and forth in our readings and class discussions on the tension between change and the old guard between generations of various stakeholders in the art world, but mostly focusing on academia and the museum world, which is certainly in flux as far as far as discussions around power — crowdsourcing being a great example. The other obvious force that effects sources of power is the art market. Kelsey made the point in class which I would like to echo that I wish we acknowledged the business forces in the our study of art history, not necessarily as a preparation for the “art world” in the sense of the art market, but I think an understanding of the history of the art market on other institutions would be important in a pragmatic way. Anyway, you have done a good job of acknowledging its impact in your introduction here when you write about how exhibitions continue to be linked with high sellers at auctions and other forces of art collecting and selling.

  2. Speaking of the changing of the old guard and whether or not it’s happening, I wonder how much of this current push and pull between museums and their publics have to with the permeation of a zeitgeist. In Art Historical Methods, we joked that postmodernism is nothing more than a nonexistent subset of modernism. But I wonder, are we seeing the shift from the structural mentality of modernism and the fluidity of postmodernism (as it’s generally understood, if not uniformly accepted) in the GLAM authority struggle? Of course, the common man and authority institutions have always found something about which to disagree—here we happen to have the opposing forces called crowdsourcing vs authority control or modernism vs postmodernism. Is that juxtaposition informing this, or am I not taking a broad enough historical perspective?

    I’m inclined to say no, both because of this idea that a museum should represent so many different interests for each of its stakeholders at once and because of the drive our class seems to share over breaking down walls between the pristine, institutional repository and its messy realities, such as the art market and the people it’s actually meant to be serving. These ideas center around blurring lines, holding multiple identities, performing constantly and earnestness, all hallmarks of postmodernism’s philosophy. Modernism, the old guard, emphasizes definitions, structure and the museum as a place of experimentation (a headspace) so pure that it became the new church. I’m curious what you think, Erin, since I remember you being particularly critical of the performative aspects of a so-called postmodernist culture. Could this debate be affirming that there is enough distinction between the two philosophies to make them responsive to one another, but also separate, real movements?

  3. The more recent agitations of GULF have brought MOMA and the human rights/workers’ rights issues of Abu Dhabi back into the front page news recently, in part because it seems that MOMA’s response to the protesters amounted to delay, delay, delay, and then (just a couple of weeks ago) we are doing what we intended to do all along. Protest has acquired a new vibrancy since the Occupy movement, but I wonder at the ultimate effectiveness of protest as a tactic. Many countries who participated in the Arab Spring are now under more totalitarian rule than they were before the protests. Black Lives Matter protesters are undermined from pretty much all sides (and most recently and surprisingly from our old-school community organizing African-American president, who essentially “tone-policed” them by indicating they were not going to get anywhere by being so angry). And MOMA, other than some disrupted events and a couple of NY Times headlines, has not suffered materially from the GULF actions and so are moving full steam ahead with confidence that none of their local donors and audience care materially about the lives of slave laborers in a distant country (and they have much to gain materially from their presence in Abu Dhabi, and so are incentivized to appease that potential audience). The power imbalance seems too great. And museums, for all of their educational mission statements, are part of the art market in a direct and instrumental way. I am watching these continuing GULF actions with interest, to see if MOMA even has a moment like the Brooklyn Museum’s and swerves from their current path towards some kind of transparency and inclusiveness. They might not have to, if the current election keeps soaking up all of the media notice (because timing also has its own effects).

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