Everyone curates. We choose our clothes every morning, we decide how to decorate our houses, we shape our social media selves.
The stakes are a lot higher, however, when you’re curating art that represents an entire culture (and millions of dollars) — which is why, traditionally, museums have curators. Coincidentally, the Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass have current shows “curated” via popular vote — and the results clearly show the power and the limits of popularity.
You’ll want to move quickly to see the art museum show, as it closes Sunday. Timed to celebrate the museum’s 80th anniversary, “People’s Choice” was compiled through voting this winter via Facebook, the museum’s website and paper ballots at the museum for favorite works in the museum’s collection.
With around 4,500 works to choose from, the museum wisely narrowed it down to the European and American collections, as they’re not shown as frequently as the Northwest or Western works. Around 500 people voted, and the top 10 works got label mentions.
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Even with the field so narrow, it doesn’t take much to predict the results of a popularity contest like this. People love beautiful, figurative, 19th-century works of art (and for good reason), and so the gallery is filled with them. Renoir’s “Heads of Two Young Girls,” not his most finely-painted but with a signature spring joy in the coloring and softness. Pissarro’s misty “Fishing Port,” a Goya etching that’s small but agonized, with intense shadowing. The cleverly satirical Daumier lithograph “Mr. Pot de Naz,” the poignant, deep-eyed face of George Luks’ “The Immigrant,” a watercolor country church by Edward Hopper, a rural fence by John Singer Sargent. All are two-dimensional except for the two bronze Degas dancers, with the artist’s usual perfect eye for form but rather ugly faces.
There are a couple of pleasant surprises in this crowd curation. In second place was Robert Gwathmey’s “Singing and Mending,” a chunky serigraph in primary colors that’s complex in the careworn peace of its African American couple.
In first place was Jacob Lawrence’s masterful “Street Orator’s Audience,” with its jumble of faces and rich brown-red palette. There’s a lovely wall of portraits of women, no doubt hung together by an actual curator (Margaret Bullock) to highlight their connections.
But mostly, it’s obviously what museum voters like: Pretty paintings of people and landscapes.
Most popular at TAM: Jacob Lawrence, “Street Orator’s Audience.” Most popular at MoG: Erich Woll, “Mistakes Will Be Made.”
At the Museum of Glass, #BeTheCurator was assembled in much the same way: voting for works via Facebook or ballots. But there’s an added popularity contest. For the duration of the exhibit (through October), visitors can vote for their favorite (living) artist, and the winner will get a week’s residency in the Hot Shop, invaluable for artists who don’t usually get access to such resources.
The glass museum has a much smaller collection than the art museum, around 800 objects. But it’s surprising how representative this voting-curated show ended up becoming.
There are the usual suspects, with swags of “Likes” — Lino Tagliapietra, whose “Manhattan Sunset” assembles tall, elegantly caneworked and textured vessels into a skyscape, getting 150 Facebook likes and a whopping 531 votes; Toots Zynsky, whose flower-like bowl of iridescent layers of gold, red and lime scored 75 likes and 400 votes.
There are some surprises. Dale Chihuly got only 93 likes and 174 votes for his midnight-blue nested baskets, lipped in bright cobalt and playing with transparency and opacity with an uncharacteristic subtlety. April Surgent, who does some of the most thoughtful glass art around and could definitely use another glass museum residence, scored only 35 likes and 88 votes for her fused cameo-engraved triptych of shadowed, rainy streets. David Huchthausen’s glass sphere, which mirrors the gallery as you walk around it but otherwise holds little interest, scored 206 likes and 386 votes, and Jasen Johnsen’s flaming red guitar — garish in the extreme, like a trinket souvenir blown up large — scored 156 likes and 342 votes.
The show’s winner, by popular vote, was Erich Woll’s “Mistakes Will Be Made,” a delightful assemblage of white glass boobies with bemused, eyeless faces and bubble-gum-blue webbed feet. They’re cute, yes, enough for 198 likes and 679 votes. But they uncannily remind you of the standard factory glass animals, so popular in the 1970s: the epitome of art for cuteness’ sake.
What’s really interesting, in both shows, is the museum’s response to laymen questions. At the glass museum, each wall text explains in detail how a piece is made (fascinating), while art museum voters’ questions get answers such as “What’s the background story?” and “Who is the model in this painting?” The voters’ comments show clearly how passionate people feel about their art — always reassuring.
But there’s no prize for guessing what Museum of Glass visitors like best: cute glass animals. And to reduce glass art to that, or painting to fluffy pink Impressionism, is the big limitation of choose-your-own exhibitions. Museum curators exist to show us what we don’t know, what we don’t see on first glance, to preserve and highlight qualities that go beyond pretty and cute. And exhibits like these, while democratic and fun, show clearly what happens when you take away the curator and reduce art to a popularity contest.
Celebrating 80 Years: People’s Choice
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through Sunday.
Admission: $14 adults; $12 seniors, student, military; free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org.
Where: Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Admission: $15 adults; $13 AAA; $12 seniors, student, military; free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Information: 866-4-MUSEUM, museumofglass.org.