Curating with a Click: The Art That Participatory Media Leaves Behind

 

Bonnie Ruberg

Abstract: At a moment when technological participation seems to promise to bring innovation and democratic access to the contemporary museum, the results from one community-curated exhibit suggest that conservative cultural biases continue to shape the American public’s taste in art. In 2013, the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania collected more than 10,000 online votes for their People’s Choice exhibit. Voters were invited to choose their ‘top’ three artworks from among 125, and the twenty-five artworks that received the most votes were then displayed, while those that didn’t make the cut stayed tucked away behind closed doors. Rather than promoting diversity by making curatorial practices interactive and accessible however, the People’s Choice voting process rendered difference invisible. The result was an exhibit that appealed to the largest number of voters, yet excluded artwork that challenged dominant norms of gendered or racial privilege. Voters consistently chose realistic paintings of landscapes and white female subjects over abstract works, pieces by women, and images of people of color. The People’s Choice exhibit serves as a valuable lesson about the use of participatory media in museums, and about the potential pitfalls of crowdsourcing in new media cultures more broadly, demonstrating the importance of self-reflection as a key component of participatory cultural programming.