CityLab’s guide to the #GrammableCity.
A few years ago, back when Tilda Swinton was taking naps at the Museum of Modern Art and every place was racing to build a Rain Room, it seemed as though museums had a problem. An infection. A social contagion. Cutting-edge institutions known for making tastes had turned to chasing trends—or rather, likes and faves.
Now the galleries have been upended by a bigger social platform: cities themselves. Nobody needs institutions to deliver Instagram-ready social tableaus now that mayors, developers, and entrepreneurs have gotten in on the game. If the decade is drawing to a close with a revival of fascism and a decline in crucial societal norms, you wouldn’t know it from glancing around any downtown in America. Cities have never looked more twee.
Maybe the rise of the #GrammableCity was inevitable. Below, CityLab staffers have compiled a guide to all the ways that cities have hijacked your Insta feed.
Spell it out
I vaguely remember hundreds of European travel photos from the early aughts taken by my college friends: There they were picnicking in front of the Eiffel Tower, clinking giant steins at Hofbrauhaus, and smiling sweatily with new friends in Berlin nightclubs.
But there was one particular visual that always interrupted the endearing deluge of fun and awe my friends had selected to share with the rest of us on Facebook…
I don’t remember the faces or the surroundings, just the giant letters standing proudly in front of the Rijksmuseum, which I, an American Millennial, am doomed to forever identify as “the museum behind the ‘I amsterdam’ sign.” I’m not proud of that but I can only blame my then-fresh and empty brain so much. Why would a popular historic city tap into the worst urges of FOMO-poisoned outsiders?
The letters were installed in September 2004, just months after Facebook launched, three years before the first iPhone was sold, and six years before Instagram existed. These inventions have since helped stretch out the gaping portal to hell we dance around everyday while the sign has only continued to grow in popularity.
Spawned from a branding campaign by Amsterdam Partners, a public-private partnership, the slogan was created to amplify the “core values” of the city to the world. In its most shallow manifestation, standing proudly on the Museumplein, few leave the experience of having their photo taken in front of the letters thinking about the city’s creativiteit (creativity), innovatie (innovation), or handelsgeest (spirit of commerce).
But when it comes to raw numbers, these damn letters are getting the job done—tourism has increased 40 percent since the piece was installed! After a merciful delay, the trend has recently spread across the Atlantic to Toronto. Sitting in Nathan Phillips Square since 2015, the city’s defining giant letters present a tacky irony.
City Hall, which anchors any wide-focus shot of the letters, was built as the result of an international design competition in 1958. The proposals were bold and modern and resonated with an emerging concern over a postwar Americanization and corporatization of Canadian culture. Finland’s Viljo Revell won the jury over, submitting a futuristic design that has endured as a progressive symbol of Toronto to this day. Meanwhile, despite America’s supreme branding instincts and love of kitsch, its public sphere has mostly avoided this social media trend so far.
The Toronto sign has generated more than 120 million social media impressions—the contemporary gauge of a city’s brand power. (One city official called it “the most successful marketing media branding project that I’ve ever been involved with.”)
Two distant precedents for the city-name signs are Robert Indiana’s “Love” sculpture in Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Plaza and the Hollywood sign, icons that instantly connote the cities they belong to. But the direct source of the current trend can clearly trace back to Amsterdam. On its heels came ONLY LYON (France) in 2010 and BUDAPEST in 2014. Block-capital letters, with no extraneous words but the city’s name, became the standard formula, and as the signs have multiplied from Krakow to Brisbane—even appearing in small towns like Tequisquiapan, Mexico—they yield diminishing returns for a city craving instant iconicity. Scramble the letters and you could be somewhere else: Kyoto, or Tokyo?
However obvious the branding strategy, the signs seem to appeal to plenty of locals as well as tourists; Toronto couples pose for wedding photos in front of TORONTO. Kids like climbing on the letters and don’t care if they’re generic or not. The thing that may end, or shift, this trend is the signs’ own massive popularity. TORONTO’s vinyl outlayer started to peel off from all the sitting and climbing, and it needed city-funded repairs less than two years after its debut.
Cities could take that as an opportunity to break away from the marketing-consultant playbook and do something more daring in their key public spaces. But not Toronto. It rehabbed the original sign almost as-is, and in fact, just gave it a baby sister: #TOwaterfront, complete with hashtag.
—Amanda Kolson Hurley
Paint the town ROYGBIV
One night last spring I was walking in Northeast D.C., down a street of newly built luxury apartments. On the side of one building was a new mural, declaring in huge rainbow-colored script: “Here today gone tomorrow.” I’m still not sure if it was self-aware—this is ground zero for displacement in D.C., across the street from a low-income co-op that’s currently being shuttered for redevelopment. I snapped a pic, wrote a kinda-snide caption, and posted to Instagram. By morning, the apartment building itself gave the photo a like.
These are boomtimes for this neighborhood, with new stores, luxury apartments, and of course a Whole Foods and Trader Joes. And suddenly it’s covered in murals, too. The one I mentioned is just one of three on that face of the building. Down the street you’ll see another block of old brick buildings waiting to be torn down, but with a colorful portrait of George Washington, an image of Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill, and more, all added in the past couple years.
The murals are fine ones; the splashes of color are nice. But most are very clearly Instagram bait in the service of developers. That’s obvious through their ultra-vibrant color palettes (it’s the rainbow bagel craze, but for walls!) and their sudden appearance either on new buildings or on old ones that were just bought up to be redeveloped. It’s not just this one neighborhood, either. It’s happening around the city, and in cities around the U.S. Go to a dense, gentrifying area with new buildings going up and you’re likely to see it somewhere.
In many ways, this is a new phase for street art. The unpermitted kind—graffiti and other murals—has always had an edge to it. Artists who do this rogue work, not knowing if it’ll last more than a couple days, tend make bold statements. But the developer-driven kind is tame. There’s big money behind the projects that the art is intended to promote, so it can’t ruffle feathers. As one mural booster told LA Downtown News: “...developers are looking to attract a buzz and activate building plazas and create a storyline for their projects, they are looking for artworks that are interactive, unique and ideally have a functional component.” That’s not how people talk about Banksy.
These murals are interesting because they resemble the edgy stuff. The average young passerby treats them the same way: stand next to one, look nonchalant, snap a pic, and post it. It’ll look cool. It’ll probably be a hit among followers. It might even encourage one or two of them to check out a part of town they hadn’t considered before. For a new luxury apartment building looking for renters, what’s not to like?
New York’s campaign to illuminate its bridges with LEDs is a perfect microcosm for the abysmal chasm that defines the state’s politics.
The story starts with the Empire State Building, which has emerged as a world leader in infrastructure-tainment. The nightly light shows on the top of the Empire State Building are rivaled only by its views for famous skyscraper attractions in the city. Last week, the building hosted a Holiday Light Show (which synced up to a new Christmas song by Gwen Stefani). And year-round there’s a dedicated Twitter account, @ESBColor, that gives updates explaining the lighting scheme of the day.
New York State would badly like to get in on this action. Two years ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a campaign to festoon Metropolitan Transportation Authority bridges with twinkling LEDs. Soon it won’t be New York City skyscrapers having all the fun at the start of Hanukkah or after the semi-annual Knicks victory. Bridges can be insufferably peppy, too.
A lighting designer for Philips Lighting told CityLab that the governor got the idea to trick out his bridges after seeing one lit up in Philadelphia. Cuomo’s unlikely dream is close to reality: Phase one of the “New York Crossings” project comprises seven regional bridges and two tunnels. Estimates for completing the project run more than $350 million.
How can Cuomo afford to funnel MTA money into a bedazzling campaign while the subway is falling apart? He can’t. As Politico New York reports, a government watchdog group filed a complaint against the MTA’s board over the issue, charging board members of neglect in their oversight duties. It hardly escaped New Yorkers that while residents were enduring the Summer of Hell, the governor was stringing up lights on bridges.
“You’ll have bridges all across the New York City area that are choreographed—nothing like this has been done on the planet,” Cuomo told reporters back in January. Unfortunately for the governor, it’s not the planet’s opinion of the governor that matters.
For every tragic event that captures the world’s attention and every health issue with an awareness campaign, there is infrastructure to be lit up in appropriate colors—mayor’s orders. It’s a gesture that often feels tired and hollow.
After U.S. president Donald Trump pulled his country from the Paris Climate Accord, politicians proudly Instagrammed and tweeted photos of their city halls, bridges, and monuments lit up green. For each of the many terrorists attacks in Europe and the U.S. in recent years, there are color-coordinated signals of solidarity from allies. And for the growing number of health awareness campaigns, there are exact colors to project on exact months, weeks, or days. The visuals are shared by the thousands around the world, providing a fleeting moment of online reflection or comfort. News sites embed the images for quick roundups. Meanwhile, on any given city street, bystanders may likely never know why their local monument happens to be a different color on a day they don’t know to be any different than all the other days.
But with so many tragedies and causes to commemorate, the virality feels increasingly pointless. Social media searches for “illuminated + solidarity” and “illuminated + awareness” return hundreds of photos. And the more each image travels, the weaker the gesture feels as it trickles down to questionable and hyper-partisan social media accounts who share them for reasons related to their personal online brand. These gestures are as bold and brave as a Facebook profile photo filter made for the same purpose.
Such scenes don’t have to feel so hollow. Every September 11, dozens of searchlights shoot up straight up into the sky from the where the Twin Towers once stood, mimicking the forms of the collapsed buildings. Known as Tribute In Light, it fills the unmistakable absence in the sky and on the ground felt every day since the 2001 attack that brought the buildings down. The simple and powerful gesture can be seen for miles. Sure, it works perfectly for social media, but it just as easily stops pedestrians in their tracks and sends New Yorkers to their rooftops or living room windows to stare, and contemplate—so much so that they might even forget to take a photo of it.
Go to work in the “social factories”
In urban space, our desire to photograph and share virtually everything has spawned a new genre of urban pleasure grounds. They specialize in Instagram bait, a hybrid of ultra-popular immersive art like “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” and increasingly ubiquitous brand activations. These social factories, as they might be called, tone down the art and branding aspects, leaving their social media appeal to do the heavy lifting.
The Museum of Ice Cream is the most notable example. After making its debut in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in 2016, it completed a run in Los Angeles’ Arts District, and recently began one in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The ice cream theme is rather loose, providing a convenient template for installations that take full advantage of the bold, bright color palette favored on Instagram. The tub of sprinkles was especially popular, as was a “life-sized” unicorn statue. MoIC also gives its visitors ice cream and other tasty treats, which are themselves popular Instagram fare.
In all three locations, MoIC quickly sold out its runs. In this respect it’s much like its fellow travelers in this emerging spatial/business category. San Francisco’s Color Factory, and Refinery 29’s Manhattan pop-up, 29Rooms, both sold out their runs almost immediately.
Their popularity seems to suggest they’re not going away anytime soon. By last spring, MoIC had netted $6 million in ticket sales, and had major expansion plans in the works. Founder Maryellis Bunn told Forbes that she hopes to open a New York flagship with a restaurant and spa, as well as a Las Vegas themed hotel and museum.
The economics of these spaces are fascinating. The Color Factory costs $35 per ticket and MoIC’s San Francisco run costs $38. They’re the epitome of “prosumerism”: you pay a not-trivial amount of money for the privilege of producing a couple cool Instagrams of your experience.
It’s not just a personal branding bonanza; these spaces have a corporate branding aspect, too. The Color Factory is not so gauche as to feature a room filled with Lyft beach balls, but it is underwritten by Alaska Airlines and Method soaps. The Museum of Ice Cream has had lucrative partnerships with Tinder and Dove chocolates. It’s not hard to imagine MoIC’s future consulting arm designing stores, restaurants, or co-working spaces. Every part of the real world stands to be “socialized.”
Spare a thought for the real museums
It’s tempting to blame the greatest travesty in the art world in 2017 on Instagram.
In October, the Indianapolis Museum of Art changed its name and walked away from its mission. Newfields, the new institution that has taken the place of the 134-year-old museum, is the culmination of a push by Charles Venable, director and CEO, to change course. It is arguably not a museum any more. Or at least, it no longer wants to be.
“When you think about it, ‘museum’ is an old word that conjures up images of an indoor experience—passive, looking at art on the walls, sometimes being exhorted not to touch the painting, wandering around in a hushed environment,” IMA board chair Tom Hiatt told the Indianapolis Business Journal. “That, frankly, is an experience which a lot of people don’t find welcoming or engaging.”
While the IMA still boasts profound collections of modern artworks, Asian artifacts, design objects, and more, Newfields is de-emphasizing those considerable assets in favor of its grounds. Today, the museum’s main selling point is its 100-acre campus and the experiences that it offers: ’grammable content like Funky Bones, a fiberglass skeleton sculpture, or rather a series of benches, made famous by The Fault in Our Stars.
So instead of investing in artworks, exhibitions, and scholarship, the former IMA is now trumpeting experiences such as “Winterlights,” a display of 1 million pretty Christmas lights. Somewhere along the way, Indianapolis forgot that museums are meant to be the house of the few, not the house of the many; museums are cultural treasuries, not amusement parks. Venable has turned a grand encyclopedic museum into a cheap Midwestern boardwalk.
Curators have left the museum in protest and dismay. Since his arrival in 2012, Venable has fired or forced out most of them: As of this fall, only five full-time curators remained of a staff that once employed 12. Recent senior hires include a director of hospitality and a director of festival, performance, and public programming.
To be sure, the IMA was hit hard by the Great Recession. The director has made strides to undo the damage, decreasing the museum’s annual draw on its endowment and increasing its membership figures. Yet those improvements have come at the cost of the museum’s soul. Where the Indianapolis Museum of Art strove to challenge its audience, Newfields pats their heads.
Every step in the museum’s recent evolution has been a cynical one, reflecting a condescending view of the local Indianapolis viewers and international museum-goers the institution once drew by the hundreds of thousands with its diverse collections. So why not pull out all the stops? Why not make it a Minions Museum? Why not set up banks of theaters for whichever Avengers or Star Wars film is selling? Why not raze the building and put up an enormous trampoline in its place? I wouldn’t put that last one past Venable.