Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new campaign aims to help infrequent museum goers feel more inclined to pay a visit.
In the mid-1700s, the painter François Boucher depicted his daughter, Marie-Emillie-Baudouin, with a sprightly bird perched cheerfully upon her finger. Last week, Audrey Piraut envisioned the scene somewhat differently. Her image, a self-portrait, is more slapstick than dainty. Instead of sporting a coy smile and petite bird, she’s attended by a stone-faced pigeon—and grimacing as its poop drips down her fingers.
The goal is to inspire passersby pay a visit to Paris’ Musée Cognacq-Jay to see Boucher’s painting in person. To mark the launch of a new digital hub for exhibitions, Paris Musées—an organization incorporating 14 museums throughout the city, including Maison de Victor Hugo, Maison de Balzac, Petit Palais, and the Carnavalet Museum—tapped Instagram users, including Piraut, to recreate works of art from the collections.
The resulting images will be papered throughout the city’s Gare Saint Lazare station from May 11 through July 31. Among them is a woman channeling a Modigliani muse with electric blue eyeshadow smudged across her lids, and a troupe of plastic figurines (below) conjuring Charles Nègre’s portrait of chimney sweeps.
Many museums run their own stunning Instagram accounts, and are the backdrop of countless shots uploaded by visitors. The Louvre, for instance, is one of the most frequently geotagged places on the planet. Moreover, some blockbuster exhibitions seemed designed expressly to tantalize visitors wielding smartphones. Over at The Atlantic, Katharine Schwab recently described how large-scale, flagrantly unsubtle installations, such as the ones that pop up at festivals like Burning Man, are naturally “more accessible to viewers who may feel excluded from the conceptually aloof art found in many institutions.” When museums put on immersive, splashy shows, Schwab argues—the ones that practically beg to be Instagrammed—they’re playing to a demographic that plans to view the work through the camera on their phones.
This mash-up installation in Paris is a similar kind of spectacle, and an invitation. It uses humor as a mediator and incentive, says Nicolas Lanter, the brand content manager for Kindai, which sponsored the exhibition. This platform appeals to a cross-section of users, not just ones who identify as art lovers, Lanter says. An interest in fashion or photography could dovetail with a museum habit that’s yet to be cultivated.
Many of the images in the exhibition are campy, but that’s by design: they’re intended to put would-be visitors at ease, and contradict the notion that museums are stuffy or irrelevant. Take, for instance, this pairing of Georges Clairin’s painting of the actress Sarah Bernhardt with a modern interpretation. In the painting, Bernhardt reclines like an odalisque on a blood-red velvet sofa, a sumptuous fur rug at her feet. The contemporary version stars sneakers, an iPhone, and monochromatic gray upholstery. A contemporary viewer would instantly recognize the scene as familiar.
A 2010 report by the American Association of Museums summed up some of the reasons that museum visitors tend to be disproportionately white and middle-aged. Among those was an internalized fear that someone lacked the specialized knowledge and discerning taste to understand and appreciate a work of art. But at the same time, the report continued, social networks could influence museum-going behavior. Museums can be for everyone—and maybe goofy Instagram posts will help close the gap between those who feel welcome and those who don’t.