Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Voting on Art and its Surprising Consequences

What happens when you let visitors vote on art?

Let's look at the statistics from three big participatory projects that wrapped up recently. Each of these invited members of the public to vote on art in a way that had substantive consequences--big cash prizes awarded, prestige granted, exhibitions offered.
  • ArtPrize, the grandaddy of visitor voting, just completed its fourth year in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This citywide festival showcased work by 1,517 artists competing for a $200,000 top cash prize awarded by public vote. An estimated 400,000 people attended the event over two weeks, of which 47,000 cast at least one vote. Voters had to register to vote, but there were no restrictions on how many artworks a voter could "like."
  • The Brooklyn Museum just finished the public stage of GO, a "community-curated open studio project." GO invited people to visit artists' studios throughout Brooklyn over one weekend and to nominate up to three favorites; the top ten will be considered for an upcoming group show at the museum. 1,708 artists participated. An estimated 18,000 people attended, of which 4,929 nominated artists for the show. Note that in this case, people had to register to vote AND check in at at least five studios to be eligible to nominate artists for the show. Full stats here.  
  • The Hammer Museum recently awarded the first annual Mohn Award, a $100,000 prize that will be awarded biannually to an artist in the "Made in LA" biennial exhibition based on public vote. Five artists out of sixty in the show were short-listed by a jury. 50,000 people visited the exhibition, and 2,051 voted for their favorite artist of the five. Fascinating (and long) article about the Mohn Award here.
In each of these examples, the press and public dialogue mostly revolved around the idea of public voting for art. But when it came to the actual experience, the vast majority of participants and attendees did NOT vote. In Grand Rapids, 12% cast a ballot. In Brooklyn, 27% made it through the voting process. In LA, only 4% voted. 

What's going on here? Why are hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Grand Rapids for ArtPrize but not choosing to vote? Why did the Hammer Museum have record summer attendance if people weren't coming for the thing that was being flaunted--the opportunity to vote?

There are surely some people who didn't want to go through the hassle of registering and learning the rules of voting. There are others who may not have felt "qualified" to select winners and losers. But my sense is that the biggest reason people didn't vote is that for most visitors, voting wasn't the point. The point was to be part of an exciting, dynamic, surprising new way to engage with art.

Or at least, that's what I experienced when I went to ArtPrize in 2010. I was blown away by the social experience provoked by the unorthodox format. Voting on individual artworks turned each one into a social object worthy of lengthy conversation. Talking with Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum, it sounds like GO comparably sparked a huge number of community conversations in artists' studios around Brooklyn. When the public is invited to decide, they may not take on that power and responsibility... but they may show up in droves to see what the fuss is about.

This leads me to two conflicting perspectives on voting in exhibitions:
  1. Voting on substantive outcomes (money, exhibitions) is good because it provokes engagement with objects, artists, and fellow visitors. Whether you tick the ballot or not, the opportunity to do so opens up a conversation about what's good, what's bad, and what's art.  
  2. Voting on substantive outcomes is dangerous because not enough people participate to make serious decisions in good faith. The Hammer is reconsidering the public vote component of the Mohn Award after only 2,051 people determined who would win $100,000. And in Brooklyn, Shelley Bernstein noted that the data generated during GO was insufficient to generate statistical significance in a "wisdom of the crowds decision-making" format. In the case of ArtPrize, founder Rick DeVos has explicitly said that the event is a creative act designed to engage people in "conversation" about art. And yet they have added juried prizes alongside the public ones to diversify that conversation.
How do you weigh the positive engagement that comes with community dialogue against the ethics of voting for outcomes that matter deeply to the artists involved?
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