Walters joins crowdsourcing trend with 'Public Property'
Title, themes and artworks were chosen by more than 53,000 votes cast online and by museum visitors
In the Indian painting "A Wild Boar Hunt," the artist conveys the excitement of a hunt -- very likely one that actually took place in the reign of the rider depicted on the upper horse, Maharaja Bhao Singh (1659-82). (Walters Art Museum / June 14, 2012)
"Public Property" consists of 106 items — paintings, sculptures, manuscripts and jewelry — adhering to the theme of "creatures" and taken from the Walters' holdings. What makes the exhibit unique in Baltimore history is that the show's title, themes and artworks were chosen by more than 53,000 votes cast online and by museum visitors.
The kind of collective collaboration that "Public Property" represents is increasingly common — and controversial — at picture palaces nationwide. Administrators from the Smithsonian Institution to Florida's Orlando Museum of Art are courting public opinion before deciding what to hang on gallery walls.
"From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, there's something afoot in our society about taking greater ownership of our civic and collective destiny," Walters director Gary Vikan said last week.
"One thing that's changing is the whole notion of what 'authority' means, of who gets to decide. Our collections were put together to benefit the public. We're saying that the decision-makers don't always have to have Ph.D's in art history or ancient Greek or other stuff."
But the wisdom of asking nonexperts to make aesthetic judgments has been disputed since the day in 2008 that the Brooklyn Museum opened "Click!" — said to be the first crowd-curated art show in the U.S.
Some critics accuse museum administrators of pandering to the lowest common denominator by running an art show like a reality TV singing competition. Museums, the detractors say, are abandoning their traditional duties to set standards, make aesthetic judgments and educate the public.
"Art is not a popularity contest or a platform in which the viewer gets to be heard," Lance Esplund wrote in the New York Sun in his 2008 review of "Click!" "A museum's mission is to offer us cultures' highest artistic achievements, regardless of whether or not the general public takes notice."
There's always been a tension between popular art and less accessible works. Some masterpieces were universally acclaimed from the day they were created. Most were not.
"Every museum struggles to strike a balance between getting people engaged with their subject matter and delivering a high-quality product that helps the audience appreciate excellence," said Elizabeth Merritt of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Museums.
The Walters likes to think that it's doing both. Unlike some crowd-curated exhibits, all 106 works in "Public Property" are part of the Walters' permanent collection and have been previously vetted as aesthetically significant.
Visitors to "Public Property" will find 23 of voters' top-rated paintings hanging on the showroom walls, including "Before the Race," Edgar Degas' vivid 1882 depiction of a group of horsemen, and Jan Breughel the Younger's "Diana and Her Nymphs After the Hunt," which was done during the 1630s.
The remaining 83 artifacts listed on the exhibit's "wall of fame" were deemed too delicate to move into the gallery where the exhibit is being held, though they are displayed elsewhere in the museum.
But while the pieces in "Public Property" all possess an immediate and undeniable appeal, they're not particularly representative of the Walters' overall holdings.
In a museum famed for its collection of medieval and church art, it's striking that hardly any overtly religious pieces made the top 106. And even the few exceptions convey their spiritual message indirectly and through symbols.
For instance, casual viewers might not realize at first glance that Portuguese artist Josefa de Ayala's contemplative portrait from around 1680 of a white sheep lying on a table is titled, tellingly, "The Sacrificial Lamb."
It's also noteworthy that the exhibit provides minimal information about the specific works highlighted. Instead, visitors can pick up a list containing little more than the name of each piece, the artist and the year it was made.
"We deliberately decided not to include too much explanation because we wanted to give people a chance to immerse themselves in the art," said Emily Blumenthal, the Walters' manager of family programs. She and Dylan Kinnett, the Walters' social media manager, were the two "team leaders" for the exhibit.
Instead, viewers are encouraged to reflect on their decision-making process.