This summer, the Walters Art Museum will present Public Property, an exhibition collectively created by the public. In 1931, the museum’s founder Henry Walters bequeathed the core collection of the Walters to the City of Baltimore “for the benefit of the public.” The Walters’ art is owned by the public, and it is the public who will determine what this exhibition will be.
From Dec. 2011–March 2012, a series of public choices were made, from deciding the exhibition title and theme, to selecting artworks. While on view June 17–Aug. 19, 2012, visitors will continue to contribute to, and change, this exhibition.
“At a time of increasing concern about equity and democracy within society, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Arab Spring, I’ve been thinking more about the role of museums not only to act as expert but also to encourage civic participation in our exhibition process,” said Walters Director Gary Vikan. “This exhibition aims to be socially engaging and work with the public in a collaborative manner as an experiment and experience for both the participants and the museum itself.”
The first stage of the planning process ran from Dec.1–18, 2011. The public used the Walters’ works of art site to curate collections of artworks and tag them with keywords. The Walters’ exhibition team analyzed collection tags to determine some popular themes that emerged from the online collections, including adornment, military, creatures and death. A vote was held, both online and at the museum, from Dec. 23, 2011–Jan. 8, 2012, to determine the exhibition theme. “Creatures” was the theme that received the most votes, ultimately becoming the publically determined theme for the exhibition. The team then selected a large group of artworks for the public to vote on related to creatures.
The public selected a total of 106 artworks to be part of the exhibition, including Antoine-Louis Barye’s watercolor, Running Jaguar, and an Indian work on paper ca.1675, A Wild Boar Hunt. A selection of the 23 most admired paintings will be displayed within the exhibition. Other artworks, including manuscripts and three-dimensional objects, will be featured on a “wall of fame,” which will display images of the artworks along with labels and information about their popularity. Due to conservation concerns about the fragility of certain objects, the “wall of fame” enables the Walters to honor public choices and feature artworks chosen by the public, even if the objects cannot be physically exhibited.
“Once the exhibition is open, there will be a variety of interactive elements to complement the chosen artworks,” said Walters Manager of Web and Social Media and exhibition team leader, Dylan Kinnett. “For example, a computer kiosk will provide a voting mechanism to allow visitors to vote and view how their decisions affect results in real time, as well as up-to-the-minute trends.”
At each stage of the exhibition process, the museum is encouraging and supporting public contribution and decision-making. Responsive elements in the exhibition itself will ask visitors to make choices that may impact future museum decisions, as well as give greater insight into public preference.
“The exhibition vision, process and design are critical to changing perceptions and attitudes regarding museums by inviting civic participation in an intentional manner,” stated Manager of Family Programs and exhibition team leader, Emily Blumenthal. “We will also have a series of programs and events associated with the exhibition to invite visitors to become further involved with their community, their museum and their exhibition.”
Game Show at the Walters invites visitors to join an amusing and unusual opening event, June 23, 7:30–9:30 p.m., inspired by reality television game shows of the past and present. Our game show will feature the artworks as “contestants” where the winner is determined by the audience and a small panel of surprise celebrity judges. Other programs during the summer will include classic creature feature films and a public art tour.