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Welcome to the House of Fun

November 19, 2015


Since the summer, I’ve been meaning to write about the latest trend in arts programming. It goes by various names—funchitecture, #instatecturespectacle art, or the quainter (and more judgmental?) “follies.” Whatever you call it, go to any big-city art museum these days and there it is. You can wander through a giant maze, whizz down a two-story slide, bliss out in an immersive light show. Is it art? Who cares: It’s fun.

My friend Kriston Capps, an astute critic, has been tracking and bemoaning the phenomenon, and I just went to two shows replete with fun—in two different cities—in the space of a week.

When is it okay to have fun at a serious cultural institution, and how much is too much? At what point does public engagement become gimmickry? Ideally, every museum director would ask him- or herself these questions before commissioning a fun-stallation.

Does the exhibit prompt us to question the meaning and uses of fun, and establish a clear, intelligent dialogue with other art?

Yes: Fine. Have a blast!

No: Reconsider. 

The show I saw yesterday is a good example of when some rigged-up gallery fun is okay—more than okay—because it complements the spirit of the art on the walls. Hippie Modernism, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is about freewheeling design subcultures of the 1960s and ’70s. Because the show explains the artistic, political, and spiritual dimensions of works that deploy humor and draw on pop culture, it enriches the concept of “fun” at the same time that it invites us to climb inside a van or swing in a hammock. More power to you, Walker Art Center.


If the answer to the last question was no: Will the exhibit direct a *significant* number of visitors to other, more content-rich areas of the museum?

Yes: The end may justify the means.

No: Don’t resort to this unless your institution really needs the money, and try not to make a habit of it. 

Be honest here. How many of the people who wait in line to jump into a big ball pit are really going to proceed to a show on Quonset huts or Brazilian furniture design? The answer is not many. However, on my visits to Snarkitecture’s The Beach at the National Building Museum last summer, signs were mixed. Some people clearly were going upstairs to check out the Hot to Cold exhibit by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group). One reason: the architectural models were suspended over the museum’s Great Hall, which piqued visitors’ interest. But I still can’t imagine more than a small fraction of the people who jumped in the pit also saw the BIG show.

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Getting closer.

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Still going strong.

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Is your city already saturated with spectacles? 

Yes: Then it doesn’t need another.

No: One or two might be all right. 

Like everything else, Insta-tecture obeys the law of diminishing returns. At first, it’s a welcome chance for people to relax, see a new side of a cultural institution, and experience art or architecture in a different way. (And snap great selfies, of course.) But it starts to wear thin fast.

Maybe I’m biased, but I tend to go easy on spectacles in D.C., because this is a buttoned-up, neoclassical town and spectacles are fewer here than in London or New York. At least, they were—Wonder at the Renwick comes hot on the heels of The Beach. I hope Washington museums won’t look to MoMA, with its run of flashy and critically panned (but lucrative) spectacles, as a model. I also hope the National Building Museum keeps putting on high-quality shows like Hot to Cold and Unbuilt Washington to balance out its summer entertainment. In fact, it really ought to organize more of them with all those folly proceeds.

 is pretty fluffy stuff. The introductory wall panel says it’s intended to showcase the Renwick’s new renovation, and true, a show this lightweight can’t compete with the grand building that houses it. But I’m willing to give the museum the benefit of the doubt. Let’s hope the next show gives us more to think on.

Finally: Is a celebrity attached to the project?

Yes: GTFO. 

No: At least there’s that. 

Celebrity-driven art spectacles are the worst! Enough said.

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