The advent of social media is changing the way we visit galleries and how we perceive and experience art. While ‘selfie’ culture prompts extensive public debate, many cultural institutions now actively encourage visitors to engage with their organisation through digital platforms. Adam Suess unpacks his research into the use of Instagram in art galleries, especially at our recent Gerhard Richter exhibition ‘The Life of Images’.
Gerhard Richter: Instagram in the art gallery
In 1826, French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured what is known to be the oldest surviving photograph taken with a camera. Nearly 200 years later, it is estimated that over 1.3 trillion photos will be taken in 2018 alone, with the growth attributed to the global rise in mobile smartphone ownership and social media use. Modern smartphones include highquality cameras, making amateur photography cheaper and easier than ever before. Many of us carry smartphones wherever we go, changing the story of personal photography from a practice once reserved for capturing iconic moments, such as birthdays and holidays, to something more ephemeral, spontaneous and mobile.
Instagram has more than 800 million users and is arguably the world’s most popular social media platform dedicated to sharing digital images. A search for QAGOMA’s own hashtag #qagoma displays a wealth of visitor photography, especially from its most popular exhibitions. The Yayoi Kusama exhibition ‘Life is the Heart of a rainbow’ at GOMA during ‘Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images’ attracted thousands of visitor posts to its associated hashtag #KusamaGOMA.
The use of Instagram in art galleries raises interesting questions about its effect on our experience of art, and whether it could be leveraged to deepen our engagement with the arts more broadly. The popular practice of taking selfies has polarised opinion in the debate on photography in museums and art galleries.
Museum Selfie Day occurs on 17 January each year and celebrates museum selfie taking — the #museumselfie hashtag on Instagram holds more than 55 000 images. Many cultural institutions promote social photography to generate affinity with museums, yet some consider that it interrupts their visitors’ experience. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has prohibited photography inside the exhibition space to avoid what they term a ‘nuisance’ to other visitors. The de Young Museum in San Francisco took a softer approach by introducing ‘photography free’ viewing times to meet the diverse expectations of visitors.
However, recent research suggests that selfie sharing represents only a small component of Instagram use in cultural institutions; the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada analysed 263 693 social media visitor images, including those on Instagram, finding that selfies represented less than four per cent of the total visitor images.1
I conducted a study at GOMA coinciding with the ‘Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images’ exhibition. The study, part of a Griffith University PhD project examines visitors’ use of Instagram. I am intrigued by how people experience and respond to art, and I wanted to investigate what we could see and learn through the lens of Instagram that may not ordinarily be seen.
Previous research at cultural institutions has shown that visitors used Instagram to re-curate exhibitions, extend dialogue outside the physical building, draw attention to exhibition objects, and link themselves to the exhibition.2 In my study, I observed 550 Instagram posts made by visitors to the Richter exhibition, using grounded theory for analysis. I interviewed a subset of 17 visitors to critically understand why they had posted part of their experience to Instagram. The results of my study showed three major findings:
- Visitors who used Instagram extended and evolved their aesthetic experience
- Instagram shaped the way visitors sawand used gallery spaces
- Sharing images on Instagram promoted their experience and built affinity with the exhibition, artist and Gallery.
A number of scholars contend that the goal of an aesthetic experience is to know something, and to achieve this goal we construct an aesthetic experience through an evolving process.3 When faced with art, our mind seeks information in an effort to build knowledge. Like individual building blocks that together form a whole, our aesthetic experience evolves as we acquire information and physically experience our surroundings, fulfilling our goal of constructing knowledge.
Participants in my study reported using Instagram as part of their visit to evolve their aesthetic experience through language, relationships, creativity, technology and place. Instagram also amplified aspects of their observation, making them more mindful of how they might represent their experience on Instagram, such as mimicking or copying Richter’s signature blurred style.
Instagram also extended the aesthetic experience of some participants. An aesthetic experience extends when it stretches beyond the time and space of the physical visit, starting earlier and finishing later. Extension complements the concept of an evolving aesthetic experience, as it allows more time and space to build knowledge and engage in reflection.
Since the exhibition was a ticketed event, many participants commented on how Instagram gave them an opportunity to glimpse other visitors’ experiences before deciding whether to attend the exhibition themselves. Participants also used Instagram to reflect on their visit afterwards during a period of contemplation when they decided which image to post.
Instagram also influences how people move through the gallery space, and visitors often took close-up photos of the intricate detail of Richter’s tapestries or placed themselves between the photographer and the artwork. Richter’s Atlas overview 1962–ongoing highlighted this relationship; this section of the exhibition was an extensive 400-panel extract of the artist’s collected photographs, sketches, collages and cuttings displayed along a long corridor in the exhibition. Several visitor Instagram posts reflected the Atlas exhibit as a space rather than a composition of individual works — visitors represented themselves as being in the exhibition space, rather than looking at separate objects.4
The final major theme that this study found was the impact of visitors sharing on Instagram. Participants shared by viewing others’ images on Instagram, and shared their own for others to see, like and comment on. The didactic in GOMA’s entrance foyer encouraged visitors to be part of the exhibition by sharing their images using the hashtag #thelifeofimages, and many participants responded positively to this pro-social dynamic.
Sharing our aesthetic experiences is encouraged by galleries — it promotes the acceptance of others’ interpretations and supports the belief that art is experienced democratically in a neutral environment. Sharing also benefits the gallery and artist by promoting the exhibition to the community through peer-to-peer endorsement.
Instagram has created a new form of engagement for artists, galleries and their visitors. The initial research indicates that such technology can teach us more about aesthetic experience, the use of space, and the social dynamics of sharing our experiences of art. Instagram offers new ways to extend, evolve and amplify visitors’ experiences, and the arts community should be enthused by the opportunities that this presents.
Adam Suess is a PhD candidate at Griffith University. Adam is interested in new media, geographicity and art galleries. His PhD explores how visitors use Instagram in art exhibitions.
1 W Ryan Dodge, ‘Unpacking 263,000 visitor photos at the Royal Ontario’, Medium, 11 May 2018, <https://blog.usejournal.com/httpsmedium-com-wrdodger-unpacking-260-000-visitor-photos-at-theroyal-ontario-museum-e35a51aa9f6b>, viewed June 2018.
2 Kylie Budge, ‘Objects in focus: Museum visitors and Instagram’, Curator: The Museum Journal, vol.60, no.1, 2017, pp.67–85; Kylie Budge & Alli Burness, ‘Museum objects and Instagram: Agency and communication in digital engagement’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol.32, no.2, 2017, pp.137–150; Alexandra Weilenmann and others, ‘Instagram at the museum: communicating the museum experience through social photo sharing’, in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2013, pp.1843–52.
3 Rika Burnham, ‘If you don’t stop, you don’t see anything’, Teachers College Record, vol.95, no.4, 1994, pp.520–5; Gianluca Consoli, ‘The emergence of the modern mind: An evolutionary perspective
on aesthetic experience’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol.72, no.1, 2014, pp.37–55.
4 Kali Tzortzi, ‘Museum architectures for embodied experience’, Museum Management and Curatorship, vol.32, no.5, 2017, pp.491–508.
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Feature image: Guests at the Official Opening of ‘The Life of Images’ take a selfie in front of Gerhard Richter’s tapestry, Abdu 2009 / Photograph: Chloë Callistemon © QAGOMA