A disturbing visit to the Museum of Ice Cream
The Museum of Ice cream in San Francisco! Not quite Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room I’m still kicking myself for missing at the Hirshhorn, but a different mind-expanding creative immersion that the whole family would love and engage with. At least that’s what Instagram and reviews like the one in New York Magazine led me to believe. The Museum was supposed to be a creative playground that would inspire us and also leave us with great pictures. But my visit left me questioning how the hell I justified paying $38 a person to be ushered through a basement filled with plastic installations whose only invitation to play was taking a photo of myself and handing me sugar. Call me a curmudgeon that I have an attention span longer than three minutes, actually seek out opportunities to expand my mind, and have a high bar for what’s “play.” When I fork over a hefty entrance fee, I really hope it will entertain my children for longer than 45 minutes and ask more of me than to smile, edit, and post.
The creator of this Museum, 27 year old Maryellis Bunn, claims she wants to be the next Walt Disney. But better. The Museum is supposed to be based on a model that encourages social interaction and inspires visitors to break down barriers while catering to the short attention spans of the millennial generation. Unfortunately, none of the installations encouraged me to interact with anyone other than the people taking my picture and the virtual “likes” I get on Instagram. Which, I think we can all agree, is a pretty paltry replacement for real social engagement. Maybe if I were six, a small mirrored room and oversized cherries might expand my world view. But nothing left me with a sense of wonder. Sitting on a plastic unicorn certainly didn’t push any of my boundaries and standing in tiny pool of plastic sprinkles with 15 other people didn’t inspire me to play. My 11 year old thought it was cute but was quickly ready to move on from each scene motivated by the free ice cream at every turn. However, given the fact I had to buy my tickets weeks ahead of time and there was a line around the block consisting of, not children, but quasi looking adults, it clearly doesn’t matter.
Maryellis Bunn is raking in the profits with a brilliant business model that capitalizes on some of today’s most addictive and corrosive habits, sugar and social media. Its a model whose visitors, through every post and like, perpetuate her profits.
In a recent Forbes profile, Bunn touted that they were striving to make MOIC more than Instagram eye candy and even consulted with Yale professor Laurie Santos to delve deeper into the correlation between connectivity and happiness. She says in the article “It’s always been the intention, to bring people together under a universal love or experience. Ice cream doesn’t have a religion, race, gender, or borderline. It’s happiness, it’s creativity, it’s imagination, it’s nostalgia, it’s memory, and it’s relationships.” But let’s be clear, it’s a product. The goal, Bunn claims, is to create an experience so amazing people aren’t even thinking about their phones, which I wholeheartedly applaud, but MOIC has a long way to go to achieve that kind of experience. We’re fed amazing products all day long that aim to bring us more joy, and for the most part, we know we’re buying into them. We know people are turning profits left and right in our superficial quest to buy happiness. I’m just the dumb ass that showed up here expecting more.
When I hear comparisons to other experiential art immersions like The Rain Room, Meow Wolf, Sleep No More, or Kusama’s recent installations, I cringe. Because although some of those do have an Instagram worthy component, your engagement is integral to the experience and often the creation itself. As a visitor, you have decisions to make which have an impact not only on your experience, but those around you. You’re left contemplating the boundaries of your imagination and questioning the impact you have on your life and the world. Furthermore, some installations are so technologically interesting and choreographed so creatively you can’t help but be mesmerized. You’re left wondering “how did they do that?” In other words, its art.
Maybe if I hadn’t worked in the art world I would have been more impressed with the Museum of Ice Cream. At the risk of sounding supremely highbrow (along with curmudgeonly) I think any creative installation that charges that kind of admission should actually engage reputable artists, support rising artists and be well executed. It’s fine to make money, just make me feel better about spending mine. I haven’t been to The Color Factory yet but the list of artists they collaborate with gives me some hope that the experience will in fact do as they claim and “invite curiosity and engage my senses in unexpected ways.” If there is any question as to where the inspiration for creativity lies at the Museum of Ice Cream, under their list of collaborators aren’t artists but corporations like Target, American Express, and Sephora. Even art needs sponsors, but as co-creators they firmly anchor the experience in a corporate commodification of creativity. Which is what I expect from those Target commercials and every other product sucking my brain cells and its what I should have expected from MOIC.
As an installation and as a creative experience, for the price, it felt cheap, dirty, poorly constructed, and badly lit. It was more like a middle school production of Rainbow Bright. In a basement. Apparently, to get a good photo, the scenes needed to be compressed in rooms with low ceilings. Which, in person, was weird and uncomfortable. And I’m… a person. I understand it’s challenging to keep a well trodden exhibition looking ship shape with visitors crawling all over everything. I’m sure the staff there do what they can at the end of each sold out day, but the exhibition design itself meant that unless they were cleaning every 15 minutes it’s kind of gross. Because my children are at the ages where the main thing I’m concerned about them putting in their mouths is a vape pen, I found tons of children (and adults) licking ice cream and cotton candy off their fingers and touching every aspect of the exhibition disgusting. (See what a curmudgeon I am?) Contemporary art can be tough. I know. I’ve stood blankly at exhibitions and art fairs tilting my head saying “huh?” It’s debatable as to whether we should even consider this art (cringe) and I’m totally willing to surrender my understanding of a work of art even if the desired outcome is an Instagram photo.
But the beauty of the creative experience is that it leaves little room for unresolved understanding. Ultimately, whatever your experience is, is the experience. And mine, at the Museum of Ice Cream, was empty and nauseating.
At the end of the day we paid $152 for 4 people, ate 3 different types of ice cream, and took plenty of pictures. About 6 of them were good, leaving the cost at $25.33 a picture.