The Unstagrammables — Can ‘ugly’ art survive Instagram?

Saskia du Bois
Jun 10, 2019 · 8 min read

Like life, art can sometimes be ugly. Unfortunately, these works — as inspiring as they may be — don’t usually translate to impact on Instagram. So, as an online editor for a modern art museum in Amsterdam I was wondering; Should a museum just post the pretty stuff? Post everything blindly? Or put the focus on the museum experience instead of the artworks?

For many museums, Instagram is the social media platform: visual, positive, fresh and full of cool young people hanging out. The most influential of these people can give a huge boost to a museum’s online reach by taking a selfie at a photogenic spot, or even just by just being there. Thanks Miguel!

But as a member of the social media team at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, I also find Instagram a challenging medium. It definitely offers museums — more so than Facebook and Twitter at the moment — the best options for sharing their art collection in an accessible and visually attractive way, and thereby attracting new audiences. But this also makes the museum dependent on the whims of the platform. Both the museum and art history must take a backseat to Instagram as its algorithms decide what kinds of artworks will triumph in the harvesting of likes. This can considerably limit the options when your goal is to produce successful posts.

Scroll stoppers

Modern and contemporary art is not always esthetically ‘pretty’. But of course, ‘ugly’ art can be as insightful as its more visual astonishing counterparts — based on backing message, story or thoughts. However, such artworks don’t work on the museum’s Instagram timeline.

We know from experience that the rough formula for successful art posts on Instagram is:

Famous work (or not-so-famous work by a famous artist) + great photo = likes

An unknown but visually phenomenal work could work as well. But in the case of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam that leaves tens of thousands of remarkable objects out of the loop.

For example, how can we make something Instagrammable out of an image of 20 lead tiles on the floor of an empty space lit by fluorescent lighting?

Swipe up!

Or try selling 40 words by Louwrien Weijers on Instagram. This intriguing installation — wherein ‘mindfulness’ is promoted years avant la lettre — is still very much on point. However, it’s not exactly a scroll stopper on Instagram and as such similar to the lead tiles that are part of a series of works by the artist Carl André, which are also regarded as highlights of the Stedelijk’s collection.

The same is also undoubtedly true for objects from other museums. For historical museums, Roman coins may rate as true archeological treasures but on Instagram they probably end up looking like grubby loose change. Swipe up.

Nipples, no way!

Other objects will never make it on Instagram because of more obvious reasons. Nipples, for example, go against the platform’s policies and this has inspired much online protest (#FreeTheNipple!). But this anti-nipple bias also rules out a portion of our museum’s collection, such as some works by Marina Abramović and the cheeky depictions of 1970s sexual freedom by the still very popular Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken.

Happily, the bums from the campaign poster for the exhibition Amsterdam, The Magic Center (2018) did however survive. Thanks Instagram!

So as Instagram restricts certain images and challenges us to be visually phenomenal, the end result is that unphotogenic and (overly) provocative artworks don’t get a posted — or at the very least don’t get posted as often as they should. The same goes for art that requires more attention, a larger screen or more time to truly absorb, such as video art. So, in effect we as a museum are consciously excluding the ‘Unstagrammables’ from the online world. Is that what we really want?

Visually trained

Instagram and its users are becoming better visually-trained every year, and with that, more demanding. While scrolling down their timelines, most users will judge the quality of content within a split second. That is not a bad thing in itself, but it does mean quality standards and expectations are high. For a museum this means you will no longer get away with a digitalized scan of an archive photo of an artwork bathed in the yellow-brown light of 1970s analogue photography (#nofilter). Nor will you have any success with an overview shot of the gallery in which the colored dots in the far righthand corner might be a Roy Lichtenstein. These simply don’t follow the formula. But altering the image of an artwork to give it more visual impact, like cropping, is a no-go area. Fair enough, most artworks need to be experienced as a whole.

Insta-canon

Imagine compiling the (much discussed) canon of modern and contemporary art and design based on the popularity of the works on social media. What would this canon look like? If you check #stedelijkmuseum on Instagram you can get a taste: hello there Barbara Kruger, Studio Drift and Guerilla Girls! Even our escalator would have a pretty good chance to be immortalized in the canon. These images follow the previously mentioned guidelines for Instagram success: colorful and in-your-face.

So that’s great for the visually attractive part of the art collection. Next to the fact they show us a completely different outtake on what kind of meaning art can have, posts of these works will almost surely reach a large audience on Instagram and they might even reach people that don’t know the museum yet, or are not able to visit. But what about the rest?

The medium shapes the message

What about the story? Can a good story make up for the lack of visual impact in case of an Unstagrammable? I wish it could, but to be honest, in most cases good copy does not get you far on the platform. In addition, texts on modern art already have a reputation for being dense and difficult. And usually, users need to be triggered by the image before they are then willing to put the effort into actually reading the text.

Instagrammability

The discussion about the Instagrammability of art also rages over the offline museum world. For example, with how exhibitions are designed: should museums consider including selfie spots so they can attract more millennials? Such a question might sound farfetched but we have already seen the first museums that are totally devoted to the Instagram experience. For example, The Museum of Ice Cream offers visitors an immersive Insta pink experience with its ‘Sprinkle Spectacular’.

If you think about how museums have always been balancing between artistic and commercial choices in their programming, why would Instagrammability as a contributing factor to the potential success of an exhibition be ruled out? Is the choice to put a selfie spot or an Instagrammable work of art at the center of attention in a museum or exhibition really that different from putting on a blockbuster or an ‘audience-friendly’ event to attract more people? As a museum, while making plans, you always take the number of visitors you will attract with an exhibition into account. Is that any different from considering the potential amount of hearts an Instagram post will generate?

Posting blind?

Those who were hoping for a clear answer to the question posed in this article’s title will likely end up disappointed. At the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, we have not yet solved the puzzle of how to deal with ‘ugly’ art on Instagram*. However, we are pretty sure that posting blind is not an option. As unfair as it is for the non-photogenic pieces in our collection, a post that does not get any attention in the form of likes or comments, will affect the visibility of the entire account. We can thank Instagram’s algorithms for that, ever since the platform chose to decide for the users whether they like a post from a particular account as opposed to deciding for themselves what their particular tastes and cravings are in the moment.

So instead, should we reinvent our entire timeline and put the museum experience at the center of the attention instead of the artworks? We’re not sure. Especially since our visitors already know very well how to capture their own personal museum experience. Plus, we would also be failing in our mission as a museum: to unlock the collection and make it more visible in every way possible. And many works do very well online. At least, the coming of Insta pink hasn’t affected the popularity of Yves Klein’s blue. (Not yet, anyway.)

The Unstagrammables

If collecting likes and creating as much reach as possible is the key to online success on Instagram and if only the visually strong survive, where does that leave the artworks you have to experience in the museum itself — the ones that may even need additional texts or a guide to provide you with some essential information?

How do we deal with the Unstagrammables? With 1.4 billion users in 2018, Instagram is not fading away anytime soon. We need a creative resolution! Are you facing similar challenges? How can we work together to make Unstagrammables grammable again?

*We do find Instagram Stories a promising channel for promoting ‘unphotogenic’ art as it offers a lot of opportunities for storytelling, and with that, alternative ways to present the works without depending on the visual attractiveness of their features.

Saskia du Bois is responsible for the online communications and marketing at the Stedelijk Museum, the museum for modern and contemporary art and design in Amsterdam.

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Saskia du Bois

Written by

Online communications @Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and Design Amsterdam & Copywriter at Le Stylo Du Bois | Amsterdam & Paris. L'ambiance continue!

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

Saskia du Bois

Written by

Online communications @Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and Design Amsterdam & Copywriter at Le Stylo Du Bois | Amsterdam & Paris. L'ambiance continue!

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

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