Why the AGO wants to see your #artselfie

The Toronto museum started allowing visitor photography in 2012 – now, they're going to great lengths to encourage social media sharing from the gallery

It’s Wednesday evening at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the museum is buzzing with couples, teenagers and tourists taking advantage of the weekly free admission after 6 pm. Almost everyone has their phone out, snapping photos of art, architecture and, of course, themselves.

The museum changed its policy to allow visitor photography in 2012 and, ever since, has been actively encouraging visitors to take photos and share them on social media – first, by inviting influencers to Tweet-Ups and events, now by installing areas designed specifically for sharing and co-ordinating “shoot-and-share” get-togethers such as the #emptyAGO tour. At Pinch Social’s Social Media Week (SMWi Toronto), I attended the very first #artselfie tour, led by Amanda Hadi, the AGO’s social media officer. 

Historically, the average person spends about 28 seconds looking at a piece of art in a gallery or museum. That number has stayed consistent, Hadi says, but the way we engage with the works has changed because of the rise of photo-sharing on social media and the popular #artselfie hashtag (first used by artist collective DIS in 2012, which eventually evolved into a book).

“What are we doing? We’re spending less time gazing,” she told us, “and more time inserting ourselves into the work.”

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The Frank Gehry-designed additions to the museum have drawn lots of attention from photographers, amateur and pro: the seductive, winding staircases and the Galleria Italia, with its soaring, whale-like ribcage beg to be captured and shared on social media. But now, certain works also stand out as being particularly engaging, evidenced simply by the high numbers of images of them that are appearing online.

For example, Thomas Ruff’s current exhibition (on until the end of the month), which includes some massive, blown-up images of stars in the sky, evidently beckons to be shared on Instagram. More often than not, visitors snap their own reflection in the glass covering the pieces, inserting a ghostly self-portrait into the work. And so long as they don’t touch the art, there’s no reprimand from security.

“Museums are running from the traditional notion that they are elitist, stuffy salons,” Hadi says. “Now they are all about creating an engaging art experience, or a space where we feel welcome to hang out, relax and be ourselves. We are now a community centre, a concert and performance space, an all-ages art school, a place to play with your children, a place to shop, dine and drink, etc. And what do we do in those spaces? We typically pull out our cellphones and share these moments online.”

But the most-Instagrammed piece at the AGO has to be Claes Oldenburg’s Floor Burger, which returned to the museum’s first floor at the beginning of this year as part of the permanent collection. The domineering, almost-seven-foot-wide sculpture of a hamburger is said to question the power dynamic between consumers and commodities: do we control them, or do they control us?

But Hadi notes that the most popular way Instagrammers engage with the work is by playing on its size – either by making it appear smaller by posing, mouth wide, ready to bite into it, or by pretending to hold it. Thus, when the photo is shared online, the photographer essentially appropriates the work and can sometimes even transform its intended meaning. 

“We’re seeing a new kind of active participation in galleries,” Hadi says, “where viewers don’t just faithfully document an artwork, they deliberately alter it when they reproduce it – and often alter it in a way that is specific to their point of view.”

It’s easy to suggest that there’s something wrong about these activities – that there’s a gross element of narcissism at play here, or that the need to document one’s gallery visits are obsessive and unhealthy. But just as fine artists are finding new opportunities and audiences through social media, museums too are seeing the opportunities to increase engagement with their exhibitions and get more people excited about art. How could that be a bad thing?

Now, Hadi and her team are experimenting with more ways to encourage photography and sharing, which they call “social media moments.” There’s free WiFi available to visitors (so don’t use your data, people!), and in some places, signage explicitly tells visitors to snap and share with hashtag suggestions. Within the recent exhibition of Vilhelm Hammershøi works, for example, a blown-up version of a piece was placed directly in the middle of the room. A real-life chair was placed in front of it, in an effort to get visitors to pose within the painting using the chair as a prop. 

“Social media is creating unprecedented access and entry-points to art,” says Hadi. “Basically, where there might have been one road to get to a museum, now there are millions. This is incredible, and we should embrace it.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario is free on Wednesdays after 6 pm. Get more art event listings here.

kater@nowtoronto.com | @katernow

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