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Selfie Factories: The Rise of the Made-for-Instagram Museum

When the Museum of Ice Cream opened in New York in 2016, it was more a temporary curiosity than a rival to, say, the Whitney Museum of American Art, which stood just across the street. The walls were painted a soft shade of millennial pink. In one room, ice cream cones hung like pendant lights. There was a giant ice cream sandwich swing. And a sprinkle pool. Even the museum’s co-founders, Maryellis Bunn and Manish Vora, often wore some shade of bubblegum pink around the museum as if they, too, were on display.

One year and three cities later, the Museum of Ice Cream has graduated to cult status on Instagram. More than 241,000 people follow its page, and countless more have posted their own photos from within the space. (Instagram doesn’t show how many photos have been posted at a particular geotag, but there are over 66,000 images with the #museumoficecream hashtag.) All those grams have made the Museum of Ice Cream a coveted place to be: In New York, the $18 tickets to visit—300,000 in total—sold within five days of opening. At its San Francisco location, which opened this month, single tickets went up to $38. The entire six-month run sold out in less than 90 minutes.

Katie Gibbs/Museum of Ice Cream

Bunn denies that Instagram played a significant role in how she shaped the museum. “I don’t think that social is what is driving what the Museum of Ice Cream does,” she says. Yet it’s hard to walk through the space and imagine it as anything but a series of Instagram backdrops. One room in the San Francisco space is filled with giant cherries and marshmallow clouds; in LA, there’s a room with strings of pink and yellow bananas strewn from the ceiling. Visitors are allotted about 90 minutes to explore the museum, but it’s hard to imagine what you’d do during that time if you weren’t taking photos.

Bunn, who is 25, seems to understand the appeal of a well-styled Instagram photo. Her personal feed includes photos of her snorkeling in Hawaii and suspended in a hammock above turquoise water in the Maldives, as well as many photos of Bunn inside her museum, hula hooping in the sprinkle room or licking an ice cream cone while sitting on a white unicorn. So while maybe the goal of the Museum of Ice Cream really is bigger than Instagram alone, there is no denying that social media plays a major role in its success. And in the rise of other installations like it—ones that offer just the right lighting, the right backdrops, and the right amount of whimsy, all for the price of admission.

Art in the Age of Instagram

If “made-for-Instagram” exhibits suggests something about our selfie-dominated culture, it didn’t start in places like the Museum of Ice Cream. It started on the internet and then spilled out everywhere else—in nature, in restaurants, even in the contemporary art world.

In 2015, the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian opened Wonder, an immersive art experience featuring nine contemporary artists. One room featured a prismatic rainbow made from 60 miles of thread; another room was wallpapered with dead insects; in another, 10 towers of index cards stacked and glued together loomed over visitors like volcanic rock formations. The exhibit, for those who experienced it, was bizarre, beautiful, and at times bewildering. It was also Instagram gold.

Wonder became famous on social media, bringing more visitors to the Renwick during the show’s six-week run than the museum had seen in a year. And the Renwick embraced it, posting signs encouraging visitors to take photos. Curator Nicholas Bell told the Washington Post at the time: “We’re all flabbergasted, to be frank. I wonder, what are they even trying to say? ‘I am here Instagramming?’ It’s like this new first-person narrative of the museum experience. I’m fascinated.”

This was three years after the Rain Room opened at London’s Barbican Center. The installation—a curtain of rain that paused when someone walked beneath it, as if to control the elements—would later travel to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and all over the world. But the place that the Rain Room has remained the longest is on Instagram, where there are thousands of photos of it.

“The world has seen an increase in these spectacle exhibitions that have really taken on a new dimension online,” says Jia Jia Fei, Director of Digital at the Jewish Museum of New York, who delivered a TED Talk last year on Art in the Age of Instagram. “When you think of the very Instagrammable exhibitions of the last five years—the course in which Instagram has existed—you think of Yayoi Kusama and her Infinity Mirrored Room […] and then artists like James Turrell or the Rain Room at MoMA. These are artists who really have very critical bodies of work, but [created installations] that have taken on new meaning because of social media.”

Getty Images/Refinery29

The Rain Room wasn’t designed for social media, but its raving success online demonstrated a hunger for these types of exhibits. In some cities, people waited in line for as long as eight hours for their chance to get a photo inside. To some, it proved there was a market waiting to be served.

“I was noticing that exhibitions like Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Fireflies on the Water’ were all of a sudden garnering these big crowds,” says Piera Gelardi, the Executive Creative Director and co-founder of digital media brand Refinery29. “I thought that was an interesting opportunity for us to expose people to new types of artwork and concepts, but also create a space in which they could kind of be the star of the show.”

This year marks the third year of Refinery 29’s pop-up installation space, 29Rooms, in New York. (The exhibit will make its way to Los Angeles this winter; tickets, ranging from $19 to $85, have already sold out.) The exhibit features things like a human snow globe and a “cloud pool” made from blocks of blue foam, spread throughout 29 themed rooms.

Like Bunn, Gelardi says the purpose of the installation is not exclusively to take Instagram photos. Some of the rooms delve into deeper themes, like body image and gender, rather than merely providing a photo opp. But she also knows that part of the reason people come to 29 Rooms is to take pictures, and, she says, that’s an equally important part of the experience.

“We thought first about the experience IRL that people would have, and what interaction could take place in each room. And then we thought also about: What was the photo moment? How could we create this in a way that people could come in and really be the star of the space?” says Gelardi.

“I go to SF MoMA and everyone’s just trying to get Instagrams. Is that what art is becoming?” – Jordan Ferney, creator of the Color Factory

Half a mile from the Museum of Ice Cream, you can find the Color Factory, a 12,000-square foot space containing 15 interactive color “experiences.” In one room, a menagerie of cheese puffs, goldfish, and measuring levels create an orange tableau. In another, a bright yellow ball pit invites visitors to jump in and play. Perhaps most iconic, there’s the confetti room, where tiny squares of colorful paper blanket the room like fresh snow.

Jordan Ferney, the Color Factory’s creator, makes her living on the internet, running a popular lifestyle blog called Oh Happy Day. It’s best known for its whimsical, colorful DIY creations on social media—so it’s hardly surprising that Ferney’s museum space looks more or less like the set for her own Instagram feed.

“We kind of said, ‘Oh, well, wouldn’t it be fun to get a bunch of artists and creatives together and kind of do this color experience?” says Ferney. “I wanted [the Color Factory] to be something that you normally didn’t get to experience, whether that’s laying underneath 100 pounds of confetti falling down on you or walking through a room full of ribbons.”

In designing the Color Factory, Ferney knew each room had to look just as good in photos as it did in person. It had to be fun to visit, too, but if you didn’t like the photos you took there—well, then what was the point? “There were a few decisions we had to make,” she says. “Like, even with the lighting, where maybe a warmer light would have felt better to be there but a whiter light looks better on Instagram.”

Ferney says the desire to experience a place through selfies goes far beyond the spaces she and others have created. “I go to SF MoMA and everyone’s just trying to get Instagrams,” says Ferney. “Is that what art is becoming—what you’re experiencing and sending out into the world?”

To visit a museum in the 21st century is not just to see art, but to document and replicate it. “Not only are they taking pictures of art, but they’re taking pictures of themselves within these spaces,” Fei said in her TED Talk. “In the pre-digital photography era, the message was: This is what I’m seeing. I have seen. Today, the message was: I was there. I came, I saw, and I selfied.”

Is It Art?

Where, though, do we draw the line between art and Instagram filler? What separates the monochromatic paintings of the avant-garde movement, like Ad Reinhardt’s series of square, black canvases, from a room devoted to the color blue in Ferney’s Color Factory? To someone without a robust sense of art history, why does an exhibition like the National Building Museum’s “Beach,” a 10,000 square-foot installation featuring deck chairs and umbrellas set up amid one million white plastic balls, belongs in a category apart from the Color Factory’s yellow ball pit?

“There’s a question: Is this art? I’m not going to be the one to say it’s art,” says Ferney. “We brought on a lot of talented artists to work on this.”

To others, the line is less blurry. “These manufactured entertainments aren’t significant art exhibitions any more than a Chuck E. Cheese arcade or the Block of Fame at Legoland,” says Christopher Knight, an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. “They’re just snobbier.”

“Artists like Sol LeWitt also have, in their practice, very intricate colorful walls,” says Fei. “Without that context, one might consider that to be as created for Instagram. But there’s nuance in that artist’s practice. It’s about minimalism, and a period in time in which that work was created. If it’s just an orange wall that exists as a backdrop, there’s no meaning or value added to having that space there.”

In the simplest terms, the goals of these spaces are different. Artists, and the museums that host their work, exist to provoke thought, ask questions, explore color, space, materials, and moods. And the aims of installations like the ones at Museum of Ice Cream are further complicated by commercialism. The New York version of the Museum of Ice Cream was supported by 30 corporate sponsors, including Dove, Fox, and Dylan’s Candy Bar; in “Tinderland,” a room sponsored by Tinder, visitors could sit on a see-saw ice cream scoop or an ice cream sandwich swing and use an app to find their “true flavor match.” Seven of the 29 Rooms are sponsored by brands—including a runway sponsored by Aldo, where visitors can practice their model strut underneath an arch decorated with shoes. The degree to which these brands impact the experience differs by location, but the existence of brand sponsorships at all changes the meaning of these spaces, and the reason they exist at all.

Katie Gibbs/Museum of Ice Cream

Maybe the question is not whether or not these spaces contain art, or even what their relationship to social media says at all, but instead: What do we get out of these spaces? Do they make us think and reflect and see the world differently? Or does the experience inside amount to the little square photo you post online?

At the Museum of Ice Cream, at least, all it takes is scrolling through online reviews to get a sense of what people get out of it. People mostly like it—the San Francisco location has three stars out of five on Yelp. But the reviews also warn others not to go in expecting more than the museum can deliver. It all makes for a delightful scene in photos and videos, but in person, the rooms can feel somewhat one-dimensional, the whimsy can fall flat. “Definitely more hype than anything,” wrote one reviewer. “Personally, I would save my money and just enjoy the pictures online.”

Correction at 2:30 p.m. on 9/27/2017: An earlier version of this article misstated the opening date of the Museum of Ice Cream. Its New York location opened in the summer of 2016, not 2015.


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