When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened in May 2016, it designated the ground floor galleries as public space: nearly a quarter of the museum’s recent expansion. But a small group of anonymous artists is pushing the limits of how artists and visitors can engage with art in that space, programming an alternative exhibition for visitors to the museum.

The Unauthorized SFMOMA Show is exactly that: an art exhibition that takes place inside the walls of the SFMOMA, but completely independent of the museum’s curators, staff, or, it seems its awareness. Nonetheless, seeing the show requires being inside the physical museum while visiting http://sfmoma.show

“We’re attracted to the idea of occupying the SFMOMA space, literally,” two members told me in a phone interview. “Can this open space bring something new, artist focused, and participatory?”

The show isn’t curated in a traditional sense, which is the point. Instead, through June 2, artists from anywhere in the world can upload work they want shown at the SFMOMA to be instantly shared as an Unauthorized SFMOMA Show. That show is visible at the sfmoma.show site to anyone inside the museum, and runs until someone else uploads a new piece.

We spoke to two of the artists to discuss the project, and how they view the intersection of art and technology. 

Fake or Unauthorized?

“Sometimes we get emails asking us, ‘well, this show is fake’,” the team said. “It’s not fake, it’s unauthorized. The shows are happening at SFMOMA, so they’re very real. In a way we are questioning, what does it need for it to be real?” The team said they’re interested in the relationship between the museum’s brand and the work that’s inside it. “Today, people see more art through screens than they could ever see in person. That pushes the need for broader local engagement in art to local institutions,” they said.

“Even with good intentions, the brand and institution are so powerful that the … gap between it and their outreach to the community is an impossible gap to close.” The team says the power of the SFMOMA’s institutional brand has created a “bubble” that obscures its relationship to the community. That’s why the show is where it is and looks the way it does, drawing heavily on the SFMOMA brand marks and web design elements. The artists are playing with lines between a closed institutional brand and the open, public functions of an institution.

“This show looks like SFMOMA. We’re inside their bubble, which is why I think people are putting their work there,” they said. “But we want to open up that bubble, for other people to play with it.”

So far, more than 300 local and international artists have contributed to the show, which is, at the moment, limited to .jpg, .png and .gif files. The team says they were surprised by how serious the response to the project has been.

“We expected porn and ads, but the artists are quote-unquote ‘legit,’,” they said, speaking on the quality and maturity of submitted works. The next step is the creation of a catalog – one physical copy, and one digital, which will be distributed to participating artists. They’re excited by the challenge of designing a physical catalog for such an enormous amount of work.

The artists are working anonymously to more closely replicate the function of an institution. “The SFMOMA is the SFMOMA, and nobody ever talks about who the board members are. We want to be seen the same way. But it’s also important for artists to feel like they aren’t just part of someone else’s art project, but are part of a parallel institution.”

What’s Next?

Artist engagements with museums is nothing new – the New York Museum of Modern Art even ran a show highlighting artists “messing” with it back in 2015. Yoko Ono created a one-woman show in 1971 that consisted only of advertisements and a catalog; artists such as the Guerilla Girls famously protested the disproportionate representation of male artists in their performance work.

Now, artists, curators, and the public have a proof of concept: they can design their own layers of interaction in a physical space, circumventing the input of the very institutions they rely upon. A work like the Unauthorized SFMOMA Show is a direct form of “interaction” not only with museum’s space, but also with its institutional authority.

More directly, mapping projects, such as the Google Cultural Institute, are bringing the walls to our screens, photographing museums around the world and making them accessible through a street-view-like interface. Many museums were initially hesitant to share their collections online, and no-photo rules have made for a generation of ever-more-stressed docents in the age of the selfie. The wall between of the museum and the digital world seems to be melting already.

The advent of new technology that radically alters our relationship to space has enormous potential to transform the public’s dialogue with cultural institutions. It’s already here: playing Pokemon Go and capturing a Squirtle in a sculpture garden may not be subversive, but it’s a radical transformation of the museum’s physical space that raises a sea of questions about the shifting relationships between our personal media bubbles, smartphones, art, and institutions.


Photo credit:Inside the New SFMOMA” by Fabrice Florin, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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