Over the past few years, there has been a rise of a new kind of exhibit: the selfie museum. In New York alone, see The Museum of Illusions, The Museum of Ice Cream, and Van Gogh — The Immersive. The tickets are often expensive, the lines long, and the ultimate reward? A picture for the timeline.
Now, I’m not shaming the tireless pursuit for the ever-elusive perfect Instagram post background. If you have the $40+ for these experiences, by all means indulge. But if you are in the market for an actual museum, these pop-up exhibits offer an empty promise of art and deliver only a couple of rooms of shiny consumerism. Still, the ruse is working. Thanks to an intense marketing campaign, you yourself have probably been victim to an Instagram advertisement or a Tik Tok post showing some attractive twenty-something micro-influencers with “Starry Night” projected across their lithe bodies. I often find myself walking past the Museum of Illusions; the line extends luxuriously around the block, sometimes blocking the entrance of a favorite coffee shop and making for an uncomfortable scuttling/squeezing action on my part to get by.
Now, I’ve never actually gone to any of these exhibits, so maybe I’m just a cranky New Yorker looking down on tourist fun from my high horse. But from what I’ve heard, the long lines, big crowds, and disappointing showings don’t live up to the marketed hype. It’s not that I don’t like illusions, or ice cream, or immersive Van Gogh. I just don’t believe in spending that much money to see some art. Growing up in the city, my friends and I had the dates of free admission at all the museums memorized. The public is often guilted into feeling responsible for patronizing the arts, but when tickets to the Met Gala cost tens of thousands of dollars and millionaires buy social capital with exorbitant donations, it’s clear that the onus is not on us to fund museums. Buying a ticket for these Instagram exhibits is not patronizing anything but the corporate schemes designed to squeeze money out of tourists and young people under the guise of museumship without actually offering any genuine artwork.
This is all to say that over Fall break, my mom bought me tickets for the recent pop-up, “Banksy: Genius or Vandal.” According to its website, “Banksy: Genius or Vandal” was organized by Fever, the same company running the Museum of Illusions. In their words, “This exhibition, as all that have been previously dedicated to Banksy, is not authorized by the artist, who remains anonymous and independent from the system.”
My mom and I made our way over to 14th Street, where Fever had set up shop in the iconic, now-abandoned Urban Outfitters, which closed suddenly during the pandemic. In the creators’ attempt to create a trendy atmosphere, they sacrificed the most basic promise of a museum: that the art will be viewable. The gallery was incredibly dark. The walls were all painted black. Each of the prints was backlit, giving the impression at first that the pieces were simply digital representations on bright screens. So bright were these prints, particularly in contrast with the dark black walls, that they were difficult to look at for too long. In one room, a lone spotlight wandered around, blinding any unsuspecting museumgoers in its path.
One section of the exhibit was a curtained-off viewing room, in which various pieces were animated and projected onto all four of the walls, in a similar style to Van Gogh — The Immersive, along with loud rousing music in a similar style. It was fun but dizzying.
Perhaps in an effort to be relatable, the text explaining each piece was written in a cutesy, informal style, which ended up being distracting and difficult to read. Both my mother and I left the exhibit with a headache.
All this is not to say that the exhibit was not enjoyable or interesting; Banksy’s art is compelling enough in any context. I’m glad I went and I’m thankful to my mother for buying us tickets. Still, the irony of a Banksy exhibit costing $29.50 (or more for a virtual reality experience) was insurmountable. Walking around the Urban Outfitters which had made up much of my late adolescence, I felt strangely sickened among the contrasting dark walls and bright spotlights, peering at prints loaned from the private collections of the super-wealthy who had paid exorbitant amounts of money for art meant to be publicly viewed and publicly owned.
The last part of the exhibit? The gift shop.