Are Museums Focusing on Selfie Art to Boost Attendance?

November 25, 2017

A decade and a half ago, we've been taking self-portraits with digital cameras, but the entire craze for selfies did not reach today's heights due to technological constraints limiting phone cameras.

Now, however, selfie-taking turned into a global phenomenon and, due to the contemporary need to make things as efficient and effortless as possible, Instagram blew up with it. Selfies became a part of our cultural identity and, for better or worse, they're having a great effect on the way we perceive the world around us.

Although there are more than a few cases in which you could claim selfies might be in some way harmful, our today's subject will be concerned with the fact Instagram is full of seemingly endless streams of photos with museumgoers holding smartphones up to reflective surfaces and grimacing in front of artworks.

This selfie art and its rise to notability is a result of curators insisting on shows for Instagram's sake[1] that allow them to simply make more money. However, by boosting attendance through this sneaky tactic, these individuals are compromising the very concept of art exhibitions.

Whether we like it or not, the rise of selfie art exhibitions has become a bone of contention among the museums and galleries - curators and owners are riding the wave, so to say, hoping that they will be able to attract more viewers if their exhibits are attractive to Instagram. Furthermore, these individuals and their venues have enjoyed a lot of success doing so.

But, we gotta ask, is luring hordes of selfie-seekers a tactic that does justice to the works being displayed? How moral is to subject fine works of art to a practice that insists on keeping Instagram-compatibility in mind?

Refinery29's 29Rooms, use with privacy
Refinery29's 29Rooms, via

The Phenomenon of Selfie Art

It seems that the popularity of selfie art exploded in recent times and many of the mainstream roads lead straight back to one person only - Yayoi Kusama[2]. The iconic Japanese artist's works turned into an Instagram sensation when selfie-seekers discovered what her Infinity Mirror Rooms had to offer. Countless viewers were rushing to take pictures inside the installation and they were bringing tons of cash with them. It even got to a point that, due to the amount of money they could earn, curators started drastically limiting the time one could spend within an Infinity Mirrored Room just so that more people would be able to see it in a single day.

Yayoi Kusama pushed the boundaries and others answered the call, hoping to get the same results by catering specifically to selfie seekers. And, by all accounts, they got results. Places like The Museum of Ice Cream, Refinery29’s 29 Rooms and The Rain Room at MoMA got tremendous results as more and more viewers were paying to see the shows and take countless selfies. Logically, the average age of the these institutions' viewers dropped significantly, which is always a good thing.

What's far from a good thing, however, is that boosting attendance this way does no justice to the works being displayed and the general way we perceive museums.

Yayoi Kusama - Infinity Mirrors, use the privacy terms in time to get the news you need
Yayoi Kusama - Infinity Mirrors, via

The Problem With the New Fashion of Instagram-Based Exhibitions

Don't get us wrong - there's nothing we have against selfies or making shows an interesting place where you can take a picture, but marketing your exhibition of artworks by exclusively boosting its Instagram-friendliness is a huge problem to the integrity of the art community. Sure, curators of such shows will deny it, but it's not hard to see when an exhibition is made with an exclusive purpose to inspire Instagram photos.

Although many will instantly think of the incident when a women damaged $200,000 worth of art while trying to make a selfie in a gallery, we do not feel as if the physical danger is what threatens art the most.

No, the biggest issue we have is that we've noticed a huge increase in art shows that are hard to imagine as anything but a series of Instagram backdrops. It's nightmarish to even think that artists like Jeff Koons or Yayoi Kusama could have their critical bodies of work placed within installations that take on new primary meanings because of social media.

Video of a Woman Who, Trying to Take Selfie, Damaged $200,000 Worth of Art

What's Lost in the Process

It's one thing to make the shows interactive, socializing and engaging, but it's not okay to diminish cultural and artistic value by placing it second to commercialism. Because, although their curators will beg to differ, commercialism is the main concern of such shows.

The New York version of the Museum of Ice Cream was supported by 30 corporate sponsors; 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 whole Tinderland was basically just an app promotion event.

The degree to which these brands impact the experience differs from show to show, but the existence of blatant sponsorships directly destroys artistic aspects of exhibitions by being the main reason they exist at all. These shows do not provoke thought, ask questions, explore color, space, materials and moods - instead, they make money. And that's all.

The Rain Room at LACMA. photo and video of a woman breaking artworks at an exhibit - search, read and post world news here
The Rain Room at LACMA, via

Where to Draw the Line with the Selfie Factories

As usual, the main question is: where should we draw the line? The core concept of people taking pictures at shows is not a problem at all, but we need to know how to differentiate between regular art shows and those made for Instagram's sake - the so-called "selfie factories".

This can be challenging, especially for those without a robust sense of contemporary art. Perhaps the best way to get to the bottom of this is to ignore whether or not these spaces contain art and what their relationship to social media is, but to focus on a simple question - what do we get out of these events? Do they make us experience anything else beyond the photo(s) one can post online?

Although many artists gave their opinions[3] on the whole selfie art phenomenon, we feel as if Eric Fischl managed to hit it right on the head:

Was it John Berger or Susan Sontag who observed that the camera (a memory device), ironically, allows us to forget. So what is forgotten when the selfie is taken? I think it reduces the whole world to a non-experience.

And that is the biggest danger lurking behind selfie art exhibitions. You do not see the art with your eyes, you see it with your lens; you do not think about what you are seeing but about where you should make a picture; you do not plan for a show based on what you may enjoy and what could stimulate your mind, but instead you think about the potential responses on social media.

And, ultimately, you forget what you saw by not seeing the artworks properly, defeating the very purpose of art exhibitions.


  1. Pardes, A., 2017, Selfie Factories: The Rise of the Made-for-Instagram Museum, Wired [Nov 18, 2017]
  2. Zara, J., 9 November 2017, Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors reignites art's selfie debate, The Guardian [Nov 18, 2017]
  3. Corbett, R., December 17, 2014, 10 Artists Weigh in on the Art Selfie, Vulture [Nov 18, 2017]


Featured images: A Selfie Being Taken at the Museum of Ice Cream, via; The Rain Room at LACMA, via; Jeff Koons - Tulips, via All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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