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The art of influencers, the influencers of art

It’s the middle of January and the Whitney museum is at its fullest. A mix of wide-eyed and earnest explorers, tourists shielding themselves from the overpriced Chelsea Market food, and rimless spectacled art aficionados coalesce towards the oddly un-ceremonial entrance to the much-advertised Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again. The Art Newspaper declared the show “Essential viewing”. The New York Times threw words like “transcendent” and “sublime” into the fold. And what with it being the artist’s first full American retrospective in 31 years, it promised to be – at a minimum – diverting; specifically, for people who are ardently, if clichédly, enamoured with every breath of Warhol’s work – of which I am one.

The Whitney never feels like an expansive space. It lacks the broadness of Tate Modern’s uniform halls or MoMA’s sightlines through parallel exhibition rooms. And on this particularly arctic day during New York’s cruelly cold winter, with what seemed like the entirety of the city’s population and their friends in attendance, it felt tinier than ever. Nevertheless, my friends – who were visiting the city during this low-season – and I held tightly onto our tote bags and endeavoured to breach the crowds. Remarkably, once we had reached the show’s second room, the masses dissipated. Finally, we thought, we can look at everything we already know and love about Warhol’s work but rarely get to see all at once. This, our inner voices persisted, would be bliss.

But it never quite got to that exhibition sweet spot, where your brain wells up with thoughts and wonder, and you promise yourself you’ll spend the night “reading more” about what you’ve seen but inevitably devote it to binging on both food and Marie Kondo. Conversely, after having succeeded in navigating through the thicket of humanity, we repeatedly encountered what felt like its antithesis – influencers. Every fifth work of art was flanked by a hot-panted, fur-coated, lip-pouting living mannequin, complete with camera-carrying friend or partner squatting tirelessly for a comical amount of amateur photo-taking time. It was disastrous. We couldn’t see the art for the methodically bent elbows and knees, the fluffy hoods inside a weather-less space, the rusty fake tans, the stares into middle-distances. How had the influencer succeeded in leaving the confines of our brunch restaurants to make their caustic way into the historically impenetrable gallery space?

Perhaps this had been a long time coming, but nevertheless I left the exhibition with my brain twitching for what seemed like all the wrong reasons. It felt like the most elitist of dystopias – a world where social media influencing had begun a process of socially commodifying yet another one of our implicit activities. It had been done with eating, reading, exercising, even sleeping. But gallery-going? How had we let it get this far?

A few nights later, after recounting the experience to at least five people who had less than negligible interest in the issue, I met someone who worked in marketing, with a direct speciality in social media influence strategy. We spoke at length about the inflated price tags set by influencers, about how marketers only serve to swell those numbers exponentially, and how we both thought it would inevitably all become the proverbial bubble that burst. But, truthfully, I was finding it hard to keep at bay a creeping sensation that this new art-influencer phenomenon might not be the worst thing ever.

In Britain alone, visitor numbers at cultural attractions, including museums, increased by nearly 9% in 2018, and this happened despite a decrease in numbers of overseas tourists. Curators, directors and strategists from such high-profile institutions as the Hayward Gallery, the New Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum acknowledge the intense change that “an experience-based economy” is having on the way museums and galleries are experienced and ultimately consumed. In short, it’s impossible to deny that Instagram and the selfie-mongering it proliferates can at times be an asset to even the most sacredly arty of places.

And that is another important factor which influencers may be helping to break down. By ‘that’ I mean the dogged, subconscious insistence that the art gallery and museum have to be sacred spaces. The unspoken aura within those spaces that only certain people can dwell here. The undeniably privileged audience – whether financially or intellectually – have been privy to an exclusive gallery-going experience since the dawn of the museum’s creation. Influencers might just be hailing a new era where everyone is actually – not just superficially via a line of copy on a museum website – welcome.

Do influencers actually have that kind of power, you might ask? According to the girl I met at a restaurant (who is a source as good as any), yes, they most definitely do. According to actual empirical evidence – think of heavy-weight British art dealer Brett Gorvy and his savvy Insta-trading, as well as the herd of artists who have cut out the dealer middleman and are selling their work directly via Instagram. These people are demonstrably adding new meaning to the art market. It happens. It’s happening.

So, if influencers can act as living, posing catalysts for driving new, diversified crowds into spaces for art, then maybe my initial poo-pooing of their presence besides some of my favourite works belongs to what should by now be a bygone era. If it takes a bare-legged teen to get another teen who might have otherwise stayed away to understand the way in which Warhol cut through the commercial soul of humanity and displayed it so ingeniously throughout his entire career – I guess I’m game. All I ask is that they stand a little bit to the side, so as to not obscure the actual art. Or perhaps museums and galleries could become even more savvy and introduce influencer hours, akin to member hours, complete with ring lights and outfit changes. Somehow, we have to learn to co-exist and work to ensure that the gallery experience retains its impact to each and every person that enters into its white walls – whether they endeavour to art-selfie or not. One thing is for sure, Warhol would have loved this.

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