Unpopular Art

Back in 2020, when I knew I wanted to visit the Walker Art Center but wasn’t sure when it would happen due to the pandemic, the head archivist sent me the finding aids for its WPA-era materials. Some of those aids included the folders for exhibitions staged in the early 1940s, when Walker was a federal art center. Within those lists was a show titled Unpopular Art.

Naturally, I had to check this out.

The front cover of the catalog for Unpopular Art. Image: an exhibition catalog featuring two examples of African carvings lit in a dramatic manner. Source: The Walker Art Center Library and Archives

My own tastes in art have always veered toward the unusual or the weird, at least when it comes to art history. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking at the so-called classics like Italian Renaissance or Impressionism, but when it comes to researching or writing about art, I gravitate toward lesser-known, outright peculiar works. If my eagerness to curate exhibitions on automata doesn’t tell you that, consider that I wrote my Master’s thesis on seventeenth-century Dutch tooth-pulling scenes.

While I was in Minneapolis, then, I made a point of looking over the files for Unpopular Art. And as it turned out, it does relate to my research, though not for the reasons I had initially expected.

Unpopular Art was an exhibition the Walker Art Center staged in 1940. The premise was to bring together examples of art from genres the average viewer supposedly disliked and display them in such a way as to change their mind. The exhibition’s overarching objective was to emphasize the role of design and didactic text in shaping viewers’ opinions on art. In essence, the show was intended to validate the Walker’s innovative approach to curation, with text, graphics, and lighting getting as much attention as the objects themselves.

The captions featured in the catalog were also used as label text in the exhibition. Image: an exhibition catalog showing an ancient Chinese bronze vessel and an early 20th-century, abstract European painting. Source: The Walker Art Center Library and Archives

The exhibition selection was fairly eclectic, with ancient pieces featured alongside modern and contemporary works. Several of the sculptural pieces originated from east Asian countries such as China and Cambodia. Four works were listed as only being African in origin. The Americas were represented through two Aztec masks from Mexico. The show also included a couple of European sculptures from the so-called Gothic period, an era remembered now for its startling abstraction of figures. More recent works focused on European artists such as Joan Miro and Paul Klee, with all the featured pieces emphasizing abstraction in varying degrees. I’ll admit, the show wasn’t what I had expected (to be honest I didn’t know what would be in it), but it sounded like a pretty interesting checklist.

Paul Klee, Diana, 1931, oil on canvas, height: 80 cm (31.4 in); width: 60 cm (23.6 in). The Beyeler Foundation. Image: An abstract painting executed in a shades of blue, green, and tan and featuring an abstracted figure. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

What caught my attention about this show, however, wasn’t the objects themselves. To prove its point about innovative exhibition design in shaping viewer responses to art, the Walker Art Center created a visitor questionnaire. It asked them whether they liked the show, which pieces were their favorites, and whether there were any that they had disliked but changed their minds about after seeing the exhibition. It also asked about their profession, their age, and their gender. It even included a comment section where visitors could write down additional thoughts.

To my delight, the archive contained more than 50 of these completed questionnaires. For the first time in my research, I was hearing directly from visitors beyond thank-you notes.

Predictably, perhaps, the responses have been all over the place. Some people loved everything in the show, others hated all of it. More often you see a mix of the two. Yet what’s been especially interesting hasn’t been the reactions to the art, per se, but the ways vistors modified the forms to better express their own opinions and needs. Some visitors challenged the like/dislike binary for the individual works of art by adding an “indifferent” column. Others expressed confusion rather than dislike through a question or comment. One person clarified in her comments that while she liked all the works individually, as a whole she did not enjoy the show. Another explained that he appreciated the exhibition even as he disliked the majority of the works on view.

Additionally, visitors have made changes to better reflect their own identities. One woman crossed out “housewife” and wrote in “homemaker” for her profession, for instance, suggesting that she disagreed with the Walker Art Center’s terminology. Another person wrote in “child” as their profession. Many checked off multiple boxes, such as a child who also identified as an artist, or an artist who wrote that he was “an exponent of boogie-woogie.”

Installation shot of Unpopular Art, featuring four works of African sculpture and a painting by the German Expressionist Max Beckmann. Source: The Walker Art Center Library and Archives

Reading through these responses, what struck me was that people took the time to record their responses. More often than not, visitors filled out the optional comments section. Even if they hated every work in the show, they completed the survey to explain why they didn’t like them. Some responses were flippant, as when one visitor simply quipped “no wonder it’s unpopular.” Others critiqued the idea of pairing ancient works with modern ones because they believed there were too many differences between the respective civilizations that created them. Still others took issue with the installation itself, saying they liked the concept but didn’t care for the execution. In short, none of the two responses were alike, and even though the majority liked the show, their reasons for liking it, and the extent to which they liked it, varied greatly.

This is interesting to me because it a) points out the messiness of the visitor experience and b) demonstrates that visitor responses and motives aren’t necessarily identical to what the Walker Art Center expects. Just the fact that several visitors felt the need to alter the form to better reflect their responses demonstrates that their reactions are arguably more nuanced than what the Walker Art Center might have anticipated. Or, more accurately perhaps, it expected a range of responses but visitors actually took the effort to describe them in detail. Yet the fact that these visitors did take the time to make these modifications to their forms expresses that it was important to them, important enough to both fill out the form and change it in a way that better reflected their responses. Whether they thought this would influence future programming or not, they believed that making their opinion heard was important.

Ultimately, I’m not sure how Unpopular Art will play into the dissertation, as it’s not a circulating exhibition. Still, as an exhibition that represents one of the first instances I’ve seen of visitors actively recording their reactions, I think it’s important. If nothing else, it shows that the Walker Art Center did take interest in visitor responses, if only to prove its point about the validity of its approach. And yet as the questionnaires point out, visitor responses are rarely as straightforward as we anticipate.

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