The first thing you notice when you walk into the Jesus Rafael Soto exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) is not necessarily the massive 7.5 ton installation of 24,000 hand-painted PVC tubes hanging from the ceiling, though its appearance as a floating golden orb is certainly arresting. But what really stands out are the museum guards, blue-blazered, smiling ear-to-ear, actually playing in the exhibit themselves, and--get this--encouraging people to take photos with their phones. And why wouldn't you? The 28 foot-high "penetrable," as Soto called his installations, lends itself to creative shots, and if you hashtag your photos on Instagram or Twitter with #SotoSummer, you'll instantantly get a free printout from a Smilebooth printer sitting right next to the exhibit.
Search the hashtag #SotoSummer on Instagram and Twitter and you'll find thousands of pictures of people of all ages and creeds interacting with the exhibit, from children giggling as they run through the strands, to couples kissing on their anniversary, to fathers and daughters holding hands on Father's Day, to groups of high school friends lying on the floor for a birds-eye view of the work of art.
"In the two months since it's opened, we've had nearly as many #SotoSummer hashtags as we've had for the entire run of the #MFAH hashtag," says Whit Bones, External Engagement Liaison at the museum. "It's really taken off."
The MFAH knew that they wanted to encourage people to take photographs in the penetrable exhibit and share them on social media, and it was Bones' idea to collaborate with the photobooth company, Smilebooth, to incentivize social sharing by providing printouts of the Instagram or Twitter photos, along with a coupon for a reduced rate admission on your next museum visit. The Smilebooth printer is only one of two in existence, and its potential has skyrocketed since the success of this Soto venture.
"We saw how the culture was changing when it came to photography--everyone wants to take photographs with their phones and share them," says Bones. "So we simply adjusted our approach to fit that culture shift."
Gwen Watkins, Marketing & Promotions Manager at the museum, agrees, saying that they noticed with the landmark James Turrell exhibit last summer that, even though photos were prohibited there, people were sneaking them anyway and posting to social media. "We knew that if we actually encouraged them to do that in a photo-worthy backdrop, it could be a really big deal," Watkins says.
It also allows for the museum to listen to the kind of feedback they aren't normally able to get. "There's chatter in the comments," Bones says. "That kind of direct feedback from visitors is really valuable."
The MFAH is the first major museum to approach social strategy this way, truly opening up a work of art to be visually shared across social media. And while Soto passed away in 2005, before the penetrable was completed and 5 years before the release of Instagram, the museum believes that the social approach would have been entirely within the artist's vision.
"This is the manifestation of something that Soto would have loved," says Watkins. "He made these so people could be joyful by experiencing them and touching them, so this is great way to fulfill that.
Indeed, Soto's credo was that movement through one of his penetrables was the only way the work of art was completed. His art depends wholly on participatory interaction with it. The MFAH commissioned this project, Soto's final work of art, 10 years ago and couldn't have imagined then that social media would be the primary way they'd encourage that crucial participation.
The MFAH estimates that the total impressions on Instagram and Twitter for the last two months have been around 1.6 million, and a look through those hashtags reveals something else remarkable: the majority of photographs are from the unlikely museum demographic of young children and teenagers. It seems the #SotoSummer hashtag has brought the coveted young blood back into the museum world in a big way.
But it's not just for the kids. Walking through the strands you feel at once as though you've disappeared and been subsumed. Though there may be vague blurs of children running around and the disembodied voices of parents calling after them, you feel alone in the art, the boundaries of which have become invisible, the experience so sensory that it's nearly blinding. It's truly immersive, so much so that you might even forget to snap a selfie if the guards didn't remind you.
"No matter what age you are, you turn into a child when you walk in there," says Bones, who says he sometimes takes his lunch break on the walkway above the installation to people-watch. "I've seen a 90 year-old slowly walk through with his eyes closed and his arms wide open. It's a unique experience."
Don't miss your chance to experience the penetrable yourself and get your own Instagram printout. The exhibit closes September 1st but the printer will be gone after July 26th.