Billboards aim to drive art lovers to museum and the Web

by ekramer on January 14, 2008

Ten distinctive billboards are going up over the metropolitan area’s freeways this month as part of a museum’s unveiling of an exhibit called “Eyes Wide Open.” It is using art mounted on billboards to provoke the public into taking a new look at the city and to engage a younger generation in art and in the museum. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer took a drive seeking the larger picture.

Just beyond Louisville’s Spaghetti Junction, the morning traffic whizzes by as one man operating a crane hoists three others to a catwalk adjoining a billboard 70 feet up. These men are hanging part of a new exhibit for The Speed Art Museum in a process involving more than hooks and wire. The three grapple with taking down an old canvas as the crane raises a new one to them. Unfurled, it reveals a landscape by Argentinean artist Flavia Da Rin. It’s a profile of a girl, wide-eyed and looking over a lush forest where tiny jockeys in multicolored silks ride horses with wings like dragonflies.

The billboard bears no mention of The Speed Museum — only a five-digit number and a code word. I type the number and the word into my cell phone. Soon, my phone vibrates and beeps. I have a message instructing me to go to a Web site — “I Spy Speed Dot Com.”

This exhibit called “Eyes Wide Open” is far from conventional, and not just because it’s on outdoor advertising space beyond the museum’s walls. It incorporates a variety of technological tools to strengthen the Speed Museum’s ties with the community.

The project is the brainchild of Julien Robson, the Speed’s curator of contemporary art. In late 2006, he visited the studio of 29-year-old Da Rin in Buenos Aires. Her work — with its echoes of pop art and anime — appealed to him.

“It just kind of popped into my head to ask her the question when I saw these objects: ‘Have you ever done a billboard show?’,” he says.

Robson believed Da Rin’s work would appeal to a tech-savvy generation. He took his idea to the Speed Museum and by February CBS Outdoor advertising had agreed to donate 10 billboards for exhibition space.

This project is part exhibit, part contest, and features the art of Da Rin, who visited Louisville neighborhoods — from Rubbertown to Clarksville — in September. The contest incorporates a Web site that lets people participate in an extravagant scavenger hunt for Da Rin’s images.

The Web site also includes a podcast and a blog where the public can engage in discussions with Da Rin and Robson.
It even lets visitors submit their own art for billboards and allows the public to vote on them.

Projects incorporating billboards, Web sites and text messaging are usually the stuff of massive marketing campaigns — like the interactive billboards for the BBC and Dove soap in Times Square.

But the Speed Art Museum is not the BBC nor is it producing “American Idol.” It’s a bit more intimate, especially near the museum’s sculpture court filled with sounds from a nearby fountain. Here, the only evidence of “Eyes Wide Open” is two computer terminals where visitors can access the Web site.

It is just one reminder that a museum is more than a building and a collection of art. Robson points out that motivating people to use a museum can be a life-or-death matter.

“Museums can be seen as just mausoleums and we need to keep looking at how does the museum change and alter itself in relation to the way that society needs us to,” he says. “You know, how do we make ourselves continually relevant and new for our community?”

Meanwhile, the tech-savvy public’s assessment of “Eyes Wide Open” and this 80-year-old art museum won’t be clear until after the project culminates in February — with an event featuring Da Rin and the winner of the billboard contest.

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