Over the past few years, Molly Soda has put her private life online, for the sake of excavating and exposing the archetypal young person’s internet experience. The artist has filled solo shows at galleries from L.A. to London with YouTube videos, screencap selfie collages, GIFs, and ’zines, all featuring herself—or at least some version of herself. She’s among a growing group of artists, like Maggie Lee and Amalia Ulman, who’ve adopted online platforms in their practices, as mediums to foster digital alter-egos or consider identity on the internet.
Molly Soda’s real name is actually Amalia Soto, but it’s her pseudonym that has developed an impassioned following (68,500 Instagram followers, and 35,500 via Twitter). She’s developed this online persona to such a complex, dynamic degree that her audience (online and IRL) has often confused Soda and Soto. Now, with her debut New York solo show, she’s trying to set the record straight, while also making her audience consider their own digital identities.
“It’s sort of a rebuttal to the way that people perceive my work,” Soda tells me as we walk through the show, titled “I’m Just Happy to Be Here,” at 315 Gallery in Brooklyn. “People maybe perceive me as being really honest or sincere, and this is me being, like, ‘Well, that’s not real.’”
The show comprises mirrors printed with Instagram direct messages, lip-sync videos, an interactive laptop work, and GIFs that stream on iPhone 4s strewn across the gallery floor. (Why are they on the floor? “I like making people get into awkward positions,” Soda affirms.) “I’m Just Happy To Be Here” presents a multitude of Mollys. There’s a Molly with the proverbial angel and devil (themselves mini-Mollys) perched on her shoulders; Molly as a cowgirl, singing karaoke; Molly as a clown in the woods.
Soda taps into a tension familiar to anyone who has ever used the internet: the inevitable discrepancy between the way we’re perceived online (through the personal brands we craft) and the way we actually are in real life. Online, Molly Soda wears black eyeliner and sparkly eyeshadow; her hair is curled or coiffed or streaked with purple (or yellow or blue). Alone in her bedroom, she feeds off of her followers, spending hours singing and dancing, giving makeup tutorials, and making faces, occasionally wearing little clothing.
Like Soda, Amalia Soto is obsessed with the internet and loves karaoke, but the similarities seem to dwindle from there. When we meet at the gallery she’s wearing an oversize sweater, a long gingham dress, clunky boots, and no makeup. She speaks matter-of-factly about the state of the internet (“it’s never felt more tense”); the burner Instagram account she keeps to follow her friends; her take on #covfefe (“I love conspiracy theories”); and her desire to start keeping a physical diary. She’s not the person she plays online.
Some eight years since first creating the screen name Molly Soda on Tumblr, the artist is often asked by new friends and acquaintances, most of whom first “met” her online, which name she goes by. “I don’t really care either way, as long as you know that Soda is not my last name,” she replies. “But that’s just also the power of the internet, and the way that we get to know each other now.”
Soda is a digital native, part of a generation that came of age online. Born in 1989, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, she cut her teeth blogging on Xanga, then moved to LiveJournal, racking up a cache of daily entries that chronicled her teenage life (topics included hanging out with her boyfriend and learning to drive). Many of her friends today are people she first met online; her current Brooklyn roommate, for instance, is a mutual friend she met through Xanga.
As Xanga and LiveJournal fell out of vogue in the early aughts, she turned to Tumblr in 2009, while studying photography at NYU. She wouldn’t consider her work art until later, but during this time, as her posts became more visual and less personal, the Molly Soda persona began to take shape.
She notes that today, with Instagram and Twitter—the two platforms she considers most consequential—the focus on personal branding is inevitable. “With Tumblr, you didn’t have to post any pictures of yourself, nobody had to know anything about you, people just liked your taste in things or the way that you curated a sort of mood board,” Soda recalls. “Now, it’s very much like you have to love me, my identity, and it all rides on people literally validating that.”
Validation is central to Molly Soda’s persona, and the work that she creates. Particularly resonant in the new show is That’s Me In The Corner (2017), a video of Soda singing alone in a private Koreatown karaoke room that she streamed live on Instagram. Disco lights stream across her face as she earnestly works her way through a half-hour-long playlist including “Stay” by Rihanna, “Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. (she borrowed its lyrics for the work’s title). While somewhat light-hearted at first blush, the video takes on a sinister tone.
The number of viewers watching the live video drops from over 100 to hovering around 20 or 30; Soda’s wide eyes stare longingly at the screen, lighting up momentarily when her followers write fawning comments. The piece conveys the common sensation of posting something online and feeling waves of disappointment, delight, or validation, depending on the likes, retweets, replies, and comments.
Soda’s practice is also driven by a desire to archive her online interactions for posterity, and as potential fodder for future works. (One 2012 work, Inbox Full, was an 10-hour-long video of herself reading off all of the messages she’d received on Tumblr.) She’s also keen to preserve the different visual iterations of the internet. She fears a hypothetical scenario in which she wakes up to find that Instagram no longer exists. “I’m so terrified,” she says, “Not that I need Instagram, but I need to have had all of that stuff saved.”
Soda is adamant that the internet will always play a central role in her art, which will itself be readily accessible online. But she’s currently questioning to what extent she herself will figure into her future work. She acknowledges that 14 years of a diaristic practice has taken a toll—as have the demands of the online community itself. “I feel like a lot of the work I make ends up being kind of sad or dark because that’s how the internet feels,” she explains. “I love the internet, and I have grown to care about it so much—but it’s a complicated relationship.”
In a previous essay, I addressed the challenges facing museums and art institutions, and in particular the fierce competition for funding resources, arguing the solution must include a broader base of outside support and a wider definition of “resources.” Here I consider alternative approaches to securing support that goes well beyond dollars, and make the case for soliciting new resources to support new capabilities.
One caveat: The ideas presented here are meant to catalyze discussion and spur debate. It’s neither my intention nor my ambition to predict the future of art museums. I’m examining challenges and choices, and issuing a call for more experimentation, better efforts at measurement, and a greater willingness to learn from mistakes. My hope is to help advance the dialogue about how to improve the institutional art ecosystem.
The following nine recommendations are a start. These are by no means the only plausible solutions, but do merit consideration, adoption, and subsequent evaluation. The right recipe to achieve longevity and stronger performance will vary from institution to institution, and no single technique or program will prove sufficient. Only a combination of these efforts, employed or pursued synchronistically, will unlock and accelerate success. If I’m wrong, I hope my mistakes help us move closer towards what is “right” for each institution and its needs.
The guiding principle is: Institutions should adopt an all-available resources mentality, treating all types of contributions as "currency" that they can solicit, bank, and deploy. In lieu of spending cash on external services or capabilities, it’s essential to secure contributions of service that address critical needs and augment current capabilities. Here are a few with which to start:
Gifts from top-tier design agencies—in the form of billable hours or tightly scoped projects—can deliver industry-leading work across multiple channels: digital and brand strategy, logo redesign and typographic explorations, physical marketing assets, new web and mobile products, AR/VR experiences, experiments with audio, or offline immersive programming. This is but a hint of how museums might solicit the support of specialty agencies.
Digital Marketing Capabilities
Donations from marketing agencies, either in the form of ad support or media amplification, can prove enormously beneficial to awareness and engagement efforts. Museums can offset spending related to digital programming by soliciting donations for these services, ideally from industry-leading practitioners. By partnering with specialists in the field, museums can optimize multi-channel marketing, better manage campaigns, achieve sharper customer insights and target audiences more effectively, or improve ad performance. Services like this, however, present their own complexities: Museums must ensure that their pro bono engagements don’t violate contract terms with the donor’s competitor. Museums also must ensure that they retain copyright controls and are not liable for expensive future maintenance costs.
Legal and Accounting Services
This might be far the most valuable (and least leveraged) service gifted to institutions. In addition to simple turn-key accounting services, senior-level strategic accounting expertise which helps museums identify new approaches to structuring gifts could help institutions better identify opportunities for donors and for themselves. There are myriad new accounting methods or tax instruments uniquely suited to 1) encourage and incentivize charitable giving or 2) reinvest assets without incurring burdensome tax liability. Other non-profits use sophisticated tax and legal advice with great success.
That said, tax reform is currently a priority for the Trump administration, and changing tax laws may present new challenges in soliciting or structuring charitable donations.
Founder Equity & Vesting Gifts
Founder equity and vesting gifts—in which a museum receives stock in a privately held, speculative venture at an early stage—should be pursued with greater vigor, and far more regularly. More important than any potential payout is how this donation engages the tech community along lines with which they are already familiar. Of course, potential payouts can be wonderful (like Facebook’s infamous stock-in-lieu of cash compensation to graffiti artist David Choe). More advanced practitioners of tech-friendly fundraising might move past matching-grant scenarios (dollar-for-dollar contributions from a foundation or donor for every outside dollar raised) and weave in triggers or ratchets (payouts or pricing mechanisms tied to equity grants) to encourage participation and improve outcomes.
Food & Beverage
Museums can leverage their highly educated, upwardly mobile audiences to persuade restaurateurs and nutrition entrepreneurs to gift products or experiences. Museums can attract new and unaffiliated audiences, based on the short-term nature of the offer and the popular pursuit of gastronomic novelty; the donor restaurants or food companies gain exposure to a valuable demographic.
Publishing and Promotional Support
It’s time to get cozier with media. More interviews. More profiles. Features. Lists. Best of’s. In order to honor editorial discretion, coverage cannot be guaranteed, but deals with publishers can be negotiated to guarantee inclusion of some kind, or to secure steeply discounted deals for branded content—anything to maximize exposure. Imagine, for instance, an exclusive artist insert or a collectible tear-out edition, appearing in a print issue of Surface Magazine with an accompanying web-based digital component; or an exclusive art film released on NOWNESS; or a limited-edition supplement to Interview Magazine, devoted entirely to a bi- or triennial; even an AR-enabled page spread in a print issue of BlackBook, revealing digital sculptures or multi-sensory programming. Further exploration (both in terms of concept and cost) is needed with publishers and project-specific museum donors.
Education technology is a fast-expanding category, one in which museums and art institutions have a natural advantage, thanks to their existing education departments and museum mission statements in general. New offers might take the form of an accelerator program or incubator like NEW INC at the New Museum; specialized coursework or non-accredited classes like Masterclass; exclusive lectures, early childhood arts education, or continuing education for mid-, late-, or post-career professionals. One or any of these could be revenue-positive. The principal remaining question: Do museums have the bandwidth and brand credibility required to offer new programs in fine art or adjacent fields, and expertise required to operate their own General Assembly, Codecademy, or Sotheby’s Institute? Quite possibly, yes.
Sales and eCommerce
Commerce can be a pain, but also offers a chance to raise revenue and extend the brand awareness of an institution. Two things to keep in mind: Focus on the four P’s of selling (Product, Price, Packaging, and Promotion), and, where possible, enlist the support of experienced entrepreneurs or retailers to help create commerce and e-commerce solutions that don’t require massive provisions of time or capital. A few popular examples: the Librairie boutique du Musée national Picasso, the Shop at Museum der Dinge in Berlin (although both are missing e-commerce sites, a potential avenue for growth). The Museum of Modern Art’s design store is an impressive extension of the institution’s world-renowned design department, and offers visitors (and online shoppers) the chance to enjoy curated offerings while supporting a museum with their purchases.
Ideally, inventory should be tied to, inspired by, or related to current shows or permanent collections, but in every case, commerce requires an honest assessment of internal strengths, resources, capabilities, talent, physical real estate, and other exploitable advantages.
Network Access and Bundled Benefit Programs
Just as grocery stores or perfume counters bundle items to promote visibility and sell-through, there are a bevy of untapped opportunities for museums and art institutions to bundle unique purchase and programming opportunities (including “mileage” or rewards programs) with hotel operators, membership clubs (of the digital and physical variety), private bank promotions, or deals with alumni networks, to name but a few. The costs have to be carefully calculated and controlled, a process that could benefit from direct input from industry specialists or special subcommittees.
In sum, ties between people or affiliations between people and organizations matter more than ever. This is particularly true as traditional identity erodes, old vetting methods expire, signals of approval change, and notions of authority or credibility shift in unfamiliar and often perplexing ways. What museums can offer people isn’t power but greater influence—formal affiliation with a museum, and the influence that comes with it, ought to be used as a recruitment tool. Separately, this case has to be made to individuals: that it’s not about what they “get” out of giving, but that giving itself, of your time, ideas, or connections, is critically important in its own right. Not just for altruistic dividends, but because the overall art and cultural ecosystems demand it—and the richness of their life depends on it. To make this case either less foggy or simply more palatable to both audiences, we need a new language for this kind of giving, receiving, supporting, and affiliating, as well as vibrant examples to envy—and then emulate. I don’t yet have the answer.
Ultimately, these tools will help museums save cash, positively change the way we think about them, alter the way they see themselves, and hopefully create a new range of programming opportunities for their audiences, for each of us, and for a world increasingly in need of bliss and a bit more divinity.
—Michael Phillips Moskowitz
Michael Phillips Moskowitz is an entrepreneur, art collector, and member of the New Museum’s NEW INC initiative advisory council.
This Hotel Chain Lets You Spend the Night with Works by Famous Artists
BY ISAAC KAPLAN
JUN 6TH, 2017 7:18 PM
Walking into the 21c Museum Hotel in Nashville you’re greeted by an untraditional concierge: a bright blue penguin, gazing into the vestibule through a glass wall from the lobby. The four-foot sculpture, made by European artist collective Cracking Art Group, appears quite at home in a hotel that hosts the traveling and the transient. It’s one of many penguin sculptures that populate the hotel; all of them are periodically moved, popping up in the elevators and at the restaurant, roaming the building as if it were their own.
Behind the penguin, projected across the walls of the lobby proper, are massive, mostly real-time videos streaming footage of what is directly on the other side of each wall, literally dissolving boundaries within the hotel. Like the penguin, this installation, by artist Serkan Özkaya, is unexpected. But then again, one doesn’t expect to encounter a hotel that doubles as an art gallery.
Özkaya’s piece—playful, entertaining, and a bit disorienting—serves as a fitting declaration of ambition for 21c, a chain of now seven boutique “museum hotels.” That self-description is earned through a combined 70,500 square feet of exhibition space across all of its locations. Founded in Louisville in 2006, the brand has expanded in scale across the South, with its newest outpost in Nashville sporting three floors of exhibition space.
The art featured in the hotels is primarily drawn from the collection of 21c founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, with loans from artists and several cultural institutions as well. Currently, about 35 percent of its collection is cumulatively on view. The self-stated mission is to erase barriers, making the 21st-century art in the collection present and accessible in Nashville through galleries that are free and open to the public 24 hours a day and a spate of related programming.
“The idea of connection and engagement and broadening access to thought-provoking contemporary art—not art as decoration—is what separates what 21c does from many other hotels and for-profit companies which use art for many different things,” said Alice Gray Stites, chief curator and museum director of 21c. “For 21c, it’s a museum mission.”
In an age of private museums, the “hotel museum” is a novel twist, particularly in locations like Nashville, where local artists and members of the cultural community will tell you there needs to be more institutional support of the arts, in any and all forms. Despite the boom of wealthy collectors setting up their own institutions—an idea Brown and Wilson toyed with—private museums are generally not self-sufficient, but rather dependent on the continued largesse of their benefactors, making their sustainability years into the future more of a question. Having revenue generation built into the museum model through a hotel mitigates such financial pitfalls.
“The operations of the hotel and restaurant support the operations of the museum,” said Stites, “and we have begun some direct acquisitions.” Each year, 21c purchases a work for the hotel’s collection from the Moving Image art fair. One example of this is Claudia Hart’s The Flower Matrix(2016), located in a hotel conference room; viewers can download an app to bring the piece to life through augmented reality.
Other than the conference rooms and three hotel rooms designed by creatives (artists Sebastiaan Bremer and Yung Jake, actor Adrian Grenier), the galleries within 21c appear like those found in a museum, with white walls and wall text, all of which is written by Stites. She notes that the museum side of the operation has a “lean” team of 18, with shows curated from headquarters, though there are staff at each specific location to arrange for local programming.
The exhibition on view now in Nashville, “Truth or Dare: A Reality Show,” features over 100 works from artists across the world, and intends to comment on the blurred lines between fact and fiction. With so many pieces in numerous mediums—video, sculpture, photography, even augmented reality—by artists from 23 countries, the theme feels more like a prompt than an impermeable curatorial boundary.
Like Özkaya’s, some of the works play with the location in a hotel. One piece by Alejandro Diaz features wires jutting out of a wall and a handwritten “DO NOT TOUCH” sign in cardboard—in this case a work of art, but what could easily be seen as a hastily performed maintenance job waiting for an electrician to correct it. There are also creative placements of the work—in elevators, and also in dedicated spaces along each floor where local artists are on view as part of the hotel’s “Elevate” program.
Among some of the highlights of the exhibition are Pedro Reyes’s Lady Liberty (As Trojan horse) (2016), which shows the Statue of Liberty on tank treads, a comment on how a rhetoric of freedom is often used as a mechanism for conflict. On the flipside are the serene cloud works of Leandro Erlich. His 2011 La Vitrina Cloud Collection (Venice) is comprised of ethereal three-dimensional images of clouds from specific days and times in Venice, displayed like scientific artifacts in a glass case.
When the show leaves this 21c location in about seven months, it will reappear at another location, likely somewhat modified. The ability to shift a traveling exhibition and “recalibrate depending on current events” is a key difference from traditional institutions, Stites said, adding that “the goal is to maintain museum standards of quality in terms of the art, and the curating and the programming but we don’t have to play by all the museum rules.” You can even walk through the galleries with a drink in hand. Official tours are given regularly, though staff on hand at other times to speak with guests about the exhibition.
Outside of that, there is no education department, but events, panels, and discussions are to be a staple going forward. While I was in Nashville, the 21c featured a conversation on Sharon Louden’s book, The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, with contributor Matthew Deleget on (for lack of a better description) how to work as an artist. At the end, there was a free-flowing Q&A between the audience and the speakers, with many in the crowd describing a deep love of the city and its creative community, along with an undertone of frustration over the difficulties and challenges that come from working in a place without robust institutional support for art.
For all these reasons, approaching a museum hotel in Nashville is fundamentally different than in New York City. As artist Brian R. Jobe, who runs Nashville gallery Seed Space with his wife Carolyn, told me, the museum hotel might, at times, be one of the main places exhibiting contemporary art in the city. Jobe, who also co-founded Locate Arts, which promotes culture and artists across Tennessee, is working towards an ambitious biennial that would stretch across the state, as part of an effort to raise consciousness about the arts. It’s an initiative Stites told me 21c would look to participate in.
Nashville faces challenges in terms of building the creative infrastructure necessary to support and finance the creative talent that exists there. But while some might be interested in constructing an arts scene in the model of New York, a more nascent community offers the opportunity to consciously construct something that better suits Tennessee, not simply commercially, but also in terms of people in the state.
Channeling all the city’s creative energy into a dollar sign and a red dot on a gallery placard isn’t the goal. In fact, getting away from dollars and cents, to convince people in Tennessee that art has deeper value, is important, Jobe noted. “Art is thought about in terms of how much it costs,” he told me, and not often enough as “an experience that can change a person.”