Why Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors is the blockbuster every gallery craves
Those who have seen the high-demand show say the waits are almost as essential as the works
Herman Lo, the Art Gallery of Ontario's director of visitor experience, sounds thoroughly relieved. Possibly, it has to do with his impending vacation, which will commence shortly after we get off the phone.
Or, probably, it has more to do with the reason he planned his vacation for this particular day – the last day of the AGO's final presale for its upcoming exhibit Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Lo's job, as its name implies, is to oversee every aspect of the potential AGO attendee's journey, from searching for opening times online to picking up your things at the coat check – a job that lately has been excessively focused on making sure Infinity Mirrors is the blockbuster that every gallery so desperately craves.
Step 1 was finding a ticket system that could handle the anticipated demand. There were massive online queues and hundreds of tweets from people who missed out, including more than a few who openly wondered if they'd have better luck trying Cleveland (the show's next step) or even Japan. Still, unlike the first round of sales in December – and, for that matter, virtually any time a major event has gone on sale in the age of ticket bots – this time, the system worked exactly as intended.
"Our usual system can process about 1,500 to 2,000 orders at a time," Lo explains in a tone that suggests that, for an art-gallery website, even this amount is akin to building a foot bridge solid enough to support an aircraft carrier. "The first day of this sale, we had 18,000 people in a queue. Today, we had over 40,000. People had been asking us why we didn't just sell tickets in person, but … I don't think the police want to deal with that many people on Dundas."
The potential for riots at an art show is just the most public of the many challenges the Kusama show presents to a gallery – even one with the AGO's institutional heft.
The root cause here are the titular pieces, small rooms that are like stepping into a kaleidoscope.
The experience is tightly prescribed by the artist: Each visitor gets about 25 seconds to marvel at them before being shuffled along – a detail that the AGO, as with its sister institutions, has been carefully explaining to its members for months.
"We will have people with stopwatches outside," he explains, although he seems unimpressed when I suggest cattle prods might also be necessary to keep things moving along. "Actually, research shows that the average linger time at a painting, for instance, is only about two to three seconds. So, relatively, people are doing all right here."
Still, owing to the fact the rooms are strictly one-shot affairs, this relatively luxurious window of appreciation will come after a decent wait – about 20 minutes a room, if the experiences of other galleries hold true here. But people who have seen it at those galleries say the waiting is almost as essential to the experience as being in the rooms – which is where Shiralee Hudson comes in.
As the lead interpretive planner for public programming and learning, Hudson is responsible for helping the AGO's visitors understand what it is they're seeing. Her job starts about 18 months before any show, with a marketing survey that helps gauge the public's knowledge and interest in any particular artist. From there, she will translate the findings into a series of "motivational identities." Derived from the teachings of John Falk, an educational theorist, these are a series of hypothetical personas, such as "experience seeker" or "art aficionado," that suggest what people are looking for when they come to the gallery.
These give her some insight into what kind of materials might best serve each show – everything from the text accompanying pictures on the wall to a draw-your-own-monster station for the recent Guillermo del Toro exhibit. Whatever it takes, really, to give people a meaningful experience with the work in the gallery.
In the case of Kusama, that has meant finding a way to stuff every nook and cranny with something to keep queuing patrons engaged – as much to give them a full experience, Hudson notes, as to stave off boredom. Besides the additional works that line the walls between the rooms, it extends to factoids on line-divider stanchions, a fragmented timeline to fill in the details of the artist's life and, in a first for the gallery, volunteers who will come up and chat with people in line, offering them biographical details and further context for each room.
"They'll come up and say something like – well, I haven't actually written the scripts yet," Hudson says with a laugh. "With a show like this, though, with so many variables, you really can't predict where people are going to be, so we thought we needed something that was able to meet needs wherever they pop up."
The heftier challenges – Hudson also notes she's been paying careful attention to traffic flow and the potential for bottlenecks as people move about the gallery – come with one big advantage, though: Kusama's work is uniquely involving, which makes the goal of giving people a meaningful experience that much easier.
"I love it when I can create participatory experiences in exhibitions, but with Kusama I actually don't have to because you explicitly participate in the art making," she explains. "Kusama considers it when you are in the room, you're completing the work. It's nice to have that taken care of, so to speak, already."