In the Zeitgeist: Art in Ad Spaces


Art Everywhere US Times Square rendering

Recently, a number of projects have launched with the intent of bringing art experiences to ad spaces. Art Everywhere, Art CityThe Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, and even SFMOMA’s #PlayArtfully campaign (which I have worked on extensively) all seek to insert art into the everyday by making creative use of the spaces that normally assault us with calls to consume. Many of these projects seem to have the goal of pushing art-viewing experiences on unsuspecting viewers, with the underlying intent of getting more people interested in – and supportive of – the arts. The relationship between art and advertising has been prodded and poked at in a number of ways over the years, but there’s definitely something happening now that’s causing these similar projects to bubble up. How is the the relationship between marketing and art shifting? Are we worried that Art as a whole needs its own ad campaign? What’s going on here?

Today I had a very interesting Twitter conversation with Jillian Steinhauer and Alex Teplitzky (among others) regarding the nature of art in ad spaces. The question – can art thrive in ad spaces? – is interesting to me because so much of viewing art is about your mental approach. When you visit a museum or a gallery, you know that you’re about to have an experience – mentally, you give yourself space to absorb, process, and connect. What happens when you’re confronted by art in a space that normally confronts you with something that is aggressively different? And, so much of going to a gallery is knowing that you have chosen to go to that venue to see art, because you knew it existed and were interested in it. When art is situated in the outdoor ad-space context, will people know what they’re looking at, and will they care? Does this even matter?

In discussing the ad space art projects happening now, Art Everywhere feels the least successful from an art “exhibition” perspective. As a “campaign,” it is interesting because it intends to advertise American art as a whole – but is it successful? Since people were asked to vote for their favorite works of art, unsurprisingly, the winning artworks are mostly well-known 2D works which have been reproduced on T-shirts, posters, mugs, you name it, already. This democratic “celebration” of American art puts paintings and photographs in front of people as advertisements for themselves rather than as art experiences. Seeing a Rothko reproduced on a billboard isn’t art, it’s advertising – and in my opinion, it almost cheapens the actual artwork by reducing it to a visual symbol. Can artworks function outside themselves in this way, and if so, will viewers be moved by this type of token engagement?


“Give the people what they want. The people want what they know.”– Jillian Steinhauer in Westward Exhibition: Billboard Art Unfolds Across America for Hyperallergic

“We hope Art Everywhere US inspires all of us to learn more about America’s art, past and present, and to discover more of the riches in our nation’s museums.”


Anthony Discenza's "Sell Your Hopes," on a billboard in the Mission District, is part of the Art City Project's first exhibition. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle

Anthony Discenza’s “Sell Your Hopes,” on a billboard in the Mission District, is part of the Art City Project’s first exhibition. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle

The art-in-ad-spaces projects that interest me much more are Art City and The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, both of which include a curated group of works that were selected/commissioned specifically for the ad space context. These projects are inarguably situated in the fine art realm more so than in the marketing realm, because the ad installations are the art – they are not advertisements for some other type of art experience. The commissioned billboard artworks play with their placement and the self-aware fact that they’re replacing ads. When done well, this context shift can be profound, and can completely flip the viewer’s understanding of his or her situation.

Anthony Discenza’s piece for Art City, Sell Your Hopes (above), is one of the most effective billboards in the Art City project because it so simply and eloquently flips the advertising model on its head by exposing a horrific idea – that our dreams are just another commodity – in the place that normally pushes us to buy new dreams. While Art Everywhere asks viewers to think about having an experience, Discenza’s piece just goes ahead and creates an experience. I think the latter approach is much more interesting, but herein lies the question: if an art experience happens in the wild and the person who experiences it doesn’t know it’s art, did anything happen at all?*

*(I think so, but it’s a legit question)

Shana Lutker, “The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project: Onward and Upward” (2013), billboard (courtesy the artist via Hyperallergic)

Shana Lutker, “The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project: Onward and Upward” (2013),
billboard (courtesy the artist via Hyperallergic)

In all seriousness, I’m hopeful that campaigns like Art Everywhere and exhibitions like Art City will affect the art world at large by getting more people interested in what goes on in museums, galleries, artists’ studios, and all the other places creative acts take place. I’ve said for a long time that Art (with a capital A) needs to be rebranded if it wants to survive in the hyper-engaging, hyper-saturated world of visual culture. Is this truly the case, though? What would happen if the popularization of art that Artsy’s Carter Cleveland prophesied really comes about? Could Art ever be as popular and widely appreciated as Music or Film?

What I keep coming back to is the question of art-as-entertainment versus art as something academic, vigorous, and complex. Anthony’s piece is good because it’s a bit difficult: it makes us have a new experience by confronting us with something unexpected and confusing. So why won’t a project like Art City ever truly result in the mainstream popularization of Art? It’s simple: a lot of people don’t really want to think about Art – either they don’t find it worthwhile, or they don’t quite know how. In order to get more people interested in art, our culture would need to put more emphasis on the joys of education and visual literacy. Could this happen?

To end, I’ll bring up a parallel I see between art ad campaigns like Art Everywhere and the topic that is endlessly debated among my friends: the art at Burning Man. People go crazy for the art installations on the Playa – this year, the most-funded sculpture project ever to be posted to Kickstarter will bring a projection-mapped skull to Burning Man, where I’m sure thousands of people will find it to be one of the coolest things they’ve ever seen. That’s fine, I’m accepting of the fact that people have widely different tastes in all sorts of things, from music to food to art. What’s interesting, though, is the idea that popularity and difficulty cannot usually go hand in hand. In a comment, Anthony put it very well:

While we work to make art and creativity more widely accessible, I think Anthony’s point is incredibly important: Art needs to be a bit difficult to be good, and this is what makes it so problematic to popularize. I’m happy to see projects like Art EverywhereArt CityThe Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, and #PlayArtfully because they act as a bridge between the difficult Fine Art World, and the creative imagery that makes up popular visual culture, from advertising to film to the aesthetics of Burning Man. As we in the Fine Art World move forward with goals of accessibility and openness in mind, let’s make more projects like Art Everywhere and Art City happen, but let’s make sure to keep that secret sauce – with that sweet, complex, difficult flavor – from being watered down in the process.



JUST FOR FUN// 40-year-old ad art (h/t Alex Teplitzky)


Chris Burden – Through the Night Softly, 1973
In the seventies, Chris Burden paid for commercial air time and produced a number of short videos for thousands of unsuspecting LA television viewers.  To see all the videos Burden made, head over to UbuWeb.

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