Museum of Modern Art Joins Blighted Ad Stream

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has begun supplying digital images to Outfront for use in the ad company’s screens in MTA subway stations in New York City and elsewhere. While one can understand MoMA’s urge and need to show art to lots of people, there is a downside to doing this.

1. The images are of low quality. They will give only the barest idea of what a work of art looks like at low resolution, and they are cropped misleadingly. Is this the sort of art that MoMA wants people to see? Such watered-down and cropped-up images are extremely remote from the experience of the works themselves.

2. Routinely in public hearings and official memoranda, representatives of billboard companies point to these momentary instances of “public service” as a redeeming value to weigh against the distraction, energy drainage, and visual blight that digital billboards bring for the other 23:55 per day. MoMA’s joining this stream, with these images of questionable quality, makes our work of opposing visual blight more difficult.

3. The sign companies are the ones deciding the amount of “public service” to place on these signs, not the public. If there were actual negotiations between public bodies and sign companies about how much non-commercial messaging would be included (as a condition for continued operation of those signs), then the public service element would be larger and more meaningful. As it is, market conditions and the company’s best interests will dictate how many MoMA works are displayed, at what hours, and for how long. The works appear at their whim, and may disappear similarly. Moreover, the MoMA imagery will appear in a flow along with other material which the museum cannot control. Why would MoMA want Vincent van Gogh to appear just after an ad for a personal injury attorney or some other blaring statement?

4. According the the Outfront news release, “people may start to feel overwhelmed and tune out as screens proliferate their daily lives. [Outfront] is hoping more engaging models of content and ad delivery can help mitigate that effect.” In other words, the company is deciding how much visual blight people can tolerate, and regulating the content to keep it just short of the “overload” level. Why is MoMA collaborating in this effort? In short, why is MoMA playing into the hands of the sign companies?

In conclusion, It’s very difficult to see how participating in the Outfront digital ad stream with low-quality imagery fits in with the MoMA mission statement, which includes “the encouragement of an ever-deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art.”

Patrick Frank, President

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