The mall of my youth, a 25-minute drive from my rural home, has been shuttered for decades now. It may have been small — a modest fountain made up the centerpiece of a lower-case-t-shaped layout with just a few dozen stores — but it looms large in my imagination. That mall, surrounded by acres of empty parking lot, all of it slowly falling into disrepair, is one of thousands of abandoned retail sites across the United States. And it's about to be joined by plenty more, as our shopping continues to shift to the convenience of online purchasing.
What we do with all this empty storefront is a question that has no answer yet. But one creative entrepreneur sees a possible solution that uses our current fascination with social media as a lure to create new experiences in these old spaces.
Maryellis Bunn, the creative force behind the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC), sees herself as a Walt Disney for the new millennium. She is charging a whopping $38 admission to her interactive exhibits at the MOIC in San Francisco, which she hopes to parlay into similar venues in disused retail spaces across the country. Begun in New York City, then traveling to Los Angeles and most recently to San Francisco, these "museums" aren't really that. They are, according to the MOIC site, "environments that bring people together and provoke imagination."
Here's a look inside:
But what does that mean? As New York Magazine describes them, they are "... a sprawling warren of interactive, vaguely hallucinatory confection-themed exhibits: brightly colored rooms with flattering lighting that contain, among other things, a rock-candy cave, a unicorn, and a swimming pool of rainbow sprinkles, now Instagram-influencer-infamous. It smells like fruit-flavored chemicals."
Is it art, or entertainment, or both? Is Bunn a latter-day Warhol, simultaneously exploiting our current obsessions and mocking them, feeding our need for the perfect selfie, or is she just out to make a buck by providing people with a pink-drenched make-believe world to escape to? (And hey, I get it, we all need an escape these days.)
I have no idea. But I do visit as many modern art museums as I can, and know that I disagree with Bunn's assertion that museums "... hadn’t adapted to larger cultural currents," and were "archaic," as she told New York magazine. “They just haven’t been able to reformulate for the shifts in what people are interested in," Bunn said.
Who is Bunn talking about? Not me
I'm confused, as I've nabbed quickly sold-out tickets at SFMoMa to exactly all of the exhibits that were shown there over the last year, have joined the crowded-to-bursting masses at NYC's MoMa PS1's Warm Up, and enjoy the Tate's never-empty halls every time I'm in London. Most recently, the well-attended and mind-blowingly complex Soundtracks aural modern art exhibit at SFMoMa made me gasp with delight and cry. And my FOMO moment of the year involved moving to the Seattle area and missing the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit, which spurred lines around the block and opened imaginations while still managing to be Instagram worthy.
Here's a look behind the scenes.
Meanwhile the Museum of Ice Cream is about ice cream because, as Bunn said, everyone “has an ice-cream story,” and “ice cream was very successful through our last economic downfall.”
In comparison to Kusama, an artist who has been working with mirrors and sculptures in experiential spaces for twice as long as Bunn has been alive, Bunn's work — while beloved by celebs like Beyonce and Katy Perry — looks pretty one-dimensional. Maybe it's because the 25-year-old is more concerned with making a splash and making money than she is with making art that gets people to think. Which is, of course, fine.
This is America, and amusing people by appealing to their desire to create fun images for social media is hardly a crime. I think reutilizing abandoned retail spaces for pop-up social media image-making is an interesting and creative idea that I'd love to see in smaller cities. Bringing people together for fun in joyful spaces is a wonderful idea.
But I'm unclear why Bunn attacks museums and the art there. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps Bunn's aesthetics-are-everything/nothing-has-meaning is the future of creative endeavor. But as much as I love ice cream, the Museum of Ice Cream (unless I'm missing some underground, Banksy-esque point) doesn't qualify to me. It rings as hollow as sweet treats feel once they're gone.