This morning CBC’s Q hosted a debate that centred on a three-day marketing promotion for our exhibition Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting. Guest host Jim Brown read part of the statement below on the air, but we wanted to share the full text here. We thank everyone who has participated in this lively discussion about Frida Kahlo and her work.
As an art institution, the AGO’s challenge is to engage with the art-aware as well as those who are new to the art world in order to spread the word about our exhibitions. We want to de-mystify the museum experience for people who might be intimidated, and reinforce our belief that art is for everyone.
We’ve learned that simply putting something safe out there and hoping for the best isn’t enough to win new visitors or energize current ones. We conducted extensive research during our planning for Frida & Diego, and discovered that a good portion of our audience had very little awareness of the two artists; in fact, Frida’s unibrow was one of the only things many people could connect to her name. Critics of the AGO’s unibrow promotion suggest we should have educated the public about the two artists and their work in order to promote the exhibition, and we believe our ads and promotions have done that within the limitations of paid advertising with fascinating facts and info about the couple, their lives, and their art. But our research findings indicated that Frida’s iconic image was the most compelling entry point for the highest number of people. The three-day promotion was just that — an entry point — and the real opportunity to share a deeper understanding of the content exists once visitors are through our doors.
Frida used the power of costumes and appearance to form a unique identity that blended her indigenous and European heritage. Our research uncovered several primary sources (including Frida’s own journal) that confirm that she was very proud of her eyes and eyebrows. She purposefully chose to wear her brows in a natural state and to exaggerate them in her self-portraits, bucking bourgeois ideals of feminine beauty while aggressively challenging and blurring gender norms in a macho Mexican society. The unibrow was part of her strategy to clearly differentiate herself. Our promotion carefully considered all this, and was intended to celebrate her fearlessness and affirm, not rob, the relevance of her constructed persona.
We thank Sarah Mortimer and Sholem Krishtalka for their letters, because this is exactly the kind of thoughtful discussion we wanted to provoke. The AGO is a forum — a place to debate issues of art and what matters to us as a society. If everyone agreed with us all the time, there wouldn’t be much to talk about. The promotion achieved exactly what we intended: it spurred an intelligent and heartfelt debate that brings attention to the exhibition, the artists and their work. Artworks, exhibitions and the campaigns that surround them ARE provocations: that is their job.
Frida was famous for her playful wit; she knew her gutsy actions would provoke passionate response. She purposefully courted controversy to draw attention to issues that mattered to her. For this reason, we believe that she would have positively reveled in the debate sparked by the unibrow promotion, and the many conversations that are sure to follow.
—Steve Rayment, AGO Director of Marketing