The Museum That Turned Its Lobby Into a Flea Market

New York's Museum of Arts & Design recent "Take One / Leave One" exhibit showed what happens when the visitors get to play curator.

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These days, a museum can be a massive temple, tiny storefront, or computer hard drive. It is always, however, a repository for things selected by a curator. The recent Museum as Plinth: Take One / Leave One in the lobby of New York's Museum of Arts & Design (MAD), offered an interactive spin on curatorial convention, or what the organizers called an "experiment in self-serve curation"—and would have been familiar to anyone who has ever participated in a swap meet.

For three days over this past Memorial Day weekend, MAD encouraged the public to decide what design objects were museum-worthy. "They gave away the power of 'credentialing'—possibly their most valuable power," explains lead curator Anne Quito, who wrote the proposal that led to the exhibit, which was put on in part to encourage the design community to rethink the needs of the museum.

Quito, an MFA student at The School of Visual Arts' design criticism department, was inspired by a 2000 retrospective on Tibor Kalman, called "Tiborocity," at the New Museum. "Near the entrance," she recalls, "there was a shelf where you could take anything that was there. I took home some dental floss that day. It reinforced Tibor and Maira Kalman's love for ephemera. I never forgot that."

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Adding the "leave one" requisite took the exhibition concept to another level. Placing a gold sticker noting "From the MAD MUSUEM COLLECTION" and logging all the objects in a ledger book made MAD's acquisition of each object official. Quito and her classmates Caterina Francisca and Sandra Nuut served as co-curators. "We hoped to engage as many 'critics' and 'curators' as possible," Quito says, "and challenge the traditional curatorial cycle/hierarchies. The fact that we were given prime lobby space (rather than a studio on the 6th floor) was critical. The fact that it was free and open to the public reinforced the democratic spirit behind the concept."

All the donated exhibits were placed neatly on a shelf. It was important that the installation looked like it belonged to MAD and fit in with the museum's interior design. Desiron lent a beautiful white and chrome shelf unit that looked like it was custom-made for the MAD lobby. The exhibits, on the other hand, were a disparate array of items that together appeared like a 21st-century general store. Donated from invitees (including me) and the public, some were thought-out, and others were whatever was in the visitor's pocket. "With the objects that [museumgoers] took home as tokens," Quito says, "I wanted the idea of the exhibit and its critical questions to live on past its run, just as it did for me in the Tiborocity show."

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The exhibit was also staged as a kind of performance: "The three of us who manned the exhibit for the three-day run wore all black, white museum gloves, and tried to act with the decorum of someone who might work for such institution."

The curators hoped serious artists, designers, and crafts people, "who have been waiting to be collected by a museum," would bring their artwork to MAD. But they also were excited by more random possibilities. "I really wished someone would have taken off their bra and left it there," Quito says.

No bras were recorded in the log, but there are a few delightfully curious transactions among the 150 people who participated and who were asked to fill out a donation card with title, date, artist's name (if known) and personal notes. Murray Moss, a well known design entrepreneur, left a vintage red star pin with a photo of the baby Lenin. Someone left a Chilean satirical newspaper with Barbie on the first page and took the donkey mask. A young boy left a pencil from the MET gift shop in exchange for a paper sculpture by a visiting artist at the MAD Museum. Another visitor swapped a Library card from Maryland for a urine test kit. Then there was a faulty iPod with "Superior Music" exchanged for a broken "10:15:37 cat o'clock" (a broken watch). One visitor wrote in the log: "Entry: I TOOK: 'a look' I LEFT: 'happy.'"

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Quito concluded that there were three kinds of participants: (1) artists who wanted the "MAD cred," rarely took anything, and were satisfied enough to see the gold sticker on their piece on the shelf; (2) takers, who wanted to get stuff and would leave a throwaway card in return; (3) purgers, those visitors taking the curatorial role seriously by bringing a somehow-valuable object to replace a "crappy" one on the shelf.

"What people left, together with the labels they included with it, spoke volumes," Quito says. "There were many 'Duchampian' moments. A sanitary pad becomes 'design' or 'art' when given a label."