Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, London, was formerly director of the California College of the Arts (CCA) Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, and was the founding chair of CCA’s graduate program in curatorial practice.
The term experience economy refers to a supposed economic development in the late twentieth century in which businesses began to sell experiences as well as goods and services. Credit for coining the term is generally given to B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, who in 1998 published an article (“The Experience Economy”) in the Harvard Business Review. Their concept extrapolated from Alvin Toffler’s contention in his 1971 book Future Shock (one of many sources cited by Pine and Gilmore) that a future “experiential industry” would develop around the desire of consumers to spend significant portions of their income in exchange for having memorable experiences. But as of today the authors’ forecast of a retail landscape dominated by experiential scenarios has yet to be realized. While those salient (and oft-cited) examples that preexisted publication of their article—including Disneyland, Las Vegas’s themed resort-casinos, Ikea stores, Niketown, Hard Rock Cafes, and so on—are still thriving, they have not spawned a major shift in how most businesses operate. Instead the emergence of online retail has led to the growth of an opposite phenomenon—a “nonexperience economy.”
The term nevertheless achieved a second life within the arena of cultural studies, where the notion of commoditized experience chimed with historical concerns about the social impact of spectacle, simulation, and, more recently, “immaterial labor” and the work-related performance of everyday roles. It has also emerged as a point of reference used in critiques of popular large-scale “experiential” art installations. High-profile examples of the genre include Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project (2003) and Carsten Höller’s installation of giant slides (2007), both presented at Tate Modern. Typically this kind of critique links the development and display of such populist immersive or participatory installations to a shift in marketing tactics used by major museums seeking to attract larger audiences. Often contrasted to more subversive types of audience engagement undertaken in the 1960s by artists and art groups such as Fluxus, artworks of this genre are basically seen as vehicles for pandering to a public hungry for sensational or unusual experiences. The element of play in these works is critically dismissed as a sanitized and unchallenging form of “participation,” while the artworks themselves are viewed as little more than carnival-like spectacles or as being terminally compromised by their presentation within the museum as a kind of innocuous family entertainment.
The fault (if there is one) does not simply lie with museum marketing issues and with artists capable of producing what some critics might consider anodyne spectacles. This was made abundantly clear by the audience response to Tate Modern’s 2009 re-creation of Robert Morris’s Bodyspacemotionthings, an “installation” of beams, weights, platforms, rollers, tunnels, and ramps with which visitors can freely engage. When the work was originally shown at Tate Gallery in 1971, it was shut down after four days due to safety concerns arising from its hard use by overly exuberant gallery visitors. Re-created using sturdier, safer materials, this once “radical” example of performative or theatrical sculpture seemed like little more than a family playground that visitors could enjoy while also consuming some kind of high-culture allure. In other words, the term experience economy should direct our attention to context, the cultivation of specific expectations and the styles of engagement that they support, rather than the actual content of particular artworks.
I have also heard the term used in a neutral (or even positive) manner with reference to the rise in interactive performances, and “relational” or “service-oriented” art projects and events at major art museums, regardless of whether this programming shift is seen as part of a larger marketing effort to capture younger audiences or as a curatorially driven exploration of current artistic practice. Whatever the critical framework, art industry discourse about the experience economy generally seems to betray a skepticism about whether sensation-driven consumers attuned to the continual feedback loops of social media can still be engaged by conventional displays of static artworks.
Within the experience economy folder, one might also include the development of spectacular museum architecture, “destination buildings” that in themselves offer visitors an unusual spatial experience that often seems to take priority over engaging with the museum’s ostensible contents.
A possible counternarrative would explore the experiential economy of art as it has evolved over the past sixty years. As Robert Motherwell, among many others, observed, art is an experience and not an object. An emphasis on the spectator’s experience can be traced through the evolution of happenings, minimalist sculpture, Fluxus participatory works, installation art, and so on, right up to current practices focusing on experiences of sociality and exchange.
Any major James Turrell exhibition.
“Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” January–April 1992, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Ann Veronica Janssens and Michel Francois, “Horror Vacui,” Belgian Pavilion, 48th Venice Biennale, 1999.
Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003. Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.
Gregor Schneider, Die Familie Schneider, 2004. Artangel, London.
Gelitin, “Sweatwat” and “Service Complet,” 2005. Gagosian Gallery, London.
“Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” Hayward Gallery, London, May–August 2008. Curated by Ralph Rugoff.
Anthony McCall, “Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture,” Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, April–August 2012.
Carsten Höller, “Experience,” New Museum, New York, October 2011–January 2012.