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Seeing Yourself In Art, Literally: The Rise Of The Museum Selfie

It’s a busy evening at the Phoenix Art Museum on a recent First Friday, when admission is free after 6 p.m.

On the lawn, a bright red T-Rex snarls from inside a crimson cage at the giggling group of girls posing in front of it.

The girls wander over to a fountain, snapping pics along the way, where water falls in measured lines, mirroring the up and down bars of the nearby cage.

Twenty-year-old student Valerie Kimbrough can, as her friends say, make a photoshoot out of anything for Instagram.

“Having a certain aesthetic on your feed, like that dinosaur, would be my bright aesthetic and this water would be part of my dark aesthetic,” she said.

It’s clear Kimbrough has thought it through past the point of "let’s take a picture" and utilizes the art around her to convey her emotions.

“You know when people think of art they think of something on a wall or paintings, but they don’t think of something you can interact with,” Kimbrough said.

Phoenix Art Museum Marketing Manager Margaree Bigler said the more immersive an art installation, the more it’s shared. For example, the popular Yayoi Kusama exhibit, "You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies."

“It’s essentially a dark room with mirrored walls with LED lights that change colors,” Bigler said.

She’s kind of underselling it here. You walk in and you’re immediately transported to a cave-like, mirrored room where flickering lights surround you, just like fireflies.

“It’s such an immersive experience that people want to share it and this is one of our most highly shared works of art on our social media account,” Bigler said.

She said selfies are ubiquitous now in the museum, and even considers it a type of art in itself – like portraiture.

"We’ve noticed selfies and taking pictures with works of art is largely organic," Bigler said. "We don’t overtly promote that people take selfies in the galleries, but when it happens it’s amazing."

Bigler may see selfies as co-existing in today’s art museums, but not everyone would think so.

“Are they posting it because of the selfie or are they posting it because they like the artwork next to it?” said Christy Schabacker, a local elementary school art teacher.

Schabacker is also at the art museum for First Friday, with her friend Peggy Degnan, whose first reaction is decidedly anti-selfie.

“It’s kind of weird because this is a museum, so it’s kind of like a church, so, it’s kind of like a respect thing,” Degnan said.

But on second thought, both seem to agree - maybe selfies aren’t so bad.

“It’s not disrespectful, I guess, to take a selfie with it," Degnan said. "It’s great that it gets them involved or gets them excited about the art.”

And when asked about whether they would take a selfie in the museum, both laughed and said no, it's a generational thing. But after a few more minutes of talking, they both remembered - they've taken photos with sculptures before, and even posted it online.

Elevating The Museum Selfie

“There might be an element of narcissism in many [selfies], but not all," said Leslie-Jean Thornton, an Arizona State University associate professor. "It’s really just connecting on things, we find we have values in common.”

Thornton wrote a paper last year called “Beyond the Museum Selfie.” She explores how museum selfies "put the visitor on an equal footing with great works of art."

“And not only can you call it up in your phone to see when it was, but you instantly get a picture in your mind and I think that’s a really really valuable thing,” Thornton said.

Back at First Friday, high school-er Shannon McBreen and her friend find a good angle in a reflection on a sculpture.

The angle is key because it’s a bulbous, shiny black object done by the same artist who did Chicago’s famous metallic bean, Anish Kapoor. In one part, it’s a true reflection, and in the other part, you’re flipped upside down.

And that rule of physics, McBreen said, is what intrigued her enough to take a photo.

"I just learned that lesson in physics," she said. "It's the distance from the focal point that determines whether the image is flipped."

She discusses with her friend whether they should take another picture.

“Well we took a picture in the right side up side of the sculpture, which I guess it would have been more fun to do in the upside-down. Why didn’t we do that?" McBreen asked her friend. "We can do that now? We should. We’ll probably do that now.”

In the end, they did go back and take that picture. And those selfies are a way for anyone to, quite literally, see themselves in the art.

Casey Kuhn reports from KJZZ’s West Valley Bureau. She comes to Phoenix from the Midwest, where she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.Kuhn got her start in radio reporting in college at the community public radio station, WFHB. She volunteered there as a reporter and worked her way up to host the half-hour, daily news show. After graduating, she became a multimedia reporter at Bloomington's NPR/PBS station WFIU/WTIU, where she reported for and produced a weekly statewide news television show.Since moving to the Southwest, she’s discovered a passion for reporting on rural issues, agriculture and the diverse people who make up her community.Kuhn was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her parents instilled in her a love of baseball, dogs and good German beer. You’ll most likely find her around the Valley with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a graphic novel in the other.She finds the most compelling stories come from KJZZ’s listeners.