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Highbrow, lowbrow: the curatorship styles of Beyonce vs David Walsh

Lucy Watson liked it so she wrote a thing about it.

Curation is an art (or meta art, if you like) that many of us know little about. Walk through the bright white halls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and it’s hard to imagine they paid someone to come up with the arrangement of the art – rooms devoted to separate art movements, ordered chronologically and by theme.

This is not the case at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), in North Hobart. The museum’s owner, David Walsh, is so present in the gallery that as you wander through the halls you can’t help but feel you intimately know the man – you can read his personal musings on the works, his reasons for purchasing them, listen to music he likes, and even bump into him as he wanders around the museum he calls home (literally, his apartment is in the complex).

While Walsh is not given the title of ‘curator’ at MONA, he has asserted his major role in the curation process, telling The Monthly: “We’ve got curators on staff… but it’s all of us, really.” It’s his presence within the museum that really foregrounds Walsh in the art viewing process.

MONA raises many questions about art – how we perceive it, what it is, how we should interact with it – but one question comes to mind more than any other: how are Walsh and MONA stylistically similar to Beyoncé and her latest self-titled album?

Queen Bey is creator, but perhaps more aptly, curator of Beyoncé. Her latest ‘visual album’ assembled a huge team of creatives: songwriters, producers, artists, music video directors, costume artists, choreographers. Bey is at the forefront, guiding the ship, but the album relies heavily on its notable contributors, includingthe likes of Frank Ocean, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Jay Z, Drake, and Sia.

As well as their own omnipresence within their body of work, Bey and Walsh share some other major similarities in their curation choices. Both Beyoncé and MONA have a chosen focus on Old and New. MONA’s is obvious in the name, and when you wander the halls, admiring the tombs and tokens of years past alongside a mechanic sculpture created 6 months ago that draws as the wind outside picks up.

Bey’s is evident in the mixture of brand new tracks mashed with archival footage from her past, on tracks like ‘Flawless’ and ‘Haunted’. The clips, from Beyoncé’s childhood, are there to document her life that led to her rise to stardom: the trials and tribulations of becoming Queen Bey.

The intriguing similarity between MONA and Beyoncé, however, is the very style of Old vs New. The Old is archival, the New artistic. MONA’s old objects are all things that were created for a purpose: coins, jewellery, tombs. The museum is simultaneously an archive of the Old world, and a gallery that represents the New. Beyoncé is the same. Archived footage, there to remember and recall, together with stylised, directed, and choreographed clips to represent the new.

Both Beyoncé and Walsh unconventionally dropped their body of work onto an unsuspecting audience. Walsh established his museum in Berriedale, Hobart – neighbouring his childhood suburb of Glenorchy, and in Hobart’s poorest area. Rather than in a metropolis like Sydney or Melbourne, Walsh built his museum, not only in the most forgotten state of Australia, but also in one of the poorest suburbs of one of the poorest cities in the country – and so close to sea level that it’s likely to be flooded in 50 years anyway. The $200 million complex was built underground on the brink of a tidal river, in the midst of some serious climate change. As you do.

In a world where music superstars announce the release date of their album months in advance, start hyping it with singles, television appearances, tour dates, hashtags, and saturated releases, Beyoncé’s choice to launch her visual album exclusively to iTunes, with only social media posts to tell everyone (“surprise!”) in mid December (Taylor Swift’s birthday, no less), was rather unconventional, to say the least. Bey was in the middle of her (unrelated) Mrs Carter tour, she had done no promotion, paid no marketing companies, chosen no singles, hadn’t even made a physical copy for release (yet).

The reaction to these methods of release was polarising (yet still largely positive) and that’s probably what both curators wanted. Many have called MONA “filth”; many more have claimed they don’t “get it”. As you wander the museum, the device that tells you about exhibits asks you if you “love” or “hate” the work you are viewing. There’s no middle ground.

Amazon and Target refused to sell Beyoncé after she released it exclusively to iTunes. So Bey went and gave Walmart shoppers $37k worth of vouchers. One fan criticised Bey for the surprise release, claiming that she had to spend her lunch money on the new album, and so had to go hungry for the rest of the week. Whether you loved it or hated it, on the 13th December, you were talking about Beyoncé.

As captains of their own ship, Walsh and Beyoncé have strikingly similar navigational methods. And when those paths cross, as they did at MONA’s Festival of Music and Art, which saw Melbourne-based dancer Benjamin Hancock locked in a glass room in a tiny attic, dancing to ‘Partition’ at ¼ speed on repeat, well…astronomers are still trying to get their head around what happens when stars collide, and so am I.

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