What's an Infinity Mirror Room worth to you? AGO launches crowdfunding campaign
The Toronto museum needs $1.3 million to add a new Yayoi Kusama work to its collection
What would you pay to bring one of Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms to Toronto? Not for three months or 30 seconds, but for good?
That's no hypothetical question, the Art Gallery of Ontario really wants to know — and whatever price you have in mind, they'll take it.
Starting today, the AGO is crowdfunding for a brand new Infinity Mirror Room, one of the artist's renowned chambers of illusion — spaces that ask you to contemplate life in the face of an infinite, glittering void (while debating whether to take a selfie).
As of this morning, they're giving themselves 30 days to reach a $1.3 million target. That's how much they need to lock the acquisition, a never-before-seen work that comes with a $2 million price tag.
"I think it is the single-most expensive work of art that we've bought in a decade," says Stephan Jost, CEO at the AGO.
Of course, it's not quite sold yet, but Jost is confident that crowdfunding is the way to go, pointing to the AGO's experience with Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors this past spring.
You dream about these things, but how do you actually buy one?- Stephan Jost, Michael and Sonja Koerner Director and CEO, Art Gallery of Ontario
Over three months, 165,000 people passed through that travelling exhibition — a number the AGO calls "unprecedented." And he expects those same gallery visitors will be just as interested in chipping in for a Kusama. (Also, since those 165,000 folks bought their tickets online, they can expect some direct email marketing asking them to donate.)
The AGO is running the fundraiser itself at infinityago.ca. There, prospective patrons are invited to contribute whatever amount they want, but this being a crowdfunding effort, there are a few incentive goodies tied to different tiers.
A $25 donation, for example, guarantees access to the work before its official debut (a general admission ticket costs $19.50, for context), and the AGO is also promoting early contributions with a contest. Make a pledge before noon ET on Nov. 5, and you could win a night at the museum for you and your five best friends/Instagram husbands — an especially exclusive sneak peek, though we don't expect winners will be bedding down for the night in a sea of infinite stars, pumpkins, spotted dinks or whatever else might be found inside the mystery installation.
About that — what do we know about what it looks like?
The AGO isn't revealing any major details until they've raised the full $1.3 million.
"All I can say is it's an Infinity Room and it's being built now," says Jost.
So, the AGO comes by some of their secrecy honestly. Nobody can share what the Infinity Mirror Room looks like, because the Infinity Mirror Room just isn't finished yet.
And they're embracing the intrigue to build some hype for the campaign. As they hit fundraising targets, the AGO promises to share a few sneaky peeks of the artwork, revealing pieces of a photo over the next month.
Why buy an Infinity Mirror Room?
The obvious answer? People are nuts for Kusama, as that Infinity Mirrors exhibition keeps proving at every record-breaking stop it hits. By that logic, having an Infinity Mirror Room would be a major attraction — maybe not enough to crash the ticket website every day, but still. "The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away" over at The Broad in L.A. is likely the Infinity Mirror Room you've seen dozens of times online (and in that Adele video), and in order to manage demand, the museum asks visitors to join a digital queue upon arrival. (You get a text when your turn is up, and according to Hyperallergic, wait times could be as long as "several hours.")
According to the AGO, a total of 18 museums have an Infinity Mirror Room in their permanent collection, and if they're successful, the AGO will be the first public institution in Canada to acquire one.
But as Jost explains, the deal represents more than hype and bragging rights. The AGO, he says, makes a point of making an acquisition connected to all its major shows. For example: "If we're going to do Rebecca Belmore, we're going to work really hard to buy a Rebecca Belmore, just to support the artist that way, but also to show there's something in our collection forever."
Kusama's work, however, is the most expensive of any living female artist. "In this case, we're being transparent about the price," says Jost. "It's two million bucks! It's not a 20,000 dollar acquisition, right?"
"It's been in the works for about six months," Jost says of the deal. "I was thinking about it longer than six months," he laughs. "You dream about these things, but how do you actually buy one?"
Yeah, how do you actually buy a Kusama?
The AGO exhibition helped the museum build relationships with Kusama's team, and Jost says he visited her New York dealer, David Zwirner, earlier this year to discuss the possibility of buying a piece.
"And kind of almost as an afterthought they said she's making another Infinity Room," he says. "We just didn't have two million dollars, but I was like, 'We're in!'"
The AGO Foundation is able to put $1 million toward the purchase. The $1.3 million they're hoping to raise through crowdfunding would cover the other half plus "all the extra stuff" — transportation, marketing, hiring an attendant, etc.
What happens if they don't reach their target?
"I'll probably talk to people with extraordinary wealth," laughs Jost — but he doesn't imagine he'll have to. Jost says he hopes that the AGO will hit $1.3 million through small donations. (To crunch the basic arithmetic, if less than a third of the people who attended Infinity Mirrors ponied up $25 each, they'd be covered.)
Why turn to crowdfunding at all?
Typically, if someone wants to support the AGO, they'll buy a ticket or a membership — not chip in to buy the art inside. Fundraising is the museum's responsibility, not the public's. So why go this route?
"Our community does support the museum in lots and lots and lots of different ways," says Jost. "There's no forced acquisition here. We're trying to make it so it's accessible."
"There's a lot easier ways to raise $1.3 million dollars, but I can't think of another way that connects — that makes individuals have a sense of ownership and contributing to something that's more than just them, that's for the community."
The AGO isn't the first museum to try something like this, though they do have some history with it. Back in 1958, long before anyone used the word "crowdfunding," they ran a campaign to buy Tintoretto's Christ Washing His Disciples' Feet. The public could buy — sponsor, really — a square inch of the $100,000 painting for $10. (After inflation, that fundraiser is comparable to what the AGO's attempting to collect right now.) The Tintoretto would cost almost $874,000 in 2018 dollars, and Jost says that story motivated the AGO to pursue crowdfunding the Kusama.
There's an inherent risk to crowdfunding, though. Sometimes it works. French museums have increasingly employed it as a survival tactic, turning to the public in the face of government cuts. Between 2010-2014, the Louvre alone crowdfunded more than 4 million Euros in donations. (Bonus benefit: The Winged Victory of Samothrace was ready for its close-up with Beyonce and Jay-Z thanks to a crowdfunded restoration project.) But it hasn't been a success for every museum, even when a major art star is involved. In 2012, the Hirshorn was seeking $35,000 for an Ai Weiwei sculpture, but they wound up raising $555.
If the AGO campaign falls through, it's unclear what that means for the deal. When asked whether the AGO would lose their chance to acquire the Infinity Mirror Room in question, a spokesperson for the museum would only say this: "We're confident in our community that we can reach it."
Jost says that the AGO looked at how other museums had handled similar campaigns. "It's hard to find a really close comparison to what we're doing, in part because we know the rules around Kusama are just different," he says.
"The public relates to her work in a different way than any other artist."
"I just think if you help buy a work of art, you have a different connection to it."
If donors come through, when will the Infinity Mirror Room arrive at the AGO?
If everything goes to plan, the Infinity Mirror Room is expected to be ready for AGO visitors by spring 2019, and Jost says it'll find a home in the galleries that focus on art from the '60s and '70s.
"If you want to come in, and it's free Wednesday night, it'll be there," he says.
Find the campaign at www.infinityago.ca