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Doing It for the 'Gram: A Curator on How Instagram Changed Art—and Her Job

The Drake Hotel's art curator Mia Nielsen says that Instagram has changed how we look at art... for better and for worse

Mia Nielsen The Drake artA woman recently went viral after she attempted to snap a selfie at an L.A. art exhibit—but it wasn’t because of her photo.

The social media user was kneeling down in front of a row of pedestals, each holding a piece of art, when she lost her footing and stumbled back, sending the display toppling down like dominos and causing $200,000 worth of damage. Another a poor attempt at a selfie led to the demise of a 126-year-old statue of Portuguese ruler Dom Sebastiao in Lisbon after a young man climbed up next to the stone figure in attempt to take the perfect pic.

These are the risks of allowing social media to enter the fine arts space but, according to curator Mia Nielsen, there can also be great benefits.

Nielsen is the art curator for the Drake Hotel, and other properties owned by the Toronto-based group of boutique hotels. She has embraced Instagram’s influence in the art world, and her line of work.

When Nielsen was studying fine arts at York University in the ’90s, she discovered that rather than creating her own pieces, she was much more interested in how the works of different artists could be brought together to tell a story. More than 20 years later, creating a narrative through a carefully selected collection of art is what makes Nielsen both a successful curator, and a serious Instagram fan.

“We’re all visual people,” says Nielsen, explaining why she feels that Instagram has such a mass appeal. Before the app became a staple on people’s phones, Nielsen says no one would’ve ever thought to crouch in front of an art exhibit like the woman in the L.A. gallery. “For better and for worse, in some ways Instagram has changed how people look at art,” she says.

Creating that “Instagrammable moment”

According to Nielsen, the incredible popularity of the app, which has more than 700 million users worldwide, has influenced the type of art that gets attention.

“I see this in art fairs, where the buzziest booths in terms of Instagram or media coverage are to me, not necessarily the best booths, but the ones that show up the strongest in a digital image,” she says.

Creating that “Instagrammable moment” is a real thing, says Nielsen, and it plays a role in how she envisions different exhibits and installations at the Drake Hotel. She points to the twisting snake of light-up buckets, created by artist Jason Peters, that is not only part of the Drake Hotel’s permanent collection, but also a draw for that perfect Insta addition.

A post shared by Gord Hannah (@gordhannah) on

The same can be said for the artistic renditions of wildlife, created by Gillian Goerz, that border the Drake’s Sky Yard patio.

Hi bear.

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When she’s placing items for a temporary exhibit, Nielsen admits that social media crosses her mind “because that is a way people share images and we want people to be engaged with the space,” she says. “Part of the way people do that now is through social media.”

That said, the curator doesn’t let Instagram dictate the art she displays.

“You can structure something so that what’s Instagrammable is maybe the hook—the piece that may bring people in or generate some buzz—but there’s also something so special and irreplaceable about being present in a moment and seeing something that’s incredible and things you can’t necessarily document in digital imagery,” she says. “I definitely think there’s room for both.”

Finding artists online 

Nielsen isn’t the only one in the art world that has embraced the image-sharing app. As a curator, she used to comb through art magazines and travel to New York City as often as possible to find artists to feature—but now she can call up entire collections with a stroke of her thumb. Neilsen says that many artists have started using Instagram as a social media studio, showcasing pieces on their feeds that compliment their collections but cannot be viewed in public installations. While she still researches through online magazines and gallery shows, Instagram has also become a valuable tool for finding artists, such as Frédéric Forest, who she otherwise may not have encountered.

Nielsen’s picks for artists to follow on Instagram 

How to Instagram art—without becoming a societal hazard

When it comes to posting pics of art at the Drake Hotel’s various properties—or really anywhere—Nielsen says that users should keep in mind that they are sharing original content created by someone else.

“There’s this funny thing about imagery right now where because it’s available on a screen, people feel ownership to it but that was not a thing when images were printed in books or magazines,” she says. “I would love for people to recognize that that image came from somewhere, like someone made that, and to honour that.”

The art curator encourages social media users to snap and share pics, but also emphasizes the importance of tagging the artist when possible and geolocating or tagging the gallery. Without that info, Nielsen says users are essentially replicating an artist’s work without credit. She also feels that users should avoid the use of filters, since they will fundamentally change the nature of the artwork, but she also recognizes that editing a pic on Instagram is part of how users connect with the imagery.

While there are many challenges when it comes to social media and art etiquette, Nielsen says Instagram is attracting a new population of art followers.

“There are opportunities to open to new audiences and that’s always really exciting to me.”


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