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‘A very, very big art show’

Jasper Johns' 1958 "Three Flags."
Jasper Johns' 1958 "Three Flags."
AP PhotoWhitney Museum of American Art

Have you heard about “Art Everywhere”? Not to worry. You will.

Come August, “Art Everywhere” will be – you know, everywhere. That’s when five of America’s most notable museums – the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art – will mount the largest outdoor exhibit of American art ever on 50,000 display sites nationwide, including billboards, bus shelters and subway posters, courtesy of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

And the public gets to choose all exhibit examples from the participating museum collections via an online poll at http://www.arteverywhereus.org.

Not that such canvasing is a first. In fact, polls seem to be running the art world lately, probably beginning in the ‘60s when artist Hans Haack surveyed museum goers' opinion of the Vietnam War and made the poll his art.

The ‘90s brought voting for America’s “most wanted” and “most unwanted” museum shows called “People’s Choice” (based on a poll conducted by Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid). Results reflected the “unmost wanted” imagery (geometric abstraction with sharp angles going this way in reds and browns) and the “most wanted” (pastoral scenery under blue skies).

Numbering among more recent polls was one conducted in 2010 by American Style magazine, a national publication for collectors and cultural travelers that asked readers to choose best of 25 mid-size cities for art. (Oddly, St. Pete beat out art towns like New Orleans and Miami).

In the same year, another poll out of England showed that the difference between British and American connoisseurship is the difference between a Picasso and a picture postcard. While the British vote put Picasso in first place, Americans voted Picasso’s cubism their least favorite. America’s “most wanted”? A pictorial of historical figures posed in a paradisiacal springtime setting full with frolicking deer beneath pristine blue skies.

Last summer, England did the “Art Everywhere” poll with 22,000 poster sites up and down the country with public crowd-funded to help. Apparently, the Brits like polls as much as Americans. A recent poll conducted by the BBC Radio and London’s National Gallery asked Brits to pick the ten best paintings in English collections and all the usual suspects got a vote. Not a single work by a woman in the National Gallery collection made the cut, not even the usually popular work of Rosa Bonheur, Vigee Le Brun or Berthe Morisot.

This year Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts mounted a show called “Boston Loves Impressionism” based on a poll that asked more than 40,000 museum goers for their favorite Impressionist work out of 50 in the museum collection. The top pick was Van Gogh, who was not or ever was an Impressionist.

Polls. Polls. Polls. You love them, you hate them, you wish they’d go away, so why not put them in service of art, right? I’m not so sure. If polls are meant to raise art awareness, the question that goes unasked is, do they?