By VERA HALLER
For years, Gabrielle Watson kept her art to herself. She painted large, expressionistic oil portraits of friends and relatives in her Crown Heights apartment when she wasn't at her day job as a lawyer. Some of her friends didn't even know about her art habit.
That changed in September when Ms. Watson, who is 31, "came out" as an artist by participating in "GO," an open-studio weekend organized by the Brooklyn Museum, during which artists of every level across the borough welcomed the public into their work spaces. Now her paintings hang in the museum as part the group exhibit that is the culmination of that "community-curated" weekend. For some artists, it has meant unexpected and welcome recognition. But others are unhappy that the public has been given a role in deciding what art will be displayed in a major American museum.
Created by Sharon Matt Atkins, the museum's managing curator of exhibitions, and Shelley Bernstein, its chief of technology, "GO" was modeled after ArtPrize, the annual event in Grand Rapids, Mich., where artists compete for cash prizes during a similar open-studio weekend. The idea, they say, was to connect Brooklyn's leading art institution to the thousands of artists working there, and to invite residents to engage the artists in their neighborhoods. Let people vote on what they like and then bring that art to the museum.
"We wanted to force people to see a selection, make a judgment, choose from a list and pick only from those they saw," said Ms. Bernstein. "It was carefully designed so people were not judging by looking at art work on the Internet and then pushing a 'like' button."
During the open-studio weekend in September, visitors nominated their favorites among 1,708 participating artists. Museum curators then whittled the top 10 vote-getters to five, including Ms. Watson, and put their work on display at the museum through Feb. 24. By most accounts, the weekend was a success. Ms. Bernstein said artists in 44 of Brooklyn's 67 neighborhoods took part, and some 18,000 people visited studios for a total of 147,000 individual studio visits. Voters had to show that they'd visited at least five studios, and the voting process was delayed for a few days so they had time to think about their choices.
"It's nice to have a show at the Brooklyn Museum, but I got more encouragement and love in the studio from strangers," said Naomi Safran-Hon, whose multidimensional paintings, which combine incongruous elements like concrete and lace, were chosen for the show. "We had conversations. They gave their own associations. You rarely get feedback like that."
The five winners could all benefit from such feedback. Ms. Watson is self-taught and a newcomer to the scene. Adrian Coleman, a 28-year-old architect, borrowed a friend's basement in Fort Greene to show his work during the studio weekend because he paints in his apartment. He said he had "zero expectations" about winning a place in the museum show. "It a public statement that my painting is really important to me and I want people to know it," he said.
More established is Ms. Safran-Hon, of Prospect Heights, who studied art at Yale University and who is represented by a gallery. The other two artists are Oliver Jeffers, a children's book illustrator and painter from Boerum Hill, and Yeon Ji Yoo, a sculptor and painter based in Red Hook.
Despite positive reviews for the studio visits, though, some critics said making the event a competition was like staging "American Idol" in the art world, and questioned the decision to build an exhibit around the opinions of non-experts. In an online forum on the project's website, one anonymous poster asked, "I wonder how the museum is going to explain the possible lack of quality work that could win and will be exhibited under these circumstances?"
Deborah Brown, an established painter with gallery representation and a studio in Bushwick, participated in the open-studio weekend and said she appreciated that the Brooklyn Museum was acknowledging "the great creative presence" in the borough. But, as a curator who operates the Storefront Bushwick gallery, she had her reservations about the voting process.
"Where I think they ran into murkier territory is the curation part of it for the show at the museum, which was obviously the hook to get artists to participate," she said. "The outcome of that was predictable, that it would be mediocre and that it would not be a good representation of the best art that's being done in Brooklyn."
Ms. Brown said art institutions and gallery owners have a responsibility to identify good art. "I'm going to put the best art work I can out there, and I think that's what they should do," she said.
For their part, Ms. Bernstein and Ms. Atkins said they'd accomplished their goal of bridging the gap between the art community and the public. Responding to the criticism, Ms. Atkins said the museum played an important role in the curation of the exhibit by making the final call in which artists would be shown. "GO," she said, was a representation of the artists who participated in the project, not necessarily an arbiter of all the art in Brooklyn. The museum has not decided whether the show will be repeated.
Ms. Bernstein said that crowd-sourced projects had a place in the museum's wide range of initiatives to engage the community, but she stressed that it was just one small thing that the museum does. "We do 20 exhibitions a year that are completely curator-selected," she said, adding that "GO" is not mounted in a prominent museum gallery, but rather in a smaller exhibit space on the second floor overlooking the main lobby.
Nevertheless, Ms. Safran-Hon, the artist, said New Yorkers should appreciate the democracy of the exhibit, even in the context of fine art. "In the art world, I always get judged and rejected and accepted but it's usually done by my teachers, artists above me and curators," she said. "Here was an opportunity where the judges were the public and sometimes you don't know where it will go. It's a different thing and we have to respect that. [The museum] could never get out of it with everybody satisfied."
A version of this article appeared February 6, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Brooklyn Museum Tests A Crowd-Sourced Model.