The Museum of Pizza Owes Its Artists an Apology
Installation view of The Museum of Pizza. Photo by Ryan Muir. Courtesy of The Museum of Pizza.
A few months ago I found myself with several colleagues in a yolk-yellow space in Lower Manhattan called the Egg House. Riding on the coattails of other food-oriented selfie-destinations—the Museum of Ice Cream prince among them—the Egg House offered, for $18, the opportunity to awkwardly engage with a series of egg-related props. There was a giant egg crate that could lovingly cup several humans in its interior. Spatulas dangled from the ceiling. Everything was bright, with colors keyed to pop on Instagram. Tourists wandered around, dutifully finding something photographable about an experience that, to me, felt deeply depressing.
Confronting the meaning of these commercially driven, whimsically themed “institutions” has become something of a rite of passage. They’re everywhere, and they’re expensive (the most recent edition of 29Rooms, Refinery29’s branded, selfie-driven experience, cost $39.99 for entry). In my mind, the bulk of the problem is a semantic one—ignore the rampant overuse of the word “museum,” and there’s little to worry about here. Young culture vultures aren’t agonizing over how to spread their limited funds between the Whitney or the Guggenheim and the Ultimate Amazing Pop-Up Museum of Gummy Vitamins.
So I had mixed feelings, to say the least, when I began receiving press notices about a Museum of Pizza (MoPi) due to arrive in New York City in the fall. Based on its cheeky branding, my initial suspicion was that MoPi might be a selfie museum in slightly hipper clothing, or, more generously, something akin to the Museum of Sex, an oddly lovable institution that boasts a “breast-themed Bouncy Castle” and sells dildos in its gift shop, but also manages to put on stellar, rigorous exhibitions—like a recently opened survey of Leonor Fini. Either way, I kept my hopes for MoPi high. (Spoiler alert: They would soon be flattened quicker than a lump of dough destined for the oven.)
Exterior view of The Museum of Pizza. Photo by Ryan Muir. Courtesy of The Museum of Pizza.
The Museum of Pizza, on view through November 18th, is located in the William Vale, a luxury hotel in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Admission is a staggering $35, which includes a slice. The project is produced by Nameless Network, which is responsible for popular, punchy videos on a wide range of topics: tattoos, wiener-dog races, the morning-after pill. They command a lot of eyeballs: around 300 million a month (“that’s the size of the U.S. population,” the company’s chief content officer, Alexandra Serio, reminded me during a conversation in advance of the opening). MoPi is “the first translation of the Nameless brand into an IRL experience,” Serio added, “bringing a knowledge and discovery approach” familiar from its online content into a physical space.
Serio is evangelical in her enthusiasm for all things pizza (some of her favorite local spots include Prince Street Pizza in Nolita and Williamsburg Pizza, the latter of which is providing pies for MoPi). “Pizza is incredible,” she told me. “It requires no explanation. Everyone loves it. The best thing about pizza is it’s a genre food, meaning the pizza in Japan looks different from the pizza you find in New York City. There’s a pizzeria on Antarctica, if you can believe it. There’s room for all different kinds.”
The team had been practicing what it preached during the lead-up to MoPi’s launch. “I’ve been eating pizza about five times a week,” Nameless CEO Kareem Rahma told me. (Favorite spot: L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.) “Sometimes, there are days when I’ve literally had it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m not exaggerating at all. It just feels normal now.”
MoPi, Serio said, was inspired by regional children’s museums, specifically their “tactileness”—the ability to “put yourself in the picture frame” and become “part of the story.” Nameless “really took the approach of a true museum” when conceiving of the project, she said.
This all sounded great. And what set MoPi apart from its food-related peers—at least in theory—was the roster of artists who had signed on to be involved. This was the only reason I felt inclined to write about MoPi: the chance that it might be an improvement on the soulless, pop-up selfie-mills that have come to define American life in 2018.
Installation view of The Museum of Pizza. Courtesy of Scott Indrisek.
RJ Supa, one of the founders of the terrific Lower East Side gallery Yours Mine & Ours, had been commissioned to curate an exhibition within the museum. “I was interested in using something so populist as an entry point to good, real contemporary art,” Supa explained via email, before the opening. (“Also, I love pizza,” he added.) Adam Green, formerly of the anti-folk duo the Moldy Peaches, was contributing a sculptural environment. The irreverent Devin Troy Strother was meant to build a pizza-related zine reading room, which ultimately didn’t end up in the final install.
Which brings us to last Friday evening, when MoPi was about to fling open its doors to advance visitors. The first sign of disaster came with an email announcing the project’s extended hours, along with a subtle mention of “official partners,” none of whom had been disclosed in advance. (Keep in mind that at this point, MoPi had already been previewed widely, by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post.)
The press release’s descriptions of these sponsored rooms within MoPi read like something plucked from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which depicts a future in which the calendar years have been renamed for products: Year of the Whopper, Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad. At MoPi, there would be a “Pizzascapes Playground,” courtesy of DiGiorno. Seamless would invite visitors to share their most “saucy secret.” Artist Pinky Weber would unveil a mural to celebrate the joy of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. “Crispy, delicious” Totino’s Pizza Rolls were also throwing themselves atop this late-capitalist pyre. I devoured this last-minute news blast with disbelief. Maybe this was postmodern satire? Maybe someone had been hacked?
Then it was Pizza Time.
MoPi is front-loaded with a veneer of respectability that is slowly skinned away as one progresses through the environment. The pop-up opens with a small room dedicated to the pizza box collection of Scott Wiener, described by Serio as a “pizza historian.” The boxes are presented lid-first, behind plexiglass, with the solemnity of art objects. There are boxes from Joe’s Pizza, Mystic Pizza, Flying Pie, and Big Mario’s, the latter of which features a grainy black-and-white photo, presumably of Big Mario himself, looking like he’s headed to either Studio 54 or a porn set.
The next room sports a video projection across two walls, with Wiener acting as the guide to pizza across the ages. It’s busy and hyperactive, popping with graphics and factoids and notable dates (“2015: Pizza Rat breaks the Internet”). While it was quite hard to hear the narration over the buzz of the opening crowd, it’s difficult to imagine many visitors actually trying to gain an education here; the installation’s environment certainly doesn’t encourage lingering. Despite MoPi’s pretense at being a space of “knowledge and discovery” for pizza, this is the sole element of the project that makes any attempt at either.
Installation view of The Museum of Pizza. Photo courtesy of Scott Indrisek.
Next up is the “Psychedelic Pizza Parlor,” Supa’s curated component. I was greeted by a vitrine bearing a guitar—painted with a pizza motif—by Andrew W.K. An entire wall of the booth is covered with a mural by Katherine Aungier in the sort of faux-rock pattern that was meant, as Supa told me, to “recreate the feel of an old Italian restaurant.” Other works are hung atop the mural, including an animation with a pizza protagonist by digital artist Jeremy Couillard. Supa has also included mixed-media sculpture by Adam Parker Smith; a soft sculpture by Hein Koh; a series of drawings–on–pizza boxes by Paul McMahon; and additional works by Siebren Versteeg, April Childers, and others. Perhaps the most effective piece on view—in terms of how it engages with the theme, but in a more skewed way—is a video by Søren Dahlgaard, which captures various people sitting stoically while enormous gobs of dough slowly ooze over their heads.
I’m not going to dwell too much on “Psychedelic Pizza Parlor” for the simple reason that I respect the individuals involved. Supa is a savvy gallerist with a great eye; the artists whose work is on view are weird and talented, serious without taking themselves too seriously. Branded events incorporating contemporary art are, of course, nothing new—and they can certainly be organized with tact and finesse. MoPi, unfortunately, ends up being a master class in what to avoid.
Past the exhibition zone, there’s a black-light space that’s basically an empty area meant for selfies. Colored tape on the walls provides a bare minimum of decoration. There are stacks of pizza boxes for props. People were, indeed, mugging with the boxes in front of a wall that proclaims “The Future is Pizza.” (It used to be “female,” but who’s keeping score?) From here, I entered the “Cheese Cave,” evidently modeled on a grotto in Lebanon. Fabric tendrils that drip from the ceiling are meant to mimic lactic goo. It looks like something Ernesto Neto might accomplish with $200 on a dull afternoon.
From here on out, I should warn you, MoPi becomes a very dark place.
Adam Parker Smith, 2 the 9s, 2018, part of the “Psychedelic Pizza Parlor” exhibition at the Museum of Pizza. Courtesy of Scott Indrisek.
Disgorged from the cave, I landed on the astroturf floor of a large booth given over to one of the museum’s corporate sponsors, the frozen-pizza brand DiGiorno. There’s a tube that kids are meant to crawl through, branded extravagantly with the DiGiorno logo. “Share your joy,” a huge wall text commands, with the relevant information to share such joy on social media: “@digiorno | #Pizzascapes.” An enormous photo-collage depicts a group of people in a park, running laps around a spaceship-sized DiGiorno pie that has landed on the grass. In front of this backdrop, there’s a red seesaw (covered with two DiGiorno logos) upon which you’re meant to express your joy.
Wend your way toward the back end of MoPi and things get even more dire. An enormous sculpture of a Totino’s pizza roll with wings looms in one corner. A wall label—all of the branded commissions are labeled in the exact same way as the art projects—credits the work to an artist named Pete Zarroll. (Say that out loud. Ha. Ha.) The sculpture is called Pizza Heaven. You stand on a small stack of fake pepperoni slices and stick your head inside a mirrored box that features more small Totino’s pizza rolls flying around, like angels. The work basically rips off a conceit explored by John Riepenhoff—who, perhaps not coincidentally, was included in the 2013 exhibition “Pizza Time!” at Marlborough Contemporary, a sort of spiritual precursor to MoPi’s artistic elements.
There are a few decent installations at MoPi—Adam Green’s Pizza Beach is goofy fun, and a room by Emma Stern and Signe Pierce is high-tech and trippy. But I can’t help but feel that the real ambition of MoPi is to cast you, the visitor, as the protagonist in a story about mass-produced food brands. This would be offensive, albeit predictable, if the pop-up was free. At $35, it’s unconscionable.
Installation view of a sculpture depicting a Totino’s Pizza Roll at the Museum of Pizza. Courtesy of Scott Indrisek.
Given that entry fee, I wondered, did Nameless anticipate anyone objecting to the percentage of heavily branded content present throughout the experience? Visitors “love the branded experiences because the branded experiences are really good,” Rahma told me via email, following the pop-up’s opening weekend. “We worked with all of the brand teams to bring MoPi-esque visions into the space.” And as to the artists who took part? “They all knew that brands were involved,” he wrote. “We were fully transparent. Most contemporary artists understand that projects of this size and scale require corporate support.” (I reached out to several artists for their feedback on the experience, but had not heard back by press time; Supa had not toured MoPi in person when we spoke.)
But to be fair, corporate support can take many forms. The Museum of Pizza concludes with a pizza parlor, credited to the brand Hidden Valley: “an immersive experience that highlights a rich (and creamy) collection of works inspired by Ranch culture.” At this point, the gloves are off. There’s a wall mural by Pinky Weber surmounted by a blinking neon sign advertising Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. There are bottles of the dressing on all the tables, with which you’re meant to douse the complimentary slices of pizza. There’s also a “confessional booth” produced by Seamless (answer six marketing questions, receive a $5 coupon). The experience is indeed immersive, in that it’s impossible to hide from. It completely invalidates any of the earnest efforts by the other artists involved with MoPi.
Here’s my very strong advice: Don’t just avoid the Museum of Pizza. Actively resist what the Museum of Pizza is, what it aspires to be, what it wants to normalize. Save your $35. Spend a bit of that on two slices at your favorite corner joint and donate the remaining $30 to a nonprofit—maybe the kind that’s working to subvert the complete and utter corporate takeover of daily life.
If not, then the future really is pizza. It’s a sad selfie beneath the Hidden Valley logo. It’s spending money to participate in a marketing poll for Seamless. It’s asking your four-year-old to inadvertently shill for DiGiorno frozen pizza. It’s being okay with debasing contemporary art for the sake of sponsorship dollars. It’s pretending that this is no big deal—fun, not serious, frivolous—rather than offensive. We deserve better than this soggy slice.