What The Games World Can Learn From The Whitney Museum

by Harold Goldberg

Today heralds the opening of one of the world’s great museums, the Whitney Museum of American Art‘s new home in downtown Manhattan. I attended the museum’s inaugural press event, roaming its wondrous halls and nooks and crannies for hours. It was all so glorious, I couldn’t help but feel I present was at the origin of something truly historic. Yet as I looked out upon Manhattan from the art-filled 8th Floor terrace, I couldn’t help but think about the world of games I love so much as well. Although I know these are two different worlds, here’s what the world of games might learn from the striking new world that is the Whitney Museum. (If you’re in the city, check out the museum’s free street party tomorrow, May 2.)

1) Honest Presentation: Renzo Piano is a 77 year old master architect, a superstar in that world. Though he is no young buck, he appeared ageless as he talked about the Whitney as a place for “freedom” and for “rebellion.” He still considers himself a “bad boy” of his industry. His tone was softly direct and never obnoxious, and as he spoke, he seemed young again. That soft-spoken tone wasn’t ever a brag and his body never had a swagger, and swagger is the costume a lot of well-known game developers don at conferences or an expo like E3. There was a depth everything Piano said, too.

Takeaway: You don’t need to act like an egotist to prove your point. Just choose the right words and point of view.

2) Short and Sweet: Each superstar of art had just a few minutes to thank everyone. And with just a phrase or a sentence, everyone was lauded, including the staff. Every game company honcho likes to thank people on the so-called “team.” But who is the team, really? Usually, the nods go to programmers, artists, maybe a writer. But when you even thank people who clean up your space, as they did at the Whitney, you’re really talking teamwork.

Takeaway: Everyone matters.

3) Facts, please: The Whitney’s executives were open about budgets, saying that the new building cost $785 million to construct. Such a revelation just about never happens in the game industry. It rarely happens in post-mortems at the Game Developers Conference, either. How much did the art department’s work cost in, say, Destiny? We’ll never know. Even release dates for games are zealously guarded. I’m really completely aghast at that kind of thing. It’s a release date, not secrets about your paramour.

Takeaway: Be open and transparent or you’ll lose your credibility.

4) Being Approachable: While you could see the pride in every official’s eye, everyone there seemed approachable, everyone from Renzo Piano to the art restorers. I’m sure that there were ups and downs along the way, but on this day, everyone came together to answer just about any question asked. There’s no game convention of which I know where an ardent, unknown writer can simply walk up to a big company’s president and ask a few thoughtful queries. At they Whitney, they could.

Takeaway: Drop the pretense. For a couple of days a year, make time for everyone who asks good, honest questions, even if it’s on Reddit.

5) The Presence of Michelle Obama – I fully realize that no video game event organizer is going to procure the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama as the Whitney did yesterday, not even if it’s for the opening of a national video game museum. But I’ve never heard about anyone, not even the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), even trying to bring in a top administration official to laud games. I do know the ESA brought in the Governor of Texas to E3 at one point a few years ago. But why not reach higher? If President Obama has a copy of The Witcher in his office, as he mentioned when he traveled to Poland, that’s already something the ESA has to begin the conversation

Takeaway: Aim high and keep trying.

6) Oh, the lighting. Every videogame artist and designer on earth should make the trek to the Whitney, just to see the way the light changes over downtown New York City and inside the museum as the hours pass. And the way the light moves over the Whitney’s outdoor spaces is nothing less than magical. That itself is a lesson in art that you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

Takeaway: You can take your team around the world for in-the-field game environments. But at the Whitney, and at many other great museums, you just may garner more inspiration.

Harold Goldberg, the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture) is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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