How art gets generated.

Pedal Pushers: How Art Museums Are Promoting Bike Culture

Unknown Artist

Unknown Artist

In exhibitions and programs across the country, museums are devising new ways to showcase the exquisite mix of engineering, craftsmanship and style that moves us forward on two finely calibrated wheels.

Even for Portland, Oregon, it was the perfect storm: a major bike collection was opening at the Portland Art Museum while the city was hosting the World Naked Bike Ride.

And that’s how a thousand nearly naked people, who paid a discounted admission price of $1 for every item of clothing they wore, came to see “Cyclepedia: Iconic Bicycle Design,” a selection of 40 bikes owned by Vienna-based designer Michael Embacher, when it premiered at the museum early last month.

Only in Portland? Maybe just for now.

Aside from the nudity, the event resembles much of the bike-related programming art museums are developing these days: It showcases the bicycle as an object of design, as well as personal expression. It reaches out to non-traditional museum audiences. It rewards visitors for using alternative transportation. And it’s packing in the crowds. More than 20,000 people have visited the show already, says museum director Brian J. Ferriso. “Communicating that objects of great design are in our world every day opens up a door of accessibility that’s very important to an art museum,” he says.

With an assortment of racing bikes, mountain bikes, city bikes, children’s bikes, tandems, transport bikes, curiosities, and more (detailed in the book and app Cyclepedia), the Portland installation–which begins in 1925 with the Rétro-Direct, created by Cycles Hirondelle–chronicles the evolution of bike form and function over the decades. It shows how engineers pushed their machines to go faster, climb harder, carry more, navigate rougher terrain, or fold up into ever-more portable packages that can be stashed in car trunks or checked on airplanes.

In the museum lobby, meanwhile, the Bike of the Week series pays tribute to the highly evolved local bike culture with contributions from designers and collectors around Portland.

“Cyclepedia” also offers a spectrum of bike-related programming: bike tours, conversations about bikenomics and urban policy, film screenings, and chances for the public to show off bikes of their own. Slated for this weekend is the Bicycle Big Top and Rat Trap Circus, featuring a display of unorthodox and eccentric bicycles, performances by unicyclists and Flatland BMX riders, and maybe tall-bike jousting.

Until recently, if you saw a bike in an art museum, it was most likely mounted on a stool, à la Duchamp–or otherwise transformed from functional object to sculptural object by the likes of PicassoAi WeiweiJean Tinguely, or Willie Cole, to name a few.

Though motorcycles got their moment in the spotlight at the Guggenheim back in 1998, and autos are turning up in an increasing number of art-museum shows, the relatively unflashy bicycle was usually left behind in the storeroom.

But time, society, and environmental trends are on the bicycle’s side. Surrounded by ever-growing communities of bike lovers and bike sharers, art museums are finally beginning to explore the exquisite mix of engineering, craftsmanship, and style, that moves us forward on two finely calibrated wheels. The change is happening across the institution, from the curatorial and programming departments to the decision to get more bike racks (for visitors as well as staff) and to post bike directions on websites.

At bike nights, like the one happening tonight at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, or the event at the Hammer last May, throngs of visitors sample offerings like bike valet parking, bike safety tips, bike products, bike selfies, bike-related films and bands, displays of custom and rare bikes, and maybe even the art exhibitions.

Packs of bike riders come and go from art museums in events like the Tour de Queens, which begins and ends at the Queens Museum, and the Ladies Bike Ride earlier this month in Miami, which celebrated the Wolfsonian exhibition “Women in Motion: Fitness, Sport and the Female Figure.” Next week, on July 26, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University in East Lansing will help riders investigate “our perception of constructed and obstructed spaces” in a bike tour of local “Blind Fields.”

The Center for the Future of Museums, part of the American Alliance of Museums, has advised institutions to take note of this cultural shift—making sure bike share stations are nearby, for example, or assessing how reduced income from parking might affect the bottom line. Several museums, including LACMA and Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, have begun giving discounts to visitors who arrive on bikes.

So far just a handful of art museums have devoted entire shows to bicycles (though Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry just opened a long-term installation called “The Art of the Bicycle”). “Bike Rides: The Exhibition,” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2009, had a mix of functional bikes and bike-inspired art that ranged from vintage rides of the Brooklyn–based Puerto Rico Schwinn Club to the cast–bronze cycles of Subodh Gupta.

Then came “Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle,” at New York’s Museum of Arts & Design, featuring the creations of six cutting-edge bike builders. Sacha White, founder of Vanilla Bicycles in Portland, selected the objects with Michael Maharam–including  White’s 2006 Tricycle (also an upcoming “Cyclepedia” Bike of the Week), which features cherry wood/polished aluminum handlebar grips, wheels machined from a solid 10-inch billet of aluminum, and a stainless-steel front end blended from nearly 20 separate pieces.

The current show at the University of Iowa Museum of Art pushes the conversation forward, using the bike as a tool for youth development and social justice.  For “Anishnaabensag Biimskowebshkigewag (Native Kids Ride Bikes),” organized by Dylan A. T. Miner, indigenous and non-native students collaborated to construct a series of lowrider bicycles, guided by the sacred Anishinaabeg teachings known as Niizhwaaswi G’mishomisinaani, or Our Seven Grandfathers. (The exhibition travels next month to the Santa Fe Art Institute.)

The growing list of art-museum bike projects joins other efforts to link the art and bicycle worlds, ranging from David Byrne’s urban bike racks to Art Crank‘s itinerant events featuring bicycle-inspired posters created by local artists.

With its artisanal, ecological esthetic, tied in with the create-it-yourself sensibility of tattooing and piercing, biking is one trend in the general culture that artists are proud to follow, notes Tom Finkelpearl, Queens Museum director and avid cyclist.

“When I got to New York, artists didn’t get up until two,” he comments. “Now they drive their fixies to the Rockaways. It’s part of the lifestyle.”

Over the past few years the museum has hosted a series of bike-related projects including Ryan Humphrey‘s BMX-based Fast Forward; the Future Shock Bike Crew, who treat their bikes like mobile DJ booths; Miguel Luciano’s public-art project Pimp My Piragua, in which he rode a pimped-out shaved-ice cart through Corona, Queens; and Nils Norman’s bicycle-based environmental study center.

At MoMA, which owns two bicycles as well as related objects like racks and helmets, the staff has been thinking about bikes, both logistically and curatorially, says Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design. “Art museums that have design departments can really tackle bicycles full-speed and frontally,” she says. “It’s a phenomenon of social living that’s really exploding.

“Talking about the bike is a pretext into talking about how we live as citizens,” she adds. “It’s a world of possibilities.”

By Robin Cembalest,, 07/18/13

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