The Springfield Art Museum has been plagued with some serious security problems this summer. Last week, George Caleb Bingham’s Portrait of Fanny Smith Crenshaw went missing, transforming the painting’s location into a crime scene. This week, it’s Roger Shimomura’s Kansas Samurai. If cracking the case meant tracking down art thieves unloading their inventory on the black market, the authorities would be well equipped to handle the case. However, the museum suspects these disappearances are an inside job: paintings are coming to life and escaping their frames, breaking out from the inside. So they called in the experts: the Art Hunters.
Shane Beckworth and Brock Hansen are a pair of hard-as-nails art retrieval specialists and co-founders of The Art Hunters, an organization that specializes in art that comes to life. Every week, the duo tackle a new case featured on their online reality show, and enlist the aid of the show’s Art Hunter Reservist fans to track down the missing artwork and return it to the museum. During the show’s premiere episode, Reservists followed a series of clues scattered throughout the Springfield Art Museum that led them to the Maple Park Cemetery. At the cemetery, they discovered the real Fanny Smith Crenshaw’s tombstone, providing Beckworth and Hansen all the information they needed to convince Bingham’s portrait to return to her frame.
Art Hunters Online is an alternate reality game created by the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Missouri and red40 Entertainment. The project is set to run through July 17th, with six weeks of escaped art to keep the local community occupied over the summer. Weekly videos introduce the weekly case, informing Reservists where to go to find the missing artwork’s crime scene and its corresponding puzzle trail. By focusing on artwork that has deep significance to the city, the hunt can extend beyond the museum to locations across the city. Solving the puzzles along the way provides a special code that can be entered into the Art Hunters Online website to unlock the second half of the weekly video, depicting how Beckworth and Hansen recapture the escaped art.
It’s possible to follow along with Art Hunters Online without ever visiting the museum. The Art Hunters reality show delivers a hilarious parody of the format while sneaking in nuggets of educational information on how art is presented to the world. Art Hunters Online also offers weekly art challenges similar to PBS Digital Studios’ Art Assignment giving online Reservists the chance to help unlock short vignettes from the Art Hunters’ past. And the Art Hunters Online website includes a relatively simple social network that lets you interact with Beckworth and Hansen, or provide remote assistance to other players. But the heart of this project is its real-world component, and its ability to challenge the museum’s visitors to engage with art on a different level.
Every week, the Springfield Museum of Art is highlighting a piece of art that visitors are explicitly restricted from seeing. Visitors are allowed to see the space where the art used to hang. They’re encouraged to peruse evidence that provides them with an intimate relationship with the history and inspiration for the piece. They’re encouraged to leave the museum and visit a location of special relevance to the piece. Visitors are even offered the chance to go home and create their own art, inspired by a piece they have yet to experience personally. Art Hunters Online gives museum visitors the opportunity to experience artwork’s context before the content. And when they return the following week to finally experience the painting in person, the cycle begins anew.
Art Hunters Online is an ambitious re-imagining of the museum experience, celebrating high culture through the lens of its reality show, a format that is almost universally denigrated as one of our lowest forms of culture. Try and make it out to the Springfield Art Museum to experience the installation yourself before it ends on July 17th, and sign up to be an Art Hunter Reservist to follow along online.