Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Draws 130K Visitors, up to 10K/Day


“A Subtlety,” Kara Walker’s project featuring a massive sugar-coated sphinx with exaggerated African-American features, surrounded by life-size human figures, drew 130,000 visitors during its nine-weeked run (May 10-July 6). The project was presented by New York public art organization Creative Time at the disused Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn, a structure slated for demolition to make way for new development, led by a firm helmed by Jed Walentas, who serves on Creative Time’s board.

Over 10,000 people visited on each of the show’s last two days, a Creative Time press rep told A.i.A. in an e-mail. Previous weekends were seeing 5,000 visitors daily, she added.

Conceived as a tribute to the slaves whose forced labor helped fuel the sugar industry, the show has been one of the most talked-about recent art projects in New York. Many observers have found it compelling and powerful. Yet tasteless images of visitors in cheeky poses with the sphinx generated indignation, giving rise to a June teach-in organized by people of color.

Compared to the Walker work’s weekly average of 16,250 visitors, Christian Marclay’s wildly popular 24-hour video The Clock drew 40,000 visitors during its month-long run at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2012-13, for an attendance rate of 10,000 per week. Also at MoMA, the installation Rain Room, by Random International, drew 6,700 visitors per week for 11 weeks, yielding 74,000 viewers; in that case, admission was limited to 10 at a time.

Doug Wheeler’s mind-bending infinity room at David Zwirner Gallery, SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 (2012), averaged about 1,400 visitors per week, the gallery told A.i.A. (Here as well, only limited numbers could enter at a time.) The show generated hours-long lines in the dead of winter. This reporter waited four hours to see the show.

Zwirner’s most recent show of Yayoi Kusama, whose infinity rooms generated countless self-portrait photos, averaged about 12,500 visitors per week, according to the gallery.

It has been, to say the least, an interesting year for discussions of blackness in art and film. Walker’s exhibition came two months after artist Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave won the best picture Oscar. Also hotly debated this year was a longstanding project by Joe Scanlan, in which the artist creates work under the fictional identity of a black female artist named Donnelle Woolford. He also hires performers to play Woolford. A Woolford performance was part of the recent biennial at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.