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How Spotify playlists became the new exhibition audio guides

From Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Tate show playlist to the MFA Boston’s Basquiat and hip-hop soundtrack, music can have a profound effect on how we view art

This month, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston has two concurrent exhibitions with specially commissioned music playlists. While the playlist for Monet and Boston, compiled by the US pop musician Barrie, serves as complementary media—a sort of experimental musical impression of the Impressionist’s paintings—the playlist for Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation is such an integral element of the exhibition that it is played throughout the galleries.

“Obviously, any show as grounded in representing 1980s youth culture and early hip-hop culture as this one cried out for its own gallery underscoring,” says the Basquiat exhibition’s co-curator, Greg Tate, who compiled the playlist.

As well as songs that represent the period, by the likes of Michael Jackson, Run-DMC and The Clash, the playlist features “straight-up jazz choices”, Tate says. These tracks by musicians such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday “reflect the importance and prevalence of bebop and post-bop to Basquiat, the music that, by all reports, he played incessantly in his studio while working”.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Anthony Clarke (1985) is on show at the MFA Bosoton © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat; Artestar, New York

For MFA Boston, the use of playlists is a relatively recent one, becoming a “central component of exhibitions in 2018’s Gender Bending Fashion”, says a museum spokesperson. The exhibition charted a history of clothing that played with traditional gender roles and was soundtracked by songs such as David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and The Replacements’ Androgynous (with an opening line that was right on the nose: “Here comes Dick, he’s wearing a skirt”). Like many museums today, MFA Boston uses the Swedish streaming service Spotify, largely because it is easy to use, widely available and avoids the need to secure the rights to individual songs.

“[Playlists are] a question of trying to think through when music helps us tell the story in a richer way” Leah Dickerman, MoMA’s director of editorial and content strategy

One institution that has long been using playlists creatively is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The first Spotify playlist it commissioned was from the radio host and musicologist Terrance McKnight for a 2015 show of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. “McKnight put together a playlist that looked at how the story of the Great Migration was told in American music,” says Leah Dickerman, MoMA’s director of editorial and content strategy for its Creative Team. As well as all-out stompers such as Bessie Smith’s Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer, the playlist includes anti-segregation songs such as Joshua White’s Jim Crow Train and Billie Holiday’s harrowing Strange Fruit, about the lynching of Black Americans.

For its 2019 exhibition, Joan Miró: Birth of the World, MoMA enlisted the help of the Spanish artist’s grandson, Joan Punyet Miró. “Exploring the importance of music for Joan Miró helps us understand the poetic construction of his images,” Dickerman says. Punyet Miró matched paintings in the show with songs from his grandfather’s music collection, which he described as “the most eclectic record collection in Spain”. The playlist includes everything from traditional Catalan music to Vivaldi, Stockhausen and compositions by Miró’s friend, John Cage.

More recently, Dickinson invited the artist—and cartoonist for The Art Newspaper—Pablo Helguera to create a playlist for MoMA’s exhibition of South American abstract art, Sur Moderno. “When you discuss abstraction in Latin America, the parallel explorations in avant-garde music [are not often discussed],” Helguera says. His playlist includes the composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and Alberto Ginastera, who were revered at the time. Playlists are “not automatic for every show, but rather a question of trying to think through when music helps us tell the story in a richer way”, Dickerman says.

Installation view of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's exhibition at Tate Britain, which has an accompanying soundtrack compiled by the artist Photo: Tate (Seraphina Neville)

In the UK, Tate has been commissioning playlists for several years now, from complementary selections compiled by musicians including Cerys Matthews, to curated soundtracks, like the one made for its 2017 exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.

This month will mark the first time an artist has created a playlist specifically for her own exhibition at Tate. The British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has compiled a list that includes John Coltrane, James Brown, Nina Simone, Ebo Taylor and Prince for her mid-career survey at Tate Britain, titled Fly In League With The Night. Visitors can use their phones to scan a Spotify code at the entrance to listen to the playlist.

“Music, and in particular the modal jazz compositions of Miles Davis and Bill Evans, have had a profound influence on Lynette’s paintings,” says the show’s curator Andrea Schlieker. “So it seemed to make sense to offer viewers a more exciting alternative to the usual audio guide, one that transports the viewer/listener into the mood of the paintings.”