Media Push and Pull: Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker and the "Creepy Statue" Controversy (2014)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 25 June 2014 | Updated 26 November 2016
This article is co-partnered with Sculpture magazine, July/August 2014. The article was sent for hard-copy publication at the end of April 2014.
In my research, I specialize in art and artists interfacing with mass media. Artists like Hirst, Emin, Quinn, Koons, Tunick, and Gregor Schneider offer recognizable stories with mass media appeal, but Tony Matelli? I recently published an interview with Matelli (Sculpture, January/February 2014), but had never thought of him as a provocative “media artist.”
And yet this past February, after less than a week, the “creepy statue controversy” surrounding Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker as installed at Wellesley College near Boston had generated about 800 TV and radio broadcasts and more than 1267 articles, according to Nina Berger, media relations consultant for Wellesley’s Davis Museum. In parallel, at artdesigncafe.com, we compiled over 5000 samples, mainly via the Internet.
This sensationalized story raises several questions. What was the media result? What was its value? Was the coverage a strategic, PR-led media push, or a media pull, a compelling, journalism-led story?
According to what became the standard phrasing, Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker, a “remarkably lifelike sculpture sleepwalking in nothing but his underpants” in an “eyes closed, zombie-like trance” was placed outdoors “at a busy area of campus” at the “prestigious women’s school.” [The sculpture was installed as part of Matelli’s solo show at the college’s Davis Museum.] Soon after the work’s installation, a group of students launched a "petition" on <change.org> demanding its removal, as "the sculpture is a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.” As of 5 February 2014, the petition had collected 300 signatures.
The [sensational quotes above], which framed the story, come from an Associated Press (AP) wire release bearing the headline “Mass. College Man-in-Undies Sculpture Causes Stir.” This article was one of at least four AP wires that steamrolled through American media. AP offers its stories to about 1,400 U.S. daily newspaper members and thousands of TV/radio broadcast members, among other news outlets, both for hardcopy and Web usage. (In this case, we recorded more than 750 placements.) Interestingly, the Sleepwalker story was quickly bumped up from “odd news” to “big story,” and information about the exhibition was announced nationally. Images of the sculpture in the snow— perfect for news photo galleries and “photo of the day” features on Web sites— were also offered by AP, Getty, and Reuters, further driving the coverage.
Other news distributors followed suit with headlines like “Statue of near-naked man sparks ‘brief’ controversy” (Internet Broadcasting, more than 45 placements), “Realistic statue of man in underwear freaks out women’s college” (networked, Rick Couri-authored text, more than 40 placements), and “Naked Sleepwalker statue stirring controversy at college campus” (NBC News, more than 50 placements). Nationwide, more than 320 local TV affiliates of the four major TV networks published as many as four articles about Sleepwalker on their Web sites. News outlets in all 50 states carried the story. At the national level, almost every news outlet ran at least one report. In addition to the U.S., the story was reported in more than 90 other countries. As one can imagine, a social media frenzy accompanied the [mass-media performative mix].
Colorful headlines and opinion pieces of all stripes abounded, including “All-Female College Terrified by Creepy Underwear Man Statue” (gawker.com). A Time magazine writer slammed the protesters with “Man up, Wellesley: You’re a generation of sheltered children.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Wellesley College President H. Kim Bottomly slammed back, “None of them have any need to man up, and I hope and trust, for women’s sake, that none of them will ever shut up.” Andrea Peyser in the New York Post gave the following advice: “Girls, relax.”
Later news stories reported that the sculpture now had its own Twitter and Facebook accounts. Tony Matelli spoke out defending Sleepwalker, and Bottomly announced that “after weighing many perspectives,” the sculpture would stay, and “we must do everything we can to support those students who find themselves deeply affected by it” (Boston.com). This decision produced more news coverage, but by then the volume had peaked, and coverage began to trickle out.
The story was reported through diverse news categories, from strange news to arts and entertainment, style, celebrity, big story, trending, and national/world. Equally diverse were the kinds of publications running it, including outlets for arts news, political outlets, PerezHilton.com, Time magazine, and university news outlets— the student-run Wellesley News featured a particularly lively discussion. On U.S. and Canadian radio, Sleepwalker was consumed across formats, including news/talk, soul, country, pop, and rock.
Any press is not necessarily good press. Assessing “tonality” is a key element, and content analysis is necessary. Les Roka, a journalism researcher who examined key sample texts, says, “Overall, Wellesley and Matelli hit a grand slam. On the surface, yes, some phrasing is not ideal. But that’s the price one pays to interest the media and public at this level. In the end, people will remember an interesting sculpture that prompted a public, open debate. It also helps to keep Wellesley College on the radar as an interesting school.”
The story, of course, raised the general visibility of the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, and Tony Matelli. Roka went on to evaluate the impact in six U.S. media markets: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Utah, Ohio, New York City, and Boston. Based on the <artdesigncafe.com> compilation (and assuming text placement on the Web equates to TV/radio broadcast and hardcopy publication), he conservatively estimates at least 39.2 million media impressions, meaning eyeballs in front of a text or broadcast. “If the museum were more of a standard national attraction, this could potentially mean 140,000 additional visits per year,” Roka explains. “If spending were $20 each, that’s $2.8 million from visitors, members, or tourists.” As of February 18, the Davis Museum reported a fivefold increase in attendance (first weekend, 270 per day), but admission is free.
Nina Berger also reports an increase in Web traffic on the museum’s site, which peaked at 10 times more visits than usual (6,300 page views[/day]) before settling in at three times more than average. We located numerous outgoing links in on-line articles on top-powered news sites. Many go to Tony Matelli’s Web site and to that of Wellesley College. Internet marketers dream of these kinds of results because they competitively lift a site’s Google search rankings.
Both Tony Matelli and Nina Berger say they were completely surprised by the full-on media reaction, as well as by the social media onslaught. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming,” says Berger. “I know I didn’t. We did think Sleepwalker was newsworthy— and had invited a photographer from the Boston Globe to shoot the installation— but we had no idea how it would take off. The Globe ran a photo of Matelli’s Josh sculpture the next day [February 4], not Sleepwalker.”
The media frenzy didn’t begin until after word of the student petition started to spread— and Sleepwalker photographed vulnerably in the snow helped. Boston TV and newspapers were the first networked outlets to break the story, which quickly led to text, photos, and broadcast footage for national and international distribution. However, it was a local blog, The Swellesley Report, that first saw Sleepwalker’s media appeal on February 3, [and later announced] the student petition and the sculpture’s social media accounts.
Reflecting on the media frenzy two months later, Tony Matelli said, “I think it’s bizarre. The attention it received was so out of left field, so irrelevant to the work. So, I’m mystified by it really. It was fascinating just to watch it happen. It’s like watching yourself in a movie, like I was viewing all this as a third person.” Has he been able to capitalize on the media attention? “Not yet,” he says. “The art world moves slowly, it seems, especially when something like this happens.”
Tony Matelli. Sleepwalker (2014). Installed at Wellesley College (2014). Overall: 70 in. x 48 in. x 26 in. Courtesy of Tony Matelli and Marlborough Chelsea. Photo: J. Kennard.
Click the following link to read more articles in our summer 2014 articles focus: 5000+ articles, 800 TV broadcasts, one cultural event. But how did this happen?: Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker at Wellesley College (2014).