The Museum of Broken Relationships Has Us Catching Feelings
It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s art.
Love hurts. In the isolation that comes with heartache, we can easily forget that our pain is a shared one. This confinement almost instantly melts away the second you step into the Museum of Broken Relationships, a curated installation of break-up shrapnel. Originated in Zagreb, Croatia by ex-couple Drazen Grubisic and Olinka Vistica, the gallery relies mostly on crowd-sourced artifacts from the heartbroken and heartfelt empathy from the patrons. We caught up with the museum’s assistant director Amanda Vandenberg to discuss creating an emotional roller coaster, how trinkets can bridge socioeconomic gaps, and why the dissolution of one relationship actually helps strengthen another.
Is this the exhibit’s first installation in the U.S.?
It’s our first with the exhibit, but it all started in 2006 as a traveling exhibition in Croatia. It was launched by an artist ex-couple who broke up and joked back and forth, “What do we do with all of this physical debris that’s left over from the end of our relationship?” They talked it over with family and friends, and the idea of an exhibition caught on. People started donating, and they opened their first permanent space in 2010.
What other locations have they launched in?
This is only the second permanent location that’s ever been established, but they’ve traveled to over 25 countries. Helsinki, San Francisco, South Korea–they always have so much on their calendar.
What attracted you to this project?
It’s the universality of the concept. A lot of people feel really ostracized from the art world. You look at fine art museums and feel like you have to come from a certain education or socioeconomic status to even have the vocabulary to talk about fine art. It’s really alienating, especially if you want to break into the arts. This is different. Everyone has the vocabulary to talk about a broken relationship, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is. You know the feeling, you know what it’s like, and you can identify. It’s a very democratic piece of conceptual art because everyone has the opportunity to donate. No matter what your background is, you have a story to tell, and we invite that.
How does your team go about finding these pieces?
It’s very word of mouth. When we first started doing pop-ups, we did events at Warby Parker, the Ace Hotel, Tenants of the Trees–places in L.A. that got heavy traffic. People would come check out the objects, and a real conversation was started. People read these stories and, especially with L.A. people who tend to be very performative, they say, “Okay, you think that’s bad, wait ’til you hear this.” Everyone almost wants to top each other. It’s through that word of mouth that we get a lot of donations. We were flooded through our first few months.
Can you walk us through the selection process?
We try to not get too invested in any one object until right before we open. There can’t be too much of any one category, and it needs to feel like it’s flowing seamlessly from one story to the next.
So you build out a narrative?
Yes. We start with the lighter stories and curate it to then get a little bit meatier, then very heavy–but we want you to leave on a high note. It’s important to curate, for lack of a better word, an emotional roller coaster. When you first walk into our space, you get the name of the object, the location that the relationship took place, the duration of the relationship, and the story. At the end of it, you’re looking back at the past relationships with hope, like, “I loved, I lost, but I’m better for it.” We don’t really have any parameters, so people take advantage of that freedom. Some of the stories are really short, some of them are lighthearted, some are pithy, some are tragic.
Have you ever curated a project with such an emotional message before?
I don’t think there’s any other exhibit out there so contextual. A lot of the objects are of little or no monetary value. They’re not something that you would immediately look at and know is important to someone. It’s a used tube of toothpaste, a battered frisbee, a pair of jeans. But they’re the sort of things that people hold on to, things they would save in a fire. Unlike most art exhibits where it’s the object that has so much worth, in our case, it’s the story that we’re curating around. That’s why we had a space designed that was so clean and welcoming. We want to elevate the objects and show them for their intrinsic worth.
Which broken relationship object has impacted you the most?
There’s a dress from Brooklyn from a girl who experienced the relationship when she was 14. When people read about a first love, they tend to be dismissive. They often say, “Well, what do you know? You’re so young; you had no idea what real relationships were,” and don’t take young love seriously. When she was 19, this girl wrote about a love from five years prior, this boy that she knew in the eighth grade. He was charming, unique, so rare, and she identified all of these things in him along with a lot of mental and emotional turmoil–though at 14, she didn’t have the vocabulary to comfort him. So the story is that he picked out this dress for her to wear, but the last time she saw him she had the dress in her backpack and didn’t bother to put it on. He took his life the next day. She regrets every day not having put on that dress. She tells her story so beautifully that it kind of jerks you back, and you realize that it doesn’t matter the age you were, you don’t need to be old or seasoned to know that a relationship can change the course of your life.
Do you have anything in your life that you feel represents a broken relationship of your own?
Alexis and I have both asked ourselves this. I think everyone does when they hear about the concept, you know, “What would you donate?” I’m currently engaged, and looking forward, I don’t have anything that I have emotional ties to. I read so many of these stories and see people paint things so cinematically that I’m not even sure that I could rise to the occasion.
Finally, what do you want people to take away from visiting your exhibit?
The complexity of the concept. I love when people come as dates because they walk through the exhibit and they seem to be drawn closer, as though they’re saying, “This isn’t going to be us.” I think that when people hear the title of the museum alone, there’s a lot of negativity. You think it’ll be depressing, you think, “Why would I want to go there unless I wanted to be depressed out of my mind?” That’s really not the case. It’s really uplifting to know that other people have hurt and other people have survived. I think it’s really helpful to go with someone you love and take away that you’re going to beat the odds.
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