Upon entering The Sports Show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the viewer is greeted by a large screen playing a slapstick Buster Keaton silent film. As with many of the installations in this exhibit, you should stay and watch for a while—it charms when given enough time for appreciation.
The bulk of the show consists of still photographs—a few iconic, but many of no obvious historical importance. Most are astonishing in their beauty and are difficult to look away from. These images, such as the shot of mid-20th century high diver Bee Kyle making her 286th 100-foot dive into a five-foot tank, do what photographs should do: tell stories and inspire wonder. Several depict technical advancements in the art of photography. A series of images by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl highlights how her work at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games paved the way toward modern sports photography. She also sought to glorify the Arian body with her photos, which is one of the exhibit’s many examples of the role of politics in sports photography.
A few installations feel rough around the edges. My companions and I couldn’t get a putting simulator to work and the sounds of cheering fans coming from the speakers in one room pervade the entire exhibit, which gets distracting. Less noticeable but perhaps more significant, the “race” room seems unfinished because of its decidedly one-sided study. Only the controversial is depicted—Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos being suspended from the U.S. team for their black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and Dennis Rodman looking like Dennis Rodman. There are pictures of Jackie Robinson elsewhere in the exhibit, but nothing in this room depicts the pivotal role of sports in breaking racial barriers and forging bonds of camaraderie.
Small hiccups don’t diminish the impact of what is ultimately a gorgeous exhibit, however. The show is heavy on baseball and boxing, but visitors with an interest in other sports should find plenty look at. And any history or photography buff will be enthralled. But the most delightful surprise waits in the “spectacle” room near the end of the exhibit: a three-screen video installation called “The Upstate New York Olympics.” I can’t quite bring myself to call it art, or even sport, but it is genius. As with the Buster Keaton film, find a bench and make yourself comfortable.