What Makes a Great Exhibition? (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine briefing)

Source Organization: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative


04/30/2008 - What makes a great art exhibition? The question might seem to invite a subjective response, but, for the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, it must be answered directly.

This project annually gathers panels of arts professionals to fund exhibitions “of high artistic merit”—a criterion that calls for more than an “I know what I like” reaction.

At stake are awards of up to $250,000 for exhibition implementation and up to $25,000 for exhibition planning, so, to the applicants, there’s nothing theoretical, abstract or academic about the question at all.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the project’s first sponsored exhibitions, and after a decade of funding innovative presentations, you’d think that the initiative knows all the possible answers to the question.

Nonetheless, the initiative asked it out loud to experts in curatorial work (who also have experience as gallery or museum directors, art historians or critics). They replied in 13 essays assembled as the book Questions of Practice: What Makes a Great Exhibition?

Most museum-goers expect to have pleasurable experiences and learn something from exhibitions, and while many curators would agree that these are desirable outcomes, they state the purpose differently. Exhibitions are the point “where artists, their work, the arts institutions and many different publics intersect,” notes Paula Marincola, the initiative’s director, in her introduction to the essays.

Have the visual arts entered a new “period?” Innovative exhibitions will tell you and explain the direction it is taking (like the “Armory Show” of modern art in New York City in 1913). What is the relation of art to our world? Creative exhibitions lay it right out there (like the Documenta shows, held every five years in Kassel, Germany). They offer new interpretations of the works and may even reposition the discussions of the visual arts.

Clearly, there is no standard template for creating an exhibition. Curators bring their own experiences and concepts to a new project, thus assuring great variations in the results. Budget, space, lenders and the institution’s mission add other variables. According to Marincola, Questions of Practice: What Makes a Great Exhibition? makes sense of individual approaches because it “clarifies and reflects on the structures, methods and conditions of exhibition practice.”

The anthology comes with a card— a bookmark—that contains questions which Marincola compiled “to give the reader a more comprehensive sense of the underlying conceptual structure of the book,” she says. “Some of them were actually posed to the writers, some are addressed to curatorial practice in a more general way.”

A sampling: What is the relationship between artist and curator, or the artist’s work and the curatorial premise? Must a great show always be a watershed production? Does great work guarantee a great show? Can an exhibition “overflowing with bad works” be anything but bad? How do curators plan shows for viewers of varying degrees of interest, tolerance and art knowledge?

And further: Given the inexhaustible range and types of exhibitions, can they be compared one to another? The alternative spaces which were created yesterday to display contemporary art (such as coffee houses, supermarkets, book stores, abandoned warehouses, factory buildings)—are they relevant today? The art world, like much else, is globalized; what can and should be said of the nature of international group shows?

Finally, exhibitions are presented for only a specific period of time and then are gone. Can they be made less transient through catalogues and, increasingly, Web sites? The Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative has its own response to this question, since it also provides resources for its shows to produce lasting documents of what happened. It is only fair to do the same for curators—to establish a record of their thinking and practice. Questions of Practice: What Makes a Great Exhibition? is the result.

The book is being used in classes— for instance, at Arcadia University and the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and the Pratt Institute, the University of Chicago and the California College of the Arts. And it has gone into a second printing.

Through the initiative’s Web site, www.philexin.org, you can access the University of Chicago Press, the book’s U.S. distributor, to order a copy. The Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative is a program of the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, funded by Pew and administered by the University of the Arts.

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