The Museologist

Alternative Exhibitions

Posted in General by adevereux on March 4, 2010

I was thinking about how boring traditional tombstone exhibition labels can be.  Not always, but often.  But labels hold all the narrative power.  As easy as they are to skim or skip over, labels are the voice of an exhibition.  So I was thinking about some alternative label concepts, which would inevitably transform an exhibition.

1) WHY IS THIS BAD? Even the most renowned master painters produce(d) “bad” work.  They say late Renoir is bad Renoir, and Picasso’s Etreinte is definitely not one of his best.  Artists, art historians, and curators might be able to spot them, but probably not the casual museum visitor (ignoring the fact that they probably wouldn’t be on display in the first place).  So I want to see an exhibition of “bad” works, and I want the labels to tell my why they’re bad, whether it be the artistic technique, the subject matter, or some other factor.

2) WHAT’S IT WORTH? How about labels with nothing but the dollar value? It’d be an interesting commentary on the art market and blockbuster artist values.

I’ll think of some more.


“Attendance up, income down”

Posted in General by adevereux on February 27, 2010

Not to focus too, too  much on the intersection of museums and economy, but here is an interesting article from the Culture Monster section of the LA Times.

Art + Industry

Posted in General by adevereux on February 11, 2010

The words “art” and “museum” today are virtually inseparable from two others – “market” and “industry”, respectively.  Two facets of what we consider our cultural environment are, in fact, unabashedly pervasive in socio-economic spheres.

Case(s) in point: The Economist recently published  a special report on the art market entitled “Suspended Animation,” providing an in-debth analysis of collections values, auction house sales, and the soundness of arts investments; the MoCA in LA recently appointed as its new director the highly successful New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, ostensibly in hopes that his success in the business of art sales will translate to a more lucrative museum business; the museum director (typically the top-most authority of any museum) at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles must answer to the CEO and President of the J. Paul Getty Trust (now Barry Munitz).

This all became even more glaringly obvious with the recent record-breaking sale at Sotheby’s of Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture L’Homme Qui Marche, selling for just over $104 million.

In light of these recent events in the art world that have made it into the news, I’ve started to think more about the marriage of these terms “industry” and “market” to cultural institutions.  In theory it doesn’t seem like they should fit, but they do, and quite successfully.  And in fact, I’m glad when news from the art world is deemed “newsworthy” by those “outside” of it.  As long as we can maintain educational and “cultural” benefits (for lack of more concrete terms), I hope the art world stays as fashionable as it has become.  But is that possible? Is the educational component sacrificed by the prevalence of the big-name-game?

What’s your personal (museum) economy?

Posted in General by adevereux on February 2, 2010

In the most recent issue of the Austin-based contemporary art e-jounal … might be good, the letter from the editor asks readers: what is your personal economy? Geared towards artists, the question yielded answers that revealed how artists make ends meet and the (extra) measures they take to keep art a part of their lives, as a career or otherwise.

This inspired me to ask a similar question of museum-goers: what is your personal museum economy?  In other words, how, and to what degree, do museums make their way into the economies of your everyday lives?  More specifically, how much would you spend on admission to an exhibition? If admission is optional or you can choose your own price (ie the MET), what do you pay? How far would you travel to see an exhibition?  Do you save a portion of your spending money for visits to museums, galleries, or art shows?

Part of the motivation in asking this is to question how much the overlap of museum-going and personal economies shapes our image of museums and how we see ourselves in them.  A museum today might be considered by some a center of learning, but to others a major player in the tourist industry.  Visitors to museums may feel enlightened and stimulated by the materials on display, or perhaps they gain a sense of cultural consumerism.  Of course, these are all the most extreme possibilities, but where does the average museum-goer fall within the spectrum?

…might be good link:

Museums and Social Media

Posted in General by adevereux on January 22, 2010

In general, there are two schools of thought concerning the cultural and scholarly authority of museums.  The first argues that museums are empowered to tell stories that hold truth and that visitors will undergo a learning process made possible by the museum and its curators.  In essence, curators are the “holders of truth” and are to be trusted to tell the stories.  The second school of thought argues that curators hold one part of the truth, and that visiting a museum is not just a learning process but an experience.  A museum-goer adds to and expands the interpretation of the story.

The rising trend in museums, and the one I tend to agree with, is the second school of thought.  How to make a visit to a museum an experiential learning process, and one that gives credit and weight to the ideas and interpretations of the visitor, is difficult to determine.  However, after reading a recent article in the NY Times, I’ve been convinced that the web is one venue that allows the public to contribute to the curating process and to the discussion on issues raised by museums in their exhibitions in a way that does not undermine the role or expertise of the museum curator.

The way museums can use the web to forge successful collaborations with the public is to look at their websites not as virtual exhibition spaces, but as a form of social media.  The article writes, “While only a handful of museums have successfully harnessed Web users to develop their collections, social-media platforms are starting to foster new kinds of interactions between Web audiences and museum curators long accustomed to working only with other experts.”  In this way, the public is able to contribute new thoughts, ideas, interpretations, and responses to collection material in a way that is meaningful.  It also allows curators to gauge what material is relevant and important to their audiences.

Nevertheless, the curator gets the final word on what materials are included in an exhibition and the accompanying narrative.  But the sources available to a curator will expand beyond what has already been said by scholars, or the curator’s own interpretations, to those offered by the public:  “new-media advocates argue that Web participation can actually enhance the value of curatorial judgment. ‘Curators are starting to realize that they can be challenged by the audience’”.

A museum’s use of the web as social media in order to let the public to contribute to cultural and historical dialogue re-distributes the authority traditionally granted solely to the curator, but in a way that doesn’t compromise his/her skills, expertise, and judgement.


Posted in Curatorial, Exhibitions by adevereux on January 16, 2010

It’s been some time since the last entry, but since then I made a trip to Los Angeles and visited the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.  The exhibition displays works from the permanent collection dated from 1980 to present and goes in conjunction with MOCA Grand Avenue’s exhibition of their permanent collection from 1940-80.

At the Geffen exhibit, I noticed how much the label texts for each work made me more confused about the art than I would have been otherwise.  The labels texts were quotes pulled from the artist him/herself about the work or his/her wider philosophy.  Making sense of, or finding meaning in, a piece of wire sticking out of the wall is not always easy, and reading the artist’s thoughts on the work can make our own thoughts even more convoluted.

While the label format used in this Geffen exhibition isn’t the norm, it was a welcome alternative to the standard curator-written label text.  I definitely don’t believe the point in going to an art museum, or any museum for that matter, is to make sense of things, or to have a label tell you the meaning of a work of art.  I think confusion is a good thing if it means we come up with our own responses to art.  So, even though I didn’t gain much clarity of thought about all the pieces on display at the Geffen, I was happy to see a museum offer an alternative label format.

This visit to MOCA-Geffen made me think about other label formats I’ve seen or heard about that might be effective in promoting original ideas and thought in museums.  At many university museums, a curator might lay out questions or problems related to objects in the exhibit and have students do research and studies to answer those questions and generate a label.  For a Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, a wide variety of scholars from different backgrounds and areas of expertise wrote articles on the different works by Kahlo for the exhibition catalogue.  Then, instead of one or two curators writing the labels for the entire exhibit, quotations were pulled directly from the catalogue and used for the label text.

I’d like to hear about other ways museums have moved away from the standard label format, and what kind of effect these alternative methods have had on museum visitors.

Judging Exhibitions

Posted in Exhibitions, Texts by adevereux on December 23, 2009

I’ve recently been introduced to an exhibition interpretation/evaluation method called the Judging Exhibitions Framework tool.  It comes from Beverly Serrell’s book “Judging Exhibitions: A Framework for Assessing Excellence.”  In her book, she offers 4 criteria that are necessary for an “excellent” exhibition: it must be 1) Comfortable, 2) Engaging, 3) Reinforcing, and 4) Meaningful.  Ideally, the broad goal for educational museum exhibitions is free-choice learning on the part of the visitors.  The exhibition should get visitors to pay attention, spend time, become engaged, and be changed by the experience.

This peer review tool encourages professional museum practitioners to stand in a visitor’s shoes and evaluate a given exhibition.  The point of this tool is “to identify important characteristics of educational museum exhibitions and to assess the degree to which those traits are present in a given exhibition in a way that encourages and increase in those characteristics in future exhibitions.”

I question whether museum practitioners should be the ones conducting these evaluations.  Clearly, a museum professional does not represent the same mindset or knowledge of museum practices that a regular visitor to a museum would possess.  Also, I think the criteria are a bit obvious.  Is it comfortable: well does the gallery have benches to sit on? Is it engaging: does the material have any relevance to the everyday person? Is it reinforcing: does the exhibition make clear it’s message/narrative? Is it meaningful: see engaging.

Nonetheless, I think that these criteria are often missed in exhibitions.  It is not to say that curators should dumb down their shows, but too often an exhibit has no narrative, message, or relevance to an everyday audience.  I’d be interested in anyone’s comments on exhibitions that have met these criteria, or completely ignored them. Were these shows “excellent” under either circumstance or less than satisfying?

Turner Prize 2009

Posted in Architecture, Exhibitions by adevereux on December 18, 2009

Richard Wright won the 2009 Turner Prize on December 7th.  Other artists on the shortlist included Enrico David, Roger Hiorns, and Lucy Skaer.  This prize recognizes cutting edge contemporary art “with the intention of stimulating a lively exchange of opinions.”  Wright’s work incorporates the architecture for which the art is specifically made to create unique spaces and inspire unconventional perspectives.  Let’s see if these images stimulate “a lively exchange of opinions” in comments…

Museum Employment Opportunities

Posted in General by adevereux on December 16, 2009

Is there any hope of a career in the museum industry?  Already a field with limited job opportunities, the current economy has caused museums to cut jobs and reduce pay.  This became somewhat big news with strikes by employees at the Louvre and other museums in France undergoing job cuts.  There are some groups, such as one I recently found online called Museos Unite, for people who work in the museum industry to come together on a quasi-union platform.  But still, it is not a promising career path without graduate level education in either Museum Studies or Art History.  And even with those degrees, there are very few opportunities.  What I have noticed are many job postings for fundraising and capital campaigns.   Not much in the curatorial or administrative departments.  It seems that in the current economy, profit takes precedence over public programs.  And that reduces career opportunities in museums to a very small sector.

Collection Exhibit at MOCA

Posted in General by adevereux on December 16, 2009

What is the point of a major exhibition of a museum’s own permanent collection? I’m not saying it’s either good or bad, but I do wonder what reasons might be behind the current exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  Typically, a museum dedicates a percentage of its gallery space to its permanent collection and then puts on special exhibits based on some artist, theme, or narrative.  What is the narrative of this exhibit?  According to MOCA, the exhibit “reflects the museum’s early and ongoing commitment to bringing art of major historical significance and distinction to the public.”  So it’s a self-promoting exhibit.  I guess that’s interesting… I would probably go see the show.  But I don’t really know what I would get out of it.  I think I would take away a reaffirmation of the artist canon, but I’m not sure I would learn anything new or thought-provoking.