Curating 101. The Dos and Do Nots

This session at UOW I took a class all about curating. The class – creatively named Curatorial Practices – taught the basics on how to curate art and museum exhibitions in relation to contemporary society.

At the end of our 13 weeks of examining gallery space and considering the audience, we were tasked for our final assessment with producing an exhibition as close to professional standard as possible. Everything from exhibition concept to catalogue production.

Now to you naïve young upstarts this task might seem easy.

“Oh all you have to do is like hang up some paintings right?”

“So it’s just like you have to decorate a hallway. That’s pretty easy”

But us seasoned curatorial student veterans knew better than to underestimate the task ahead.

Artist’s impression of curators off to plan an exhibition

If you’ve ever been to a museum or gallery exhibition (and if you’re old enough to read this you really should have) you’ve probably overlooked the MASSIVE amount of behind the scenes work that contributes to a successful exhibit.

Looking back on our experience there’s a lot we did well, but just as much that we could have improved. If you’re of a creative inclination you might one day find yourself also holding an exhibition yourself. To help you on your curatorial adventure below is a neat little guide on what to do, and what not to do when curating an art show.

Do – Have a well-defined exhibition concept

The first thing our class decided on was the concept of our exhibition. Before you can do anything else you have to work out what exactly your show is about. Rather than come up with a concept at random, we worked backwards. Most of our class are visual arts majors and therefore already had significant portfolios of work to exhibit. Comparing our work allowed us to find common themes that lead us to our final exhibition concept and title – A Body of Work. Our concept – the ‘body’ – was specific yet broad enough to be applied to all the artwork on show. For us, starting with the artwork to define our exhibition worked extremely well.

A specific yet broad concept. On the left an artwork examining ‘body’. On the right, also an artwork examining ‘body’.

Do Not – Forget to consider your audience

Forgetting to think about the audience was easily the biggest error during our exhibition. Your audience is the most important aspect of your exhibition! They’re the whole reason (presumably) you’re hosting an exhibition! Having now put one exhibition together, I would almost suggest that any future projects have a designated team member just for the purpose of thinking from the audience perspective. There are multiple elements that need to be considered from audience perspective when planning your exhibit.

What kind of audience will this exhibit attract?

How will the audience walk through the gallery space?

How long will it take the average audience member to view the exhibition? Will they need somewhere to sit and rest throughout?

Is the written collateral for the exhibition clear? Would someone without an art education understand it?

A major reason for why our team forgot to think about our audience perhaps comes down to the majority of us being art students, and being used to presenting artwork to an audience already highly educated in the arts. In most exhibition circumstances, this is unlikely. It’s very easy to distance yourself from the audience when curating an exhibition. However if you want your exhibition to be a success, you must embrace your audience.

Engage your audience. Consider displaying artwork they can touch, pick up or interact with.

Do – Set specific tasks for team members

There’s a lot of different tasks involved in putting together an exhibition. Curating. Publicising. Installing. Designing. Fetching coffee (very important). In our experience we found it best to assign everyone roles early in the project so they knew what tasks to achieve. To get a general idea of what roles you might need we found it helpful to look at curating guides set up by galleries. This guide from Museums Victoria was particularly helpful, as was this one by the University of Maryland. Having set roles (and therefore set tasks) for everyone makes putting together your exhibition much more efficient as there is less confusion as to who is doing what and the workload is shared. Putting together an exhibition is essentially a large group project after all, and we all know how the workload can be split in those…

Do – research your role

I volunteered to work as the publicist for our exhibition. Having done a bit of journalism and PR work incidentally during university I felt I had a basic grasp on the role. Treating this like any other assignment however, I thought it’d be a sensible idea to actually research what being an exhibition publicist entails. So like most people born after 1990 I googled it. A blunt approach but effective; the search results included a host of job listings for gallery publicists that essentially spelled out what kind of jobs I’d have to achieve. Without this research I might not have known to write a media release, or to write a brief on possible publicising routes. Researching my role, just as everyone researched theirs, undoubtedly improved the quality of exhibition materials produced.

Do Not – Forget to communicate with your team

It’s here that I’d like to mention a disclaimer. Just because you’ve been assigned a set role and tasks does not mean you should forget about the rest of your exhibition team. On several occasions our group erred due to lack of communication. The biggest mistake we made was relying far too heavily on online communication, rather than face-to-face. This meant some of our exhibition labels weren’t collated in time, there were mistakes on labels and no one really checked the wall text (which we agreed in hindsight needed revision). It also meant that all our audience feedback, vital for gauging how what people thought of our show, went missing as everyone thought someone else was collecting it. This lack of communication meant we were too absorbed in our own roles and were often unaware of the help or input other team members might need.

Be like Jason. Communicate with your team

Do Not – Leave object layout until the day of install

Another issue that arose from lack of communication was how the artworks should be arranged in the gallery space. Although we’d seen photos of each artwork being exhibited, we overlooked the importance of viewing them physically in comparison to one another. On the day of install so much time was taken up just deciding how to arrange the artworks. This is easily something that could have been previously decided prior to the day. Post-exhibition discussions included how we could have used photos of the images to create mock up arrangements, but I believe that the mixture of two-dimensional and three-dimensional works would require us to physically arrange the works in the gallery space regardless. To be fair an attempt was made to examine the gallery space and how the works would fit in it during the week before the exhibition. Without the artworks to move around in the space however not much could be achieved. Better examination of the gallery space and how the works fit in it are simple steps that could be achieved in planning future exhibitions.

Our very high-tech, last-minute artwork arrangement strategy.

Do – know how to install artworks

Thankfully the excess of time spent deciding how to install was quickly made up when we went to physically hang the works. Most of our team were familiar with the basics of art installation and this made a significant difference to the install time. Initially hanging a painting might seem like it will take 2 minutes. All you need to do is hammer a couple of nails in and you’re done right? In reality there are a host of considerations to make. The work needs to be level. It needs to be hanging the appropriate (usually 150cm) distance from the ground. It needs to be centred in its space. Having an install team who knows all these basic rules and techniques (like our team) is a massive bonus for anyone planning an exhibition.

Install takes longer than you’d think. This actually took her 5 hours to hang straight.

Do – form relationships with your artists

The amount of time spent on picking the object layout came in part from disagreement between the artists submitting their work for show, and the team members curating and designing the exhibit. There was the idea from the designer to arrange all the artworks together on the one wall, comparable to how you would make a scrapbook page. The artists however were reluctant to have their works hung this way, feeling it would detract from the individuality of each piece. There was similar debate when it came time to hang the artist statements. Forming relationships with the artists you’re exhibiting means the work is being shown with input from the creator. Not everything the artist say has to be adhered to; it’s a two way relationship and curators can give valuable external perspective.

These are great but could you do 100 more?

Do – Think like a curator, not an artist

The final piece of advice I’d give to aspiring curators is to not forget that you’re a curator, not an artist. This can be difficult is you’re hosting an exhibition of your own work, as we were with our exhibition. What I mean by this is that when you think like an artist, you think about your own artwork. How it fits in the gallery space, how it challenges conventions, how you want the audience to view it. As a curator you have to think on a bigger scale.

How do all the artworks fit in the gallery space?

How will this exhibit challenge itself?

How will the audience react?

Your role as a curator is to create an overall sense of harmony between the works on show. Our group found this difficult. For all of us who study visual arts concurrently, we seemed to forget to take off our artist berets and put on our curator hats. If like us you’re curating your own artwork in a group show, try to switch responsibility for your artwork with another team member. This helps to remove the concern for one artwork so that you can perceive the exhibition as a whole.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s