What Makes A Great Exhibition?

Edited by Paula Marincola, Director of the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative (PEI).

Essays by Glenn Adamson, Paola Antonelli, Carlos Basualdo, Iwona Blazwick, Lynne Cooke, Thelma Golden, Mary Jane Jacob, Jeffrey Kipnis, Paula Marincola, Detlef Mertins, Mark Nash, Ralph Rugoff, Ingrid Schaffner and Robert Storr.

Supposedly we don’t judge a book by its cover, and with this publication we should give its title the same respect. The Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative has continually challenged arts professionals to devise exhibitions of high artistic merit by posing them with this deceptively simple sounding question: What makes a great exhibition?

The dialogue surrounding exhibitions is invariably based on theme and content. Having recently evaluated MA curating courses, I was surprised to find that syllabi too usually focus on the conceptual development of exhibitions rather than the practical tools of creating them.

Seeking to provoke this reflection beyond their direct constituency, Marincola poses this question of ‘what makes a great exhibition’ to fourteen highly distinguished curators and leading professionals in the field in an attempt to uncover the instinctive considerations and processes that they have developed through experience. Marincola also seeks to illustrate how curatorial objectives collide with the reality of practicalities in exhibition making. Refreshingly, the editor realizes that as contemporary art exhibitions attract larger and more diverse audiences this is a debate that should be readily accessible. The book therefore allows a rare behind the scenes look at exhibition making for a readership that reaches beyond curating professionals.

Each contributor responds to the question from different perspectives and experiences. Ranging from past Documenta curators and Venice Biennale commissioners, to directors of some of the world’s most prestigious museums and influential galleries, the contributors have been responsible for an impressive canon of important exhibitions. Each of these exhibitions has been individually evaluated through official texts, publications, and events, as well as through the press and media. In this anthology however, Marincola asks the contributors to think about common denominators shared in the successes – or indeed failures – of these projects, how they are produced, and their concepts formed.

Marincola has outlined the expanded complexities of the publication title question in a series of leading sub questions. These relate to all elements of exhibition development and realisation, such as marrying exhibition concept with artist’s intentions; placing of works in relation to each other as well as the architectural framework; formal presentation and supporting text; catalogue and legacy; and the varying roles of and relationships between curator, institution and artist within these processes of decision making.

Outlined on the cover, Marincola reveals an expanded list of questions that she had posed to the contributors. Printed also on an inserted bookmark, the reader is prompted to continually refer back to these points of interest. Despite the authority of the essays, this transparency in the guiding questions of the publication allows the reader to participate in the dialogue and encourages us to create our own responses.

The breadth of the subject matter creates a dilemma for those attempting responses; the contributors’ styles vary considerably. Some answer in theory only, without relating to examples. This could run the risk of vague statements, sounding more like an instruction manual, the ‘how-to’ of curating. However, for example, Robert Storr’s thoroughness hits the nail on the head with each of his poignant statements, referring to issues that those working in the industry are all too familiar with. He highlights the curator’s pivotal role in balancing the pressures from artists, institutions, gallerists, and so on, as well as practical limitations of budget, space and those things outside of our control, whilst staying true to the original curatorial concept of the exhibition.

Others use media-specific examples to illustrate their answers. Mark Nash’s exploration of the difficulties of curating film and video (as opposed to programming), is in balanced contrast to Glenn Adamson’s discussion on craft, and Ingrid Schaffner composes an inspiringly in-depth investigation into the experiential impact of wall text and labeling.

Architectural space is an underlying issue throughout the anthology of essays. This is extended to place and locality as Iwona Blazwick reflects on a century of exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Balancing the influences of conflicting interests is another issue that surfaces throughout. Ralph Rugoff’s debate on group shows is particularly thought-provoking; posing the question of whether a group show of bad art can only be a bad show and whether it is possible to make a great show with only great art works. Carlos Basualdo’s criticism of the lack of critical context to influential biennials and megashows holds an interesting dialogue with Thelma Golden’s essay on the politics of ethnically specific exhibitions.

For me, the key highlights were the moments when the authors directly encapsulate their answer to the question – for example, Mark Nash’s poetic summary that ‘the notion of a series of emotional and intellectual encounters that are montaged to form an organised, thematic sequence is at the heart of every great exhibition and every great experience of an exhibition’.

The breadth of the publication title allows for practical as well as emotive and personal responses. The contributors’ texts are interesting insights into how they individually view their role in the creation of an exhibition, and act as introductions to much larger discussions. The further debate that it promises to lead to is enticing; no doubt Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative will continue to thrash out these questions that underpin exhibition-making in future publications and events. I look forward to following their developments.

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