Monday, April 29, 2013

Themed Exhibitions of Art: to create order or not.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Themed Exhibitions: cohesion or cop out
By: Kurt von Behrmann

                Order is a desired state.  When chaos rears its head, most would be quick to seek organization.  Art exhibitions operates much the same way.  Art is not always created with the idea of cohesion.  Creativity can be a curator’s nightmare.   It sometimes follows a snaking path. It may not be mindful of what makes an exhibition a fluid experience. When guiding eyes are missing, the results can be confusion to view and difficult for viewers to digest.

                Under the guidance of a curator, artists chosen for display are selected based on quality of work, or some unique vision.  Pairing artists with each other is based on how well the respective artists’ works connect with each other.  Either with one artist, or several, unity is based on shared visions among those participating or a common creative direction.  Similar to art movements where there is difference accompanied by similarity, relationships styles are the governing connecting tissue.  

                The problem with organizing predicated on significance is that it requires finding artists who have a shared direction.  If not a shared perspective, seeking works that visually make sense when brought together is a governing factor.  Either way, both methods require some sophistication.  It demands an acute eye to make exhibitions work.

The problem with organizing predicated on significance is that it requires finding artists who have a shared direction.

                The Achilles heel is that it requires careful laborious effort to make the selected make sense when quality or merit are the yardsticks of success.  If no artists can be found, pairing can literally be a “hot mess.”  The resulting exhibition will tend to look like a collection of parts and pieces haphazardly chosen.  The sum of its parts is a disjointed whole.

                One method to bring order to the complexity of putting assembling work is selecting a theme.  Arbitrarily or by deliberate design, curators rely on the topic to offer up order.  The Achilles heel here is what to do in an art world where work is created by artist and then brought to public view. In the themed centered world, for the most part, a general call to artists are placed.  Sometimes open to the general public, or a selected group, the aforementioned is the most common way.  

Subjects that artists develop that are directed by each artists’ imagination is a relatively new idea. 

                Without, or without criterion, artists who are professional are thrown into the same pool as beginners.  Seriously trained artists with degrees compete with anyone taking the time to enter.

                Free or with a cost either per piece or one solid fee that includes several works, public calls for work are rarely free. To offset the costs of the exhibition, artist share the expense.  Almost universally if not accepted, the fees are not refundable.  For the creative this amounts to a lottery.  You risk the gamble of paying for nothing, or the option of being in an exhibition.  More often than not, if work is sold, there is a commission paid to the gallery, curator whatever.  In these situations the artist is hit up twice to help pay for everything.
                For a point of measure, most galleries, though some do, most take only a commission after works is sold.  The split can be 50% and higher.  50% is becoming the minimum.  In other times the system operated differently. 

                Subjects that artists develop that are directed by each artists’ imagination is a relatively new idea.  Historically art was created specifically for a patron.  Guided by the needs of those paying for the work, there was some wiggle room for imagination.  The measure of success was already established by convention or a prescribed set of standards.

                The old system of art created for a specific person could circumvent the issue of connectivity.  But that was the old way of doing things.  Some work is still created that way.  An artists is approached, given a theme and then paid.  Sometimes the artist is paid an advance to cover material costs and labor to deter a patron from backing out at the last moment.  

                With themed approach artists must chose existing work, or create new work for the show.  For artists now working with the chosen theme, the options are clear cut.

a.       Make new work
b.      Taking existing work and hope it fits
c.       Not enter at all

               Keep in mind, artists have to pay for materials, Subjects that artists develop that are directed by each artists’ imagination is a relatively new idea.  storage and transportation.
             The results of “fit the theme” exhibition can be positive.  If you have an astute curator the show can hit the mark.  Even if not versed in the wide scope of visual art, a director or gallery owner can get lucky.  It all depends on a plethora of factors.

"...the artist ends up as producer, patron, shipper and p.r. specialist".

         Risks factors rise when work is open to an open call themed based show.  There may be talent that opts to opt out of the process.  If your theme only hits mediocre artists, the pickings are slim.  A show becomes pick the least weak work and hope no one notices that the exhibition is little more than the middle of the middle.

       Quality can sneak into the system of pick a theme and hope.  There is a high probability the truly gifted are scratched off the list.  Factor in the “pay before you play” system and the most talented may be excluded because they just do not feel luck that day.

      When artists are specifically selected, and without upfront costs to the creative participants, at the very least the curator knows what they are getting.  The odds of hitting critical success become a little less risky.  This manner of selecting does not guarantee perfection, but it certainly raises the odds for positive outcomes. 
       Themes that are open ended are the most like to attract better artists.  Open ended types of  themes, for example selecting a particular color as a theme, automatically confers some cohesion.  There is less likelihood for confusion or going off subject.  The only down side is if artists are not creating in that color.  The options are simple.  Pick an old work and repaint it to fit, create new piece of pieces or the last option, don’t play.

       Topics that are gimmicky, or time sensitive, can lead to the best departing the party.  If the theme does not lend itself to inspiration, the work contributed falls flat. Even if it meets the stated goal, anticipate a boring exhibition.

      One way around the limitations to themes that draw the creative is to expand the definition what of is considered acceptable.  If pushed too far, you end up with a sharp contrast between art that fits and those works  that are tangentially connected to the curator’s stated vision. 

     Themes like “painting impressionist styled works that relate to the vanishing rainforests that speaks to the historical periods following the impression left by surrealism” are so spefic that the wiggle room for creativity is narrow.  Or, everyone winds up with working like each other. What usually happens is the topic is expanded to include that which does not fit.

"Life is not fair.  That is true. Then again, should everyone use that as an excuse to maintain inequity?"  

    The example I chose, “painting, blah blah blah,’ is a far fetched example of what can happen.  To creative people, this is just a byzantine trap that does nothing to foster innovation or technical facility. 

   Compound all of this, lets look at what the artist is expected to do when the pick a theme any theme process is in place.  Below is  what an artist can expect.

1.        The artist needs to create work that fits the theme.
2.       The artist must pay a fee, almost always non refundable
3.       Create the work with labor provided by the artist, this can include assistants
4.       Purchase materials for the construction of the work.
5.       Provide storage for the work
6.       Provide transportation of the work.
7.       In some instances the artist may need to do P.R., and or have a substantial following willing to purchase.
8.       Expect to see half of what you sell going to the gallery or the curator.  

        In the scenario above the artist ends as producer, patron, shipper and p.r. specialist.  If that were not enough, expect to create work for a themed show that may, or may not be accepted and then pay for the “privilege” of being considered.

        Life is not fair.  That is true. Then again, should everyone use that as an excuse to maintain inequity?  No one is forced to be an artist.  The talented are drawn to the creative sphere because of a burning desire to create and have something to say.  The idea is to enrich the world by holing a mirror to it.  Reflecting the good, the bad and the indifferent, art in all of its form imparts insight, wisdom, understanding and if looked at closely an implied moral.  Art contributes to the world, communities, cities and towns.

       If no one dares to pick up the crown left by art history, precious stones are lost.  It brings to mind Napoleon’s comment, in so many words, “found the Crown of France just lying in the gutter”.

                The gutters could easily become the home of art if it is not supp ported.  Burdening artists with the weight of carrying the hard part of the load without assistance will lead to art that is only the purvey of those seeking to amuse themselves, in short rank amateurs.  The educated artists will take on other jobs, paint part time, or stop making art.   
         Compounding the problematic problem of themed shows is that there are fewer and fewer professionals writing about art that have a breadth of history or art. Even that field is relegated to everyone but those trained to do it either as artists, educators or art historians.

         Some may say good riddance to art. If it costs so much and requires so much effort, why bother? The question is then what would have Michelangelo, da Vinci, van Gogh and a slew of talented people have just stopped due to lack of interest and support.

       One thing is certain had they left the profession of art, collectively the world would be lacking. We would all be that much less.


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