Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Packaged Exhibition

I presume all those who bother to read my Missives have gone to special exhibitions at art museums, but have you thought about how they came about?

Often, they are exhibitions brought together from the museums own holdings, possibly a newly acquired work or collection that the museum wishes to feature.

Then there are the shows that are put together from scratch where a single curator or a group of curators or the Director come up with an idea and with the permission of the Director, they scour museums here and abroad in order to find the works that cover their desired theme. The next question is will they be able to get the works lent? They generally seek partner venues to share the expenses.

Today, however, I wish to speak of the packaged or traveling exhibition. This show was not organized by the exhibiting institution but by another entity. There are a few companies that still put exhibitions together and offer them for a rental fee to smaller institutions lacking the resources to originate shows.

Larger institutions wish to show off their collection and put it on the road. This can be a considerable source of income as well as bragging rights, earning publicity for the institution. A prime example is The Barnes Collection founded in 1922, and when it realized its declining finances in the 1990’s began a world tour charging huge rental fees to create an endowment while controversy raged over its eventual disposition.

The Barnes Collection

More recently the wildly popular Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernists exhibition from the Gelman Collection in Mexico City arrived at the Albuquerque Art Museum after having been on the road for many years. An exhibition with such popular artists is a boon to the venue bringing in an increased number of visitors. However, funds must be raised in advance as additional ticketing income rarely covers the costs of an exhibition fee plus considerable expenses in relation to shipping, insurance, installation, publicity and staff time.

Diego and Frida

What does the curator on the receiving end do before all the objects arrive? Here is where the creativity comes in. The curator will work with a designer to make the works fit to best advantage in the venue space and convey to visitors the point of the show.

The curator may choose to organize the works chronologically so that the visitor can see a timeline and see how styles might change. Artists develop over time and their styles change along with the years. The curator might also like the idea of comparison for instance taking works from the French Royal Porcelain Factory of S«evres with the German Royal factory of Meissen. The former would be in soft paste porcelain where the color melts into the material and the latter in hard paste where the color stands on top of the ceramic. These would also speak to the sensibility of their time and place. The venue curator can also write label copy to bring home their interpretation to their audience.



Another possibility is to add to the exhibition. Museums may agree to partner on an exhibition because they have related works in their permanent collection. That not only enriches the visitor experience but shows off and validates the museum collection. It might also be an opportunity to bring in related loans. The Albuquerque Museum decided to add photographs of Kahlo and Rivera to show with the paintings and drawings from the Gelman collection and did a complimentary exhibit of prints as well.

This is only a marginal gloss on a subject to which a number of books could be written. Each exhibition has its own issues. Although curators have to work with what they are given, viewing the same exhibition in more than one museum reveals the significance of the role of the curator at each venue.

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