It’s not that difficult to make a good art exhibition. Some people might say it all depends on the quality of the works you select. Great artworks, great exhibition, right? But what if I tell you there are a few secrets that can turn a good exhibition into a great exhibition? I will share my top 10 secrets of exhibition making with you today.
Personally I enjoy it when people use examples from “the real world” when they talk about exhibition making, to avoid unnecessary vagueness (there’s already enough of that in the art world). Therefore, I will use the Giacometti exhibition I visited recently at La Fondation Maeght as a reference point.
La Fondation Maeght
La Fondation Maeght has all the basic ingredients for making great exhibitions: it’s situated within the beautiful landscape of the Côte d’Azur, surrounded by pine trees and rolling hills. La Fondation was established by Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, a couple of successful art dealers. Sculptures and other works of some of the biggest names in 20th century art can be found in the permanent collection of this museum, including Georges Braque, Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti. The architect Josep Lluís Sert shaped the museum around the sculptures, as a tribute to some of the greatest French artists of all times. It’s a must see if you’re visiting the South of France.
The Giacometti: A Family of Creators
So let’s talk about the temporary exhibition currently on show: The Giacometti: A Family of Creators. This perfectly good exhibition (but not great) is about a family of artists who contributed a lot to the museum: the Giacometti family. Its curator, Peter Knapp, aims to showcase the talent and originality of the Giacometti family: Alberto (the most famous one), his father Giovanni, his cousin Augusto, and his two brothers, Diego and Bruno.
No surprises here
The exhibition is exactly what you would expect. The texts panels are full of exuberant praise of the artists and their contribution to the art world. For example: “Based on some thirty major sculptures and drawings from the collection, rounded out by a number of paintings, films, archived photographs and objects, the Fondation Maeght is highlighting the unique, extraordinary story of these five artists from the same family.”
The exhibition itself is diverse and nicely presented. But I can’t help to find it also very.. unpretentious. Visitors are invited to buy a €16 ticket and get exactly what they expect: a very decent exhibition with all the bits and bobs you usually find. But isn’t it our job as exhibition makers to offer our audience something more than they were expecting to find? In this article I will share my thoughts about what a perfectly good exhibition needs to make it a great exhibition.
A definition of greatness
First, we need a definition. When is an exhibition GREAT with capital letters? In my opinion an exhibition is great when it ticks at least 2 of the 4 boxes:
- The exhibtion offers the audience a new perspective on the artist, society or the world at large
- The exhibition evokes feelings from the visitor (awe, excitement, sadness, hapiness, etc)
- The exhibition inspires visitors (to take an art class, call a long-lost-friend, read more about the subject, etc)
- Visitors want to share their experience after their visit with others (by telling friends and/or family about their visit or by taking them with them for a next round of viewing)
10 tips to reach greatness
So let’s cut to the chase. What makes a good exhibition a GREAT exhibition? Here are my ten tips to achieve excellence.
A great exhibition needs a great story. Knapp promises us a unique and extraordinary story about the Giacometti family. But in fact, it lacks depth. I want to know more about their intimate family relationships. What were their hopes and dreams? The story presented by Knapp is flat as a pancake. It doesn’t grab me. I’m sure it could have. I need more than the exuberant phrases about the apparent brilliance of the artists to be moved.
Just like any great movie, a great exhibition needs tension. Visitors need to be curious about what’s coming next. The story should evolve. So how to create tension? Again, it’s all about storytelling. The key ingredients of an evolving storyline are: Dilemma, Empathy, Emotional Stakes, Goal, Drive, Conflict, Growth, and Achievement. Sadly, I didn’t find enough tension in the Giacometti exhibition.
3. Historical Context
Never assume your audience knows all you do. So, be kind and offer some historical context of your subject. What happened in the world at the moment the story of the exhibition unfolds? Can you relate to situations or things happening in the world right now? Knapp used a family tree at the starting point of the exhibition, which was helpful. But I would’ve certainly added more information about the time period and the circumstances the Giacometti family lived and worked in. Another important thing: try not to use difficult language if you can keep it simple. No one likes to feel stupid or uneducated in a museum. Unfortunately a lot of museum curators still struggle with this, including Knapp.
4. Personal objects and photographs
Now, I do know a lot of curators and museum directors who HATE adding personal objects or photographs to an exhibition. It’s a matter of taste, maybe. But I have always found vistors are extremely positive about this, and I’m personally a big fan. So throw in some great family pictures or personal objects related to family life if you can. The Giacometti exhibition would have definitely benefited from it, I’m sure.
Variety is a necessity for an exhibition like rhythm, tension and structure. It’s the hardest one to describe in an article, but I can try to give an example. What do you like better, a whole buffet full of mango’s or would you rather have a mixed plate with some other fruits as well? I suppose you would go for the latter. It’s just the same with art. Even if an artist is great, we just don’t need 10 very similar sculptures of him in one room. Unless there is some great story provided, obviously. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any in the Giacometti exhibition. I did find a big white room with many very slim figures by the hand of the great Alberto Giacometti. That doesn’t excite me. Neither does it excite most other visitors, I could tell by the time they spend in that particular exhibition room.
Just when you start thinking exhibition making is easy, I will confuse you by throwing this one in. Cohesion! A great exhibition needs cohesion. I would even go so far as saying I rather see an exhibition without variety but with cohesion than the other way around. You can use rhythm, structure, color, typo and storytelling to create cohesion. Obviously, the choice of artworks and the way you display them is of major importance in creating cohesion. Knapp succeeded very well in this, presenting the artworks in a structured way. He chose to dedicate each room to one of the family members, beginning with the oldest one, the father, and ending with the most famous artist, Alberto Giacometti. I personally feel Knapp is playing it safe here, but there’s certainly ample cohesion (on the touch of boring).
Most people don’t actively think about the time they spend in a museum. I do. I find it interesting to observe how people move through a museum. It tells me a lot about the structure and rhythm of the exhibition. It’s generally known that most visitors spend more time looking at the signs next to the paintings than the art itself. But apart from this – rather sad – notion, I feel there is not enough attention from exhibition makers for the pace of people when visiting a museum exhibition. In my experience: people happily look at 40 – 60 artworks during one museum visit. If you present more than 60 works, people tend to move in a higher pace, ignoring some of the works and missing out on some of that great storytelling you have prepared. A museum visit generally takes about 1 to 1,5 hours, including a visit to the bookstore and museum cafe, so I recon most visitors want to spend a maximum of 45 minutes looking at art. That means people spend no longer than 1 minute per art work. Lucky for me, the size of the museum and amount of art presented in the exhibition at the Fondation Maeght was just perfect.
8. No information overload
Talking about signs: never overdo it. Just keep it light and simple, especially on the walls. When observing people in museums I notice people really like to read the text panels carefully prepared by the curator, but they don’t read more than two paragraphs (be honest, would you?). I can’t stress enough: be careful using expensive words and cool sounding references that the average museum visitor won’t get. This is not the time or place to impress your curator friends. They can buy the special edition catalogue with your very well researched articles. Spare us your knowledge please and just share some of the juicy details. I don’t claim people don’t like knowledge, they do. But I truly believe learning new things doesn’t have to be painful. And, if you use terminology, be sure to add an explantation or example. Knapp offered plenty of text panels but no overkill. The choice of words and the length of the text need some adjustment to really work well though.
9. Offer options
Generally speaking, there are three types of museum visitors:
1. people who like to be guided by their own set of values, thoughts and emotions. They don’t generally want or need a lot of information. They just like to wander through the exhibition, attracted by a painting here or there. They tend to not look at every single painting. Instead, they rather choose a couple of art works and take their time. I call them Wanderers.
2. Another type of visitor (and this is the biggest group) wants to be taken by the hand and follow your directions. This group longs for a good story, compelling images and short but entertaining text panels. They are often in the museum with friends or family, and their main goal is to have a good time together. Many prefer audiotours to text panels. This group likes to visit art museums but they are no experts. I call them Pleasure hunters.
3. The last group is the Expert group. They are very interested in art, have more than an average knowledge of art and they often expect in depth and very accurate information. They hate it when dates and names are spelled wrong. They often work in the arts and want to gain knowledge and new perspectives. This is the group that is rather hard to please, but better not to ignore them because they tend to have a lot of influence. This group will need to read the catalogue to satisfy their need for in depth information.
The Fondation Maeght offers a pretty decent exhibition for the first and the last group, but the biggest group of people (Pleasure hunters) is not serviced well.
My last tip for you is probably the most difficult one to follow up for exhibition makers and museum professionals, although it requires doing less instead of doing more. I have been sharing tips with you in this article of how we need to give our exhibitions structure, rhythm and tension. I spoke about the need to tell great stories and do everything to keep our audience hooked. But. And this is a big But. There are many, many visitors that like to roam freely. They want to wander around, led by their instincts or emotions (the Wanderers, remember?) They don’t want to follow a designated route or walk a certain way. Let them be. Don’t force them to start on the left side and end on the right. Let them visit the exhibition backwards if they please. They need this to have a satisfactory experience. And isn’t that what we want to achieve, after all?
The Foundation Maeght scores 10 points out of 10 on this subject. Visitors are completely free to wander wherever they like to go, without guides or guards telling them where to go or how to move through the exhibition. Due to corona regulations there are some walking restrictions, but it’s all very low key.
With these 10 tips I hope to inspire you to make GREAT exhibitions. Disclaimer: I speak from my own experiences as a curator and art lover. My tips might not resonate with the type of exhibition you are planning.
My name is Gemma Boon and I’m an art historian and curator from The Netherlands. I’ve been observing museum visitors for many years and use my findings in helping museums and art institutions to create better exhibitions and reaching their target audience. Please contact me if you want to work with me: https://buroboon.nl/contact/
Financial Times article
If you want to read more about the Giacometti Exhibition at Fondation Maeght, I recommend reading this article in the Financial Times.
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