How to Curate an Art Show

Written by Mark Rogers

Hans Ulrich Obrist, a world-renowned art historian and curator at London’s Serpentine Galleries, described his role as a curator in an interview as “that of a catalyst—and sparring partner.” Good curators make the right things happen in an exhibit, creating the best possible experience for everyone involved.

In the interview, Obrist said that curating as a profession is defined by the four “things” that they do:

  1. Preserve, “in the sense of safeguarding the heritage of art”
  2. Select new work
  3. Connect to art history
  4. Display or arrange the work

“It's a mass medium and a ritual,” Obrist said. “The curator sets it up so that it becomes an extraordinary experience and not just illustrations or…books.”

Curators are communicators, tasked with presenting art in a way that allows it to express its message, regardless of the scale of the exhibit. Though Obrist’s definition lists only four “things,” there are a few more tasks—seven, in fact—to undertake when curating an art show, especially for the first time.

1. Identify a Theme for the Exhibition

Art exhibits need themes, just as essays need a strong thesis or businesses need great mission statements. Even small -venue shows involving a limited catalog of works need a theme.

Some exhibits come with predetermined themes, depending on the basis of the exhibit:

  • Community: Open to city or neighborhood residents, or only for pieces depicting local landmarks
  • Age: Children, seniors
  • Medium: Oil and acrylic paintings, sculptures, textile work

If there is no apparent theme, a theme may arise after choosing a few “inspiration” pieces that reflect the intended message of the show.

2. Select the Art

Choosing pieces for an exhibit becomes more complicated with each artist involved—it entails far more than “shopping” for the right works.

When someone sets out to purchase a piece of art for their home, they spend time researching what they want and looking at different works. Rarely does it happen that a piece is spotted, purchased and displayed all in a week’s time. Curating takes all this, but expands it to cover multiple pieces of art produced by many different individuals.

Choosing pieces for an art show is a picking and editing process that incorporates the curator’s knowledge of art and personal tastes.

3. Determine the Art Show Venue

Successful art exhibits depend heavily upon the right venue, which is often limited by budget. However, the floor plan and logistics of any space affects all other elements of a show. A lack of proper lighting will impact how the artwork looks, while food and drinks—commonly served at most art shows—may end up all over the artwork if ineptly planned. More seriously, structural issues within the space could pose a danger, especially if displaying large or heavy pieces.

Even the exterior of the venue matters! Pay attention to parking and accessibility, and provide signage if the location is hard to find.

4. Organize and Arrange the Artwork

Curating is not just art interpretation; it requires some hands-on practical skills, such as knowing how to use a hammer and screwdriver. On the technical side, learn about the best display techniques available, both for safety and aesthetic reasons, and ensure the display methods are appropriate for the venue. For example, you may need extra braces for windy, outdoor locations, or special mounting materials for historical venues.

On the creative side, it’s important to map out viewing routes that make sense for the artwork: chronologically, by medium or subject, or even size or style.

5. Interpret the Art

Curators convey the message of a piece so that those visiting can “understand” the flow. Provide background information on the artists in the exhibit to offer some insights to viewers; including some striking facts may make a piece more memorable.

Relate the subject of the piece to help observers create their own story about the work—you do not have to explain all the ideas, but give the attendees something to discuss. If an artist’s work resembles a known artist, provide some context for the comparison—understanding and relating these influences enriches the experience for viewers.

With good curating, viewers take away more than just a memory of an image from an art show.

6. Care for the Art

Performance art aside, most artists intend for their works to last a long time; it is the curator’s job to safeguard works included in the exhibit.

  • Inspect pieces as they arrive, noting any damage or flaws
  • Budget for and purchase applicable insurance
  • Ensure venue conditions pose no threat of damage to pieces once they are installed

7. Transport Art

Moving art is an art in and of itself. It requires appropriate transportation, especially if there are large pieces—you’ll need trucks, not just some rope to attach to the top of a minivan. Ensure that the people you employ are capable of lifting and moving large pieces, and don’t skimp on just how many people just for the budget—one or two people may not be able to carry a large sculpture, for example.

During transport, protecting the art’s integrity is crucial. The correct protection depends upon the medium, but consider reusable items, especially if the exhibit will move to several different locations. Frame Destination’s GalleryPouch™ is a sturdy, reusable option to protect not just the art, but also the frame.

Curate and Multi-Task

Curating goes beyond picking out pretty pictures. It entails research, creativity, project management skills, accounting knowledge, and the understanding that no part of the process stands independent of the others.

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