Question & Answers: What is the purpose of an art exhibition?

Question & Answers: What is the purpose of an art exhibition?

Posted January 14th, 2019 by Russ White

Six local artists and curators go deep on a seemingly simple question.

The start of a new year can be a time of great clarity, if you let it. New goals, new rules, fresh perspectives on who you are and what you care about — especially after a few days spent with extended family. Maybe now, a mere two weeks into 2019, the shine has already started to dim on your new year— the promise of a fresh start perhaps betrayed by old habits, daily troubles, and fascist creep(s). But keep faith, my friends; the year is still young.

There has been a question scratching around at the back of my head for a while now. It's a very simple question (so simple it’s almost stupid), but I thought the start of a new year would be a good time to get some other perspectives on it, to reassess why it is that we do what we do.

The question is: What is the purpose of an art exhibition? 

Another way to ask might be: what can an art exhibition do? 

I reached out to several artists and curators and put it to them this way: I’m thinking here about art's position within the marketplace, the cultural canon, existing power and class structures, and — as an artist — the bald audacity of showing work no one asked you to make in the first place. I’ve been thinking about the monthly art exhibition’s origins as a way to sell art, and whether that is still (or ever was) the primary function of all these shows. Might it be time to rethink the structure of art exhibitions in general?

No surprise, everyone’s answer was different, each bringing their own perspective to the conversation. There was also a follow-up question just for fun: what’s the best art exhibition you’ve ever seen? 


Preston DrumArtist

What is the purpose of an art exhibition?

"This is an excellent question and one I have been asking for over 15 years. I started doing my postcard paintings back in 2005 because I was frustrated with art exhibitions. I felt this was a strange dynamic, to make something and leave it there. Like carving your name in a tree. If the point is to connect with others, why not make that connection literal? The way I found was to sell them the art and give them something small they could hold or hang in their house and have repeat interactions with. This of course has evolved over the years and mutated into the interactive work I do today.

"When I trace it back, I remember the basement shows I saw and participated in as a teen. Sharing sweat, screams, and energy with those around me. Instead of watching a performance we all (audience and artist) become the event together. This would quantify as good art to me.

"The question of capitalism is intrinsic to art. Art can live without money, but money needs art to make it legitimate and art needs money to make it grow beyond human scale. We are after our gods or seeking to create them in their absence."

What’s the best art exhibition you’ve ever seen? 

"My most memorable moments with art have been hand-to-hand combat. Those had in critiques, at punk shows with 5 other people there, reading books in the park, watching movies in my high school film class, seeing the sun set over the Mississippi River.

"But if I have to focus on an institutional exhibition, I’d have to say seeing an Anselm Kiefer for the first time at the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh. Or I remember as a young child seeing this exhibit about slavery where they made a replica of a slave ship hull and had us squeeze into it so we could know what it felt like. I think that was at The Discovery Place in Charlotte. Both experiences were center of the earth kinds of things for me."

Anselm Kiefer, Untitled, mixed media on three panels, each 130 x 73", 1980-86


Tricia Heuring, Co-Director and Curator at Public Functionary

What is the purpose of an art exhibition?

"As a curator who works primarily on solo exhibitions with emerging artists, I see the purpose of the exhibition as a pivotal moment, an opportunity for an artist to understand the progression of their practice, to connect with community. It allows for public critique, celebration, and connection. I think artists often push towards that solo exhibition moment, knowing the moment it marks throughout their careers, and that push is necessary. But from my perspective, the work that follows their solo exhibition is often more interesting. It is after this release, presentation, and movement from studio practice into public space in a high stakes context that artists are able to grow. 

"I do still think the exhibition opportunity is important. But I would advocate for less of a focus on exhibitions as a culmination or an indicator of purpose. Individual funding for artists and BFA/MFA programs prioritize exhibitions as outcomes; I believe more time and funding spent with works in progress or deeper engagement with process would better serve artists in developing their context, perspective, and craft. 

"While many in the art world might be over the 'solo exhibition' for various reasons, I think it is important, especially locally, to recognize how many indigenous artists, queer artists, and artists of color have not had a solo exhibition opportunity. For all the ways in which solo exhibitions affirm and validate, I feel the solo exhibition model is worth maintaining as a milestone, but evolving it to better serve underrepresented artists."

What’s the best art exhibition you’ve ever seen?

"I don't know if I can say ever, but one of the most powerful exhibitions I have seen in the past few years was Kerry James Marshall's Mastry at the MCA. It took my breath away. I went back twice while in Chicago over a weekend. His work is exquisite, and an artist's lifelong career story told through a major museum retrospective is always one of my favorite types of exhibition. I think the space held by a major Kerry James Marshall exhibition in the context of 2016 in America made this show particularly impactful."

Kerry James Marshall, Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), acrylic on PVC panel, 31 x 25", 2009


Rory Wakemup, Artist at Wakemup Productions & Gallery Director of All My Relations Arts

"All My Relations Arts Gallery has a very unique and specific mission statement that I really like. It was developed before I got there, but it comes from a popular sentiment at the Institute of American Indian Arts. We don’t focus on sales or marketing as much, but we do focus on empowering our own narrative. My favorite part of the mission statement is that we empower Native artists to create art that fits their personality and their message, what they want to say, without the restrictions of the museum effect or the European gaze. 

"AMRA also allows that intergenerational transfer of knowledge, intentionally mixing emerging artists with established artists — it helps the elder artists stay informed on the contemporary issues and helps the younger artists understand what it takes to become an accomplished artist. 

"My evolutionary step as director is to use that message for social justice and environmental justice. I encourage artists to step out of their normal mediums, adding performative elements to art — anything that helps humanize us. My capstone project at the gallery (I’m phasing out as director in February) is the 2019 Women’s March with artists and community arts workshops. This year it has expanded into schools with Indian Ed. Last year we doubled the size of the march from 500 to 1000, and this year we may double it again. Those kind of numbers can be the difference in an election. Showing up with a succinct message empowers our leaders; it gives them the clout to push policies.

"So it’s turned into community empowerment. The exhibition has become kind of its own thing: creative placemaking meets social and environmental justice. There’s these evolutionary steps in working with community, training our youth on how these changes are made so they can be informed activists. I don’t really want to be a politician, I like being an artist. But if anyone in our community wants to be politicians, I want to have the art and community there to support them."

What’s the best art exhibition you’ve ever seen?

"Meow Wolf in Santa Fe —that’s a cool exhibit. It’s more like an interactive space you walk through, this big house where you go through all these rooms with a whole narrative that follows. You can go through the fireplace and it opens up to a labyrinth where there’s all this neon and a performance stage. There’s a treehouse that fills the whole room. It’s pretty dope.

"That and the classic installations in Marfa, Texas, by Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, and Donald Judd. The concept of installation is nested in itself there, and they just bought a town in Texas to do it. 

"It’s that experience that you get [with installation]. My thing is incorporating that experience but then turning our streets into that. I collaborate with other artists like paintbrushes; we work with our community like a color palette; and together we paint the world and paint the streets. The gallery serves as an anchor in the community and kind of wakes people up from one thing to the next."

Art collective Meow Wolf's The House of Eternal Return installation in Santa Fe, NM.


Boris Oicherman, Cindy and Jay Ihlenfeld Curator for Creative Collaboration at the Weisman Art Museum

What is the purpose of an exhibition?

"Funny you should ask this question to a curator who doesn’t do exhibitions:) But I would like to question the question.

"I like what you write: 'the bald audacity of showing work no one asked you to make.' But: 'showing' implies an underlying assumption, a predetermined artistic act: of making work for a show. 

"Exhibition is only one tool in the artists’ toolbox, only one format which artists’ work can take. It is by far the most pervasive one, but not because it is the most important or effective, but because it is the easiest to support — for precisely the reasons you describe: it suits perfectly the convenient position of the arts within the marketplace and power structures. Other, non-exhibition practices are acknowledged and supported to some degree — but they always hover on the margins, those 'untraditional,' 'multidisciplinary,' 'experimental' things that exist and develop for decades but are still a nonsense for so many, as opposed to the 'real thing' — the exhibition.

"How about 'the bald audacity of doing work no one asked you to do'? Then suddenly we’re out in the open, because the question becomes not 'what can an exhibition do' but 'what can art do,' or even, in fact 'what can artists do?' One thing artists can do is to challenge those power structures by directly working with them. The power structure I am interested in is academic knowledge, and the action I am interested in is diversification of knowledge, breaking down of its hierarchies. This is a slow and emergent process of artists figuring out their ways within a system that is not used to having artists around. One thing exhibitions really suck in is supporting emergent processes (as opposed to showing products), therefore I have little professional interest in an exhibition as such."

What’s the best art exhibition you’ve ever seen?

"I don’t know how to rate the best, but the most important ever to my career was Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003."

Olafur Eliasson; The Weather Project; monofrequency lights, projection foil, haze machines, mirror foil, aluminium, and scaffolding;
26.7 m x 22.3 m x 155.4 m; 2003.


Douglas Flanders, Owner of Douglas Flanders & Associates Fine Art Gallery

"We set the dates for most of our exhibitions a year ahead, sometimes more.  It gives an artist incentive to produce a new body of work and the collectors to view it and hopefully purchase. Sometimes the shows are making a political statement, sometimes a stance on an important issue. Often it’s giving a voice to those who are under-appreciated, like Women, African Americans, or Native Americans. Always it’s about viewing great art. We have produced as many as 45 exhibitions in a single year.

"I have been fortunate to see many incredible exhibitions around the world.  A Velasquez show and a Goya show at the Prado in Madrid, a Matisse exhibit at the Hermitage, a JMW Turner show at the Tate in London, Renoir and Van Gogh exhibits, numerous Picasso exhibits. My favorite would have to be an Hieronymus Bosch exhibit at the Prado in Madrid."

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), oil on oak panels, 87 × 153", c. 1490-1510


Jehra Patrick, Director and Curator of Law Warschaw Gallery & Waiting Room

What is the purpose of an art exhibition?

"Short answer: to make artists’ ideas public.

"Long answer: The purpose of an art exhibition is ultimately unique to each exhibition, driven by artists’ ideas, the context of the space, and the organizer/curator. Ideally, each show should have a purpose. Together exhibitions offer a spectrum of purposes – motives big and small – that don’t have to agree on collective justification. "

What can an art exhibition do?

"This is a fun one:

"An art exhibition can connect forms visually, showing contrast, difference, indifference, agreement between objects. 

An exhibition can gather ideas together, and point to them, within and beyond the gallery.

An exhibition can be be a form of knowledge production. 

An exhibition can be visualized research. 

An exhibition can impart information or be tight-lipped. 

An exhibition publicizes an artist. 

An exhibition formalizes studio practices. 

An exhibition organizes a chain of ideas and forms. 

An exhibition is a medium itself. 

An exhibition is classroom.

An exhibition is a public gathering space.

An exhibition is lab.

An exhibition can be a retail store.

An exhibition can be a night club.

An exhibition can be a funeral.

An exhibition can help artists meet other artists.

An exhibition can lead to another exhibition.

An exhibition can lead to another career opportunity.

An exhibition can be the end of an idea.

An exhibition can be the beginning of an idea.

An exhibition can draw a public.

An exhibition can come and go and never be see.

An exhibition can be a resume line.

An exhibition can be living research. 

An exhibition can be a studio.

An exhibition can be a political act.

An exhibition can be a private experience.

An exhibition can be a mediative space.

An exhibition can be a destination.

An exhibition can be a fair. (A fair can be an exhibition of exhibitions.)

An exhibition can be shut down.

An exhibition can kind of be anything. 

An exhibition can do what you intend and also things you never intended.

"I would hesitate to ever say that the primary function of an exhibition is sales. The structure, or format, of an exhibition as we know it (things organized in a white room) predates the commercial gallery and its goals. Likewise, exhibition structures and formats have long departed from the white-cube since the ‘60s (some never adhered to it; even that idea is a really Western thing). I think the 'primary function,' as you put it, really varies by gallery and artist. For some, sales is a driver, for others it's more about making work and connecting art and ideas to publics… or something else, maybe on the list above, maybe not."

What’s the best art exhibition you’ve ever seen? 

"My favorite art exhibition is impossible to answer, but some of the most impactful ones for me include: Let’s Entertain, 2000 (Walker Art Center); Younger than Jesus, 2009 (New Museum); Nice. Luc Tuymans, 2013 (The Menil); Nuit Blanche Paris, 2010 (City of Paris); Passing through the Opposite of What it Approaches, 2013 (The Renaissance Society); Miguel Calderón – Color Bleed, 2012 (Rochester Art Center); Documenta 14, 2017 (City of Kassel); kNOw Spaces, Jordan Weber, 2018 (Law Warschaw Gallery); and so many more.

"I think I learn something from every show I see, as a viewer, artist, and exhibition maker. Sure, some fall out of memory and others glow brighter, but if you’re not looking for something, you’re not going to find it."

Jordan Weber, kNOw Spaces, Law Warschaw Gallery, 2018

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