Playing Hostess to the Most-est: A Critique of Travelling Exhibitions

For many art institutions the idea of a travelling exhibition fits the bill for peak season exhibition timeframes and offers many pro’s in terms of short term gain for a long term issue; gallery/museum attendance. In the recent press release from the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Toronto, Canada—one of the country’s most prominent and acclaimed public art galleries—the institution announced the upcoming exhibition, J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, a travelling exhibition curated and organized by Tate Britain set to open on 31 October 2015. The exhibition will feature over 50 paintings and watercolors on loan from Tate Britain as an examination of the artist’s career and his place in the art historical cannon. This announcement, however, raised questions about the impact and potential problems these travelling and externally-curated shows may have to their host institutions.

Ancient Rome

J.M.W. Turner, Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, exhibited 1839. Oil paint on canvas. 91.4 x 121.9 cm Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 Courtesy of Tate Photography.

For the AGO in particular, they have a history of catering to travelling and externally-curated exhibitions to fill their major summer and fall exhibitions. In fact, six of the top 10 exhibitions based on visitor’s attendance are externally-curated or travelling shows including: Treasures of Tutankhamen (1979) (no. 1), From Cezanne to Matisse: Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation (1994) (2), King Tut: The Golden King and the great Pharaohs (2009-2010) (3), Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris (2012) (4), Courtauld Collection at the AGO (1998) (5), and Voyage into Myth: French Painting from Gauguin to Matisse from the Hermitage Museum, Russia (2002-2003) (8). (Source: Art Gallery of Ontario and The Globe and Mail). Not included in the top 10 list but also worth noting are: Abstract Expressionist New York (2011) with pieces entirely from MoMA’s collection, and Ai Wei Wei: According to What? (2013) organized by Mori Art Museum, Tokyo and the AGO. Though this example is Canadian, it reflects upon the greater global context and the impact these travelling exhibitions may have on host institutions and marketplaces.

These travelling shows can be hugely beneficial to an institution to boost visitors attendance—feeding into potential revenue for the bookstore/gift shop, extra exhibition events, and donations—but at what point does an institution start to tip the scales in favor of outside talent for major exhibitions rather than to their internal resources? To the credit of these externally-curated shows, they can offer greater exposure for the artists and practices by touring the globe. The shows are ready-to-exhibit for the host institutions, are marketable to the public with the appeal of an outside show coming to the city, they can use less internal resources (financially beneficial) and offer a novelty aspect to the exhibition as it is only available for a short period of time before it goes to the next institution. In terms of short-term ideals, travelling and externally-curated shows offer the perfect solution to garner greater visitor numbers and boost the credibility of the host institution as being selected as a checkpoint.

However, it is this checkpoint idea that is worrying. Considering the long-term goals and perceptions of the institution, will an imbalance of external shows lead to a reputation of an institution that can’t curate its own shows with its internal resources and contribute to its their home market and even the greater global art market? It would seem unfair to judge as there are outstanding curators and researchers at these institutions, but for public perception, and even perception within the art market from other industry leaders, this checkpoint categorization could be potentially damaging to the reputation and credibility of the institution if they rely on and relinquish control to outside resources as a business model.

Finally, at what point will key institutions offering travelling exhibitions come to monopolize the market and drive out local talent? We can see this happening now with the Louvre and the Guggenheim expanding into the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and their monopolization of an emerging market. Perhaps it is an extreme criticism, but there should be more caution taken in agreeing to these travelling and externally-curated exhibitions as a rule of operation. Though they are crowd-pleasers, offer the novelty factor and genuinely can benefit the host institution in terms of credibility and prominence, there are definitely serious repercussions to the institutions and greater marketplaces that must be considered before agreeing to play hostess to the most-est.

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