Art & Development

Not So Great Northern Art

AKA, “When Poor Curation Meets Bad Design and the Idea For an Art Show”

Before I go on an art trip, I try to weed out bad venues or weak exhibitions by scanning the web. In the case of Leeds Art Gallery’s “Rank: Picturing The Social Order 1615-2009,” the social premise sounded interesting and contemporary art was promised. Plus, an art blogger slammed the show so violently my curiosity was piqued. “Rank” was duly noted on my map.

Unfortunately, I left the show quite angry, and I had to side with the foaming-at-the-mouth blogger. I think the main problem is one of identity: the exhibition was advertised on art websites and mounted at the an art gallery, but “Rank” is not an art show.

“Rank” is a discursive educational exhibit dressed as an art show. The show’s organizers seem more invested in the wall texts than discriminating curatorial decisions. They would have benefited from looking to Britain’s wealth of great natural history and science museums for inspired exhibition displays, instead of making an art exhibition of not very much art.

Instead of changing tactics, the organizers filled the gallery with faux “works”—interpretative footnotes made by contractors. These contractors’ poorly-fabricated cakes (to illustrate pie charts) made me suspect they’re not artists. If they were exhibition designers, I suspect they would have better integrated the interpretations and didactic texts (like in the text-heavy yet eye-catching displays about inventors at the Museum of Science and Industry, or the energetic money exhibit at the Manchester Museum). Instead, putting interpretive works in picture frames caused confusion. Judging by the poor resolution of data (see Edward Tufte), and the odd choices of materials, I’d wager that they’re designers. (No offense. It’s my high esteem of design that makes poor design inexcusable).

display at MOSI
Back-lit exhibit display at MOSI, Manchester.

I don’t blame the contractors, however, so much as the show’s organizers, who probably offered the contractors a budget and free rein, and not enough direction or quality control.

Why did the show’s organizers commission these non-art interpretive footnotes? To present data borrowed from academics or print sources like The Economist. To pique interest in wordy didactic texts, abusing viewers’ inclinations to seek exposition about images, and supplying instead the organizers’ postulations. The information about the work seemed secondary—or, better yet, tertiary, as it was often buried in a text following a quote. (See burying the lede.)

I don’t mean to dismiss the art by contemporary artists in the show; they never stood a chance. The show’s organizers devalued the artist’s contributions by installing the artworks alongside everything else, and not naming the artists in press materials or exhibition signage. They could have easily distinguished the art works from the non-art works. A little typographic contrast never hurt anybody.

Finally, the didactic texts were under-designed. In an art exhibition, wall labels should be quiet, so viewers can focus on the art. But in a show featuring information graphics, the wall label design could bear more visual appeal and graphics. For example, one chart that distinguished data with color lacked a key. The accompanying wall label should have included a color key; instead, the colors were explained in a block of text. What should be a holistic visual experience becomes severed and slowed. In another forehead-smacking move, four brilliant maps of global wealth were installed in a grid, but their corresponding years appeared in the wall label as a sequential list. Duh! Viewers had to guess the correspondence between maps and years. Again, a simple key would have sufficed. The researchers’ efforts—the quality of their data and cartography—are put at risk by the poor wall text.

Had “Rank”’s organizers conceived of the show for what it was—an educational exhibit, with some artworks thrown in—I think it could have avoided some of its major failures.

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