What’s in A Title? History of Naming Art Exhibits and Art

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Over the Mountains: The Store of Ceres is an historic museum exhibit documenting the story of a community in South Africa. The exhibit is at the Ceres Transport Riders' Museum in Ceres, South Africa. Image by Waitabout.

Over the Mountains: The Store of Ceres is an historic museum exhibit documenting the story of a community in South Africa. The exhibit is at the Ceres Transport Riders’ Museum in Ceres, South Africa. Image by Waitabout.

Adding a catchy title to a gallery or museum exposition sounds pretty straightforward, right? Not so! Some museum personnel believe it is even more difficult than adding a title to a book, or, for that matter, a work of art. Some museums/galleries take years to come up with the right title for an exhibition. Sometimes it’s the title that really attracts the crowds, so the ideal title is a catchy, yet perfect drawing card.

Titles: The History of Descriptive Naming

We tend to think of titles as something that applies to books, movies, theatre, music and works of art. In terms of museum and art gallery exhibitions, we seem to disassociate ourselves from the power of the title. Historically, museum promoters kept exhibition titles blunt and to the point.

An exhibit called the Turner Retrospective suggests a complete study of the works by the English landscape painter, William S. Turner (1775-1851), from his earliest years until just before his death. A catalogue would accompany this exhibition, documenting the man and his art and this catalogue would make an excellent coffee table book as well as a reference book for an art enthusiast’s library.

The History of Electricity would invite museum goers to a scientific exhibit documenting, exactly as it suggests, electricity’s long and fascinating history. But, would it entice people to visit the museum just to see this exhibit? Would it attract those who perhaps seldom go to museums?

Historically, the exhibition title has been merely a label identifying the exhibit’s theme. The importance of an exhibition title is a more recent concern. Visitors now demand entertainment when visiting a museum or gallery. The exhibit itself may do all that and much more, but, in order to entertain them, titles need to sound enticing enough to attract visitors to the museum or gallery.

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Algorithm of the Colon

A recent exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art used a two-part title, Generally Electric: Light and Electricity in Contemporary Art, to attract visitors. The title was catchy, it was cliché, it was to-the-point. Most important, the title caught the public’s attention and people flocked to the museum to see the exhibit. The first part of the title hooked the would-be visitor, connecting Generally Electric with the big-name electricity company, General Electric. The second part of the title explained the meaning of the catchy first part.

“The title is your initial marketing hook,” says David Rubin, curator of contemporary art at the San Antonio Museum of Art. “I’ve worked outside New York most of my career, in areas where art is not necessarily part of the daily diet, so if it’s too esoteric people won’t have a clue what the show is about.” According to ARTnews, if people don’t understand the title, they’re less likely to visit the exhibit in order to better understand it.

However, not everyone agrees in the power of the two-part title. Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, says, “The long-standing algorithm—part of the title to the left of the colon, part to the right—doesn’t always seem to work anymore.” In his interview with ARTnews, Lehman continues, “What people are really getting away from is a title like ‘Treasures of . . .’ or ‘Masterpieces from . . .’” These titles seem too commonplace. They lack the pizzazz and promise of excitement. Without this promise, visitors might not come to the museum or gallery.

Titles For Sale

Museum and gallery curators are now spending far too much time concocting the catchy title to attract visitors. There are some enterprising organizations that are cashing in, quite literally, on this need for the perfect exhibition title.

Rebecca Uchill has developed an Internet site to help solve the problem of the perfect title. A former independent curator working on her PhD in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Uchill combined her experiences with a programmer to launch her site, Random Exhibition Title Generator, in 2010.

By plugging in recurring words and syntax, Uchill was able to create a program that would generate a never-ending stream of possible exhibition titles like The Bureaucracies of Relevance: Defying the Avant Garde, Extravagant Banality? Achieving and Undermining Change, and Collective Media: A Juried Show of Dilettantism. The titles may still seem too convoluted and way-out-there to comprehend, but perhaps they do attract the desired attention.

Find Perfect Title: An Artist’s Quest

The perfect mix, the perfect title? Perhaps there really isn’t that perfect formula to create the title needed to attract visitors. While some people, like Rubin, prefer the two-part title, others promote the bare-bones approach. The Brooklyn Museum called a recent exhibit Raw/Cooked. The title suggested anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ (1908-2009) famous volume The Raw and the Cooked (1966), which was one of the seminal works of structuralist anthropology, and probably the best known of all of Lévi-Strauss’ works.

However, the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum was anything but a Lévi-Strauss exhibit. In fact, Raw/Cooked, a two-part title, even if Lehman argues that it isn’t, was actually an exhibit of unknown artists working in Brooklyn. “The title was meant to be provocative and to suggest but not tell what this series of exhibitions was all about,” Lehman says in ARTnews. “It’s been hugely successful. It talks about the vast number of artists who are working undiscovered and just need a break.”

What’s In A Title?

So, what’s in a title? Whatever the curators decide. Sometimes the title works and sometimes it doesn’t, but, like every good book needs a catchy title, so, too does a good exhibition. Yes, in spite of the contemporary artists’ desire to disassociate their works from titles by calling a work, Untitled, the title does attract and the title does define.

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