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  • Writer's pictureJules

What's the point of an exhibition anyway?

As we enter our nth day of lockdown, we're starting to see some of the restrictions begin to ease. Case numbers are falling, and people are chomping at the bit to salvage what's left of their businesses and lifestyles. Amongst the casualties, were art shows and exhibitions.

roschach drawings and inflatable
CJ Hendry's Rorschach ink blots were only accessible by going through padded walkways like a mental hospital

It's easy to see why these were stopped. The obvious part was avoiding crowds congregating together, but also the logistics of moving artworks (and people delivering them) between various places.

As resourceful as we artists like to feel, there were quite a few good ideas that came out of the cancellation of events. People came up with all sorts of different ways to showcase their works and get their message out there.

Here are a few that registered on my radar:

1) Showing your artworks off in your own home

Not everyone has a home that is worthy of an impromptu magazine shoot in Country Style, but with a bit of shuffling things around, and moving items off camera, people had a good shot at this one. Inexpensive, complying with lockdown rules, and even satisfying some nosey-neighbour-let's-see-what-your-house-looks-like intrigue.

2) A virtual tour round an empty museum or gallery

Some of these were with a guide explaining the works, and others were like a real estate viewing website where you got to peruse the rooms on your own. This was good for seeing things in a proper setting, showing scale and authority.

3) Miniature art shows

Some people decided to forgo showing their own existing paintings, and created miniature ones for viewing by guinea pigs, lego minifigures and other small items or creatures. A long skirting board was a particular highlight, and the artworks on display were amusing and varied. I liked this idea as it showed good scale and originality.

4) Artist support pledge

This was probably the most popular, and captured the main interest of other artists. Feeling a little bit like a pyramid scheme, it certainly helped bust the myth that people don't want to buy art during a time of crisis. The way people showed their work was very similar to normal Insta-rules: artwork on its own, not showing scale, and with or without a frame.

(If you can think of any other ways you saw that were interesting, let me know and I'll add them in).

The question is, based on how people worked around it (and still are), is there anything we can learn from these different ways of exhibiting work? Is there something missing from all of these options that we can only get from viewing the work directly? In person?

One thing I certainly miss about going to art galleries and museums, is the sense of scale. A large regal building adds awe to viewing artworks: "These paintings must be special if they have been selected to be placed in such an amazing building".

As with anything IRL compared with online, there is a beauty to being able to see the scale of artworks themselves in relation to your own body (tiny little books written for toys by the Bronte sisters, 3m long paintings, or 10ft sculptures [excuse the mix of metric and imperial measurements! I wonder if paintings and scultpures are always measured differently?].

When you peer up close to a Ben Quilty painting and see the swabs of paint, or the intricate linework on a Degas, the beauty of being there is also being able to zoom in. Marvel at the texture, or lack of it, and even smell the paint.

Whether or not this setting inspires me to buy anything, perhaps not, as they are usually not for sale or well out of my price range. (Perhaps the gift shop would prove more pocket-friendly!) But the location and display definitely help highlight the importance of each piece. Each painting deserves more attention than a 2-sec glance as you swipe up to the next piece that catches your eye on Social Media.

Another is the idea of curation. When browsing Insta, you know that the algorithm is dictating what you see, and what others see of your work. At least in a gallery or museum, someone with a discerning eye has pieced together artworks that may surprise you or challenge your normal taste. I wonder if we would also get this level of surprise if we browsed for a while on someone else's Instagram account?

CJ Hendry, in case you don't already know, is an artist who draws large-scale hyper-realistic objects. Pre-lockdown, she was arranging an exhibition for her flower drawings (all sold before the show even is set up) and was taking great care to make sure that attending the exhibition was an experience in itself. This is an interesting point really. The idea here is not to encourage people to buy her works (like I said, they are sold already), but to provide an experience for the viewer. To make connections with the work that otherwise wouldn't be possible by just browsing them in a normal white gallery room.

Coming back full circle, I wonder if theming a gallery exhibition would be more worthwhile. Would setting up a gallery to have comfortable chairs or to mimic what the ideal home might look like with your paintings above the table? Is this something just reserved for interior designers to sell homes or furniture?

It clearly is possible to sell artworks online without the need for a real-life exhibition, and even to do so without putting them into any kind of context of location or scale, but is the idea of these to sell work or is it to make a lasting impression? How can we recreate the experience of a gallery, the idea of curation, the sense of scale, the idea of context, without leaving the home?

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