A PICTURE SAYS A THOUSAND WORDS
But what happens when you have to use words to describe a collection or exhibition and convey the inspiration and focus of the work in a snappy title?
You might look to the Internet and click on Rebecca Uchill’s ‘Random Exhibition Title Generator’, which will give you such plausible-sounding titles as “Breaking Dissent: A Remix of the Local” or “After Illusion: The Video Art of Urban Experience.”
In reality, curators and members of gallery or museum communications teams put a great deal of thought into naming their shows, and the process can take months, even years.
In a small institution, the curator alone might be responsible for a show’s title, but more common is a meeting involving other departments who organise and sell the exhibition. “The curatorial staff comes up with the idea for a title, and then they send it around to a group of us, including the director, the director of exhibitions, and myself,” says Kim Mitchell, chief communications officer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Elena Pakhoutova, assistant curator at the Rubin Museum of Art, recalls a tug-of-war over the naming of the 2010 exhibition “Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures.” Those involved, she says, “had to fight for it. Others thought it was totally off-putting and morbid, that people would not want to see a show with that title. In the end, people loved it. They even made T-shirts saying ‘Remember That You Will Die,’” which is really just a literal translation of the familiar art-historical concept known as memento mori.
When a living artist is the subject of the exhibition, he or she may come up with suggestions for titles. The recent midcareer survey of Wade Guyton at the Whitney is a case in point. His preference was for “Wade Guyton OS,” an unusual title but one that was apt for an artist who builds his imagery through desktop computers, ink-jet printers, and other digital technologies. “OS stands for operating systems,” explains Scott Rothkopf, curator and associate director of programs at the Whitney. “You don’t expect to see that attached to an artist’s name, and some people wouldn’t know what it meant. In the end, I thought it was a great title, but it took some explaining internally to colleagues and to other departments.”
Like naming a baby, getting the title right of a collection or exhibition is very important as it can do much to determine how others perceive and remember the work and/or their visit.
Are there any exhibitions whose titles have stayed with you?
(Above: Five untitled ink-jet works in “Wade Guyton OS” at the Whitney Museum in New York, 2012–13.)