Exhibitions is a genre of events that we have explored at some length in the past, but there is an interesting distinction within this genre between trade exhibitions and fine arts exhibitions. If you consider fine arts to be an industry, then you can think about this distinction like Apple vs. PC: there is Apple, then there is everyone else. Indeed, trade exhibitions exist for virtually every industry there is in the world. Despite all the access digital platforms provide for people and businesses, it is still an integral part of any industry that there are live platforms like exhibitions where peers and colleagues can physically connect under the same roof. The fundamental reason why the fine art exhibition is unique from all the other industries however, is that while exhibitions are only a component of all the other industries, it is the essence of what drives the world of art.
When people refer to fine art exhibitions, they typically refer specifically to exhibits of paintings and sculptures. Events like the various film festivals that I consider to be exhibitions of the art of filmmaking are excluded from this genre, as are fashion weeks and industrial design exhibitions. Fine arts exhibitions are produced almost exclusively by museums, galleries, auction houses, dealers, and the most serious of private art collectors. Like any genre of professionally produced event, art exhibitions are productions of strategy and purpose, and has its own economics of associated costs and business models. It’s a business whose productions can launch an artist’s career, an industry that sustains the entire profession of art curators, and a practice that marks the rare moments of action in the otherwise glacial operations of the art world.
Like any other event, art exhibitions need the 4 components of audience, content, sponsors, and staging in order to become a successful production. The intended audience and the purpose of the audience varies based on what kind of exhibition it is. For museums — they typically do a special exhibition every season in addition to the permanent works they’re always displaying — the numerical majority of the audience members would be the general public, though for the more well known museums there typically is an “opening night gala” type of event at the launch of these exhibitions, where the upper class patrons of the arts are invited for an exclusive first look and graciously encouraged to donate money.
Exhibitions produced by art galleries and collectors, on the other hand, are oftentimes produced to launch a new artist, so the audience for these exhibits are typically either the clientele of the gallery or the social circles of the private collector. Auction houses typically run an exhibition in the days prior to when they conduct a sale. “Viewing days”, as it is descriptively called, are typically open to the general public, with the intention obviously being to attract those who are looking to bid at the auction itself.
Much of the complexities of producing art exhibitions are in the contents and the staging. Art curators, whether those who work in-house at museums and galleries or those who work freelance, face all the same challenges as other event curators who work in conference productions and music festivals. Establishing themes, building narratives, establishing relevance, conveying urgency; all the same elements that go into the curation of any event type also applies to the curation of art exhibitions. After these macro-strategies are determined, there is then the subsequent process of logistics. Reaching out to the artists, coming to agreements regarding sales commissions, booking a venue, booking the moving companies, getting the proper insurance, the logistics go on and on.
The essence of any exhibition is to produce what is the definition of an exhibit in the first place: a display. For trade exhibitions, these displays are of all the companies that represent an industry or a segment of the local economy. And that’s what makes art exhibitions a little bit unique in its function. All of visual arts is a display; that’s why it’s called “visual arts”. Unlike a convention center that sits empty when there’s no exhibitions, a museum or a gallery that produces an exhibition does so either in place of or in addition to the pieces that are displayed at the venue in regular times. Behind every art deal, there is at one point or another, a display; the customer needs to see the work of art he or she is paying for, and a display is the only way to achieve that. As such, exhibitions serve a unique purpose to the industry of fine arts than it does to every other industry. In the art world, the exhibition is an extension of the essence of the industry itself.
See you at the next exploration!