Risky business

Simon Stephens, 29.02.2012
Museums Journal: blog
Many museums and galleries seem to be playing it safe with their temporary exhibitions in 2012. Whether it’s because of economic pressures or the promise of extra visitors during the Olympic year, shows are often running for longer and are focusing on well-known artists guaranteed to pull in the crowds.

Turner is everywhere, with the artist featuring in major exhibitions at London’s National Gallery, Tate Liverpool, Turner Contemporary in Margate and Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Cumbria.

Anniversaries are also playing their part, with the Queen’s Jubilee leading to a procession of royal-related exhibitions at museums including the National Museum Cardiff, London’s National Portrait Gallery (admittedly these are the same exhibition), the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Maritime Museum (a feature in the April issue of Museums Journal will assess the exhibitions related to the Queen’s 60-year reign).

But not everyone is going for dead certs. On a visit to Liverpool last week I went to see an exhibition of abstract works by Charline von Heyl, a German-born artist who lives in New York.

The show, which includes 42 canvases and covers the whole top floor, was greeted with joy by www.thedoublenegative.co.uk, a website dedicated to the arts in Liverpool.

“There’s a new exhibition opening at Tate Liverpool and, shhh, it features a living painter,” said its preview article, pointing out that the gallery has arguably been “catering to footfall and mass consciousness” with shows in recent years on artists such as Klimt and Picasso. It’s a “brave and refreshing tangent taken by Tate”, it concluded.

On the same day as the von Heyl show was unveiled, Tate Liverpool also opened a Martin Creed exhibition, part of the Artist Rooms collection of modern and contemporary art. This could also be described as challenging, with one work by the former Turner Prize-winner consisting of four screens showing films of people being sick.

Unfortunately, some of the accompanying gallery text is equally indigestible. Creed’s “oeuvre” is mentioned, as is his work’s “non-hierarchical equivalence” and his “adherence to rule-based ideas”.

Now, I think I understood most of what the graphic panel was trying to say, but I had to re-read some of it a few times before I did. Tate is often so good at communicating complex ideas using straightforward language.

Putting on risky exhibitions is great, but the gallery text should be as straightforward and accessible as the work is challenging.

Simon Stephens is the deputy editor of Museums Journal

Follow Simon on Twitter @SimonAStephens

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