Last week I made my case for you to become an arts writer/reviewer. Judging by the comments, a number of subscribers are now on their way to starting their art-writing journeys.
Today I want to give you tips on how to write about other artists’ exhibits.
Let's start with the facts.
Find the Facts
Gather as much information as possible about the exhibit you’ll see before visiting. Look for answers to the following on websites, in press releases, and on social media.
Who? Who is in the exhibit? Who organized the exhibit? Who is the curator?
What? What is the exhibit about (its curatorial thesis or purpose)? What is included in the exhibit? What is the entrance fee? What do you know about the artists and artwork you’ll be seeing?
Where? Where is the venue, including the street address? Where can you park?
When? When does the exhibit open? When does it close? When is the best time to see it?
Why? Why this exhibit? Why now? Why should your readers care?
How? How can you get a complimentary pass? How can you secure images to use in your article? How can you get in touch with the curator or artists?
Armed with the facts, you can begin planning your visit.
Plan Your Visit
Call or email the venue to make sure they’ll be open and find out when the best time to come would be. If the person answering the phone doesn’t seem to know much and it's a museum, ask to speak to the education office, curator, or public relations officer.
Some smaller galleries seem to close on a whim. I was recently at a gallery that was partially closed because of video taping. Likewise, you don’t want to look at the work when school tours or sketching sessions are going on in the galleries. You want the space mostly to yourself. You want quiet.
Plan on spending at least an hour in the galleries.
Venues with entrance fees will give legitimate publication journalists a complimentary pass, but you must be established and prove you have a significant following. Contact their press or media office.
Bring a pen, notepad, and voice recorder—depending on how you work best.
I used to travel up to an hour to review an exhibit. It was nice to have the recorder to help me process my ideas on the ride home.
Get the Lay of the Land
When you first enter the space, make a cursory walk-through to look at the big picture.
How is it installed? Is it chronological? By artist? By subject? By media?
What’s good about the installation? What strikes you as “off”?
Everything is fair game. You might consider:
- Label size
- Font selection
- Explanatory text
- Wall color
- Floor color or pattern (yes! even that)
- Spacing between the art
- Sight lines
- Juxtapositions of individual artworks
How has the curator made sense of the large grouping? Use this information to give your reader a sense of being there.
Select Feature Pieces
What work stands out as worthy of your attention? Select 3 or 4 pieces (depending on the space you have) and spend most of your time with them. Sit your butt down in front of each one for long periods of time. Ask for a stool or chair if you need one.
Write down every detail so you can describe it for your reader.
Don't run through an exhibit with your camera and go home to write. Your digital images can neither replace the experience you have with the art itself nor can it replicate the relationship of the works to one another.
Why do you like them? What makes them strong? How do they relate to one another and the exhibit as a whole?
I write almost exclusively about work that I like because (1) I’d rather spend more time with work that I like and (2) I enjoy the challenge of persuading readers to my line of thinking. Also, in all honesty, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I don’t write to be critical, but to point out strengths.
Get permission to take photos of groupings of art to help you remember the installation.
For illustrating your article, sculpture or other three-dimensional objects, like benches, add a lot to an installation image. If there is no sculpture, single artworks might be the best choice to use with your article. Use your artist eye to frame an image that will attract more eyeballs.
Ask the venue if they have press images they prefer be used in your feature. Take photos of any labels for artwork you want to properly credit.
Ask the venue for preferred credit lines to go along with the images. Make sure all names are spelled correctly. Double and triple check the facts for accuracy.
Select 1 Thing to Criticize
If you like everything, your readers will get suspicious. More importantly, you need to use these opportunities to hone your eye. To be more discerning. But you don\'t have to be as critical as you might think.
I have been known to harp about lighting, display cases, installation, traffic flow, label text, and label styling. I’ve also knocked the way a show was organized (e.g. the juror was anonymous).
You might find fault with an artist’s technique, matting (boy, don’t get me started on poor matting!), framing, artistic choices and clichés, or craftsmanship. It makes more sense to criticize installation and curatorial choices in a group show and an artist’s individual choices in a solo exhibit.
Pull Your Article Together
Go home and put your thoughts together while they\'re still fresh. You’ll forget your brilliant ideas if you wait until tomorrow. Write What Anne Lamott calls the shitty first draft immediately.
Sit on your draft for 24 hours and then look at it with new eyes. Revise it in 2 or 3 sessions until your deadline approaches. If you’re working without a deadline, make one up.
Edit your review for spelling, grammar, redundancy, and anything that might put the reader to sleep. Be open to suggested changes from an editor. The only way to become a better writer is to get this kind of feedback.
This post was first published on May 2, 2012 and has been expanded and updated with original comments intact.