Labels For Your Art Installation

Many curators – especially those of contemporary art – will argue the merits of using labels in exhibitions. Not many of them are opposed to identifying the art, but a lot of them wish to stop at that. They don’t like to use extensive text on labels.

On the other hand, the general public loves and needs the text. They love to read the background of the artist and artwork and they need the text to become better educated.

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Here are some quick guidelines for your exhibit labels.

  • Use good paper.
  • Select a plain, readable font.
  • Be consistent with your format for name, title, medium, date, and price.
  • Make text at least 14 point if you want them to be readable by all.
  • Place labels all at the same height around the room.
  • Make labels the exact same color as the wall color if possible. You want your work–not the labels–to stand out when people are scanning the room for the first time.
  • If your labels will be up for a while, use a spray glue to mount them to mat board. If the paper is a different color, use a reverse bevel cut with your cutter to cut them out. The reverse cut eliminates distracting white lines around the outside of the finished label.
  • Add extra text–stories that illuminate your work and help you connect with viewers.

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32 thoughts on “Labels For Your Art Installation”

  1. Alyson, I’m SO glad you’ve endorsed the idea of adding extra text to exhibition labels. As a fabric collage artist, I find that most viewers have never seen anything similar to my process. Therefore, they NEED information. They WANT to learn about it and I WANT to educate them!

  2. I’m both an artist and a curator at a small contemporary art museum so I understand both sides of this issue. Finding the right balance between a clean exhibition design and educating the public, which is almost always part of a museum’s mission, is tricky. My two cents: Sans seriff fonts give labels a more “contemporary” feel. Vinyl labels are also an option, especially if the labels are short and sweet. They are more economical than you might think. Foam core (cut very cleanly) which is very lightweight is a nice alternative to matte board. It can be mounted with masking tape which won’t peel paint off the walls when it is removed. After you cut it you can tidy up the edges by lightly sanding them with fine sandpaper. People don’t read long narratives on galleries walls unless they are very, very compelling. I suggest keeping labels and artist’s statements short and succint. You can always have an exhibition binder with extended text about your process, concepts, etc. nearby.

  3. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Ellen: Yes, while labels may be the bane of the curator, they’re underused from artists. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. Shan: Yes to the short copy! Not sure about the vinyl. Likewise, I’ve seen labels printed on clear mailing labels, which I have never seen look good on the wall. The wall seeps through the label unevenly and gives the label a multi-colored texture.

  4. One of the things that some of the national art societies have started doing in the UK is doing a larger label which is about the artist if they hang the work grouped by artist. Mini CVs or a couple of paragraphs about the artist. When I saw it for the first time it was very effective. The Pastel Society did it just for their members which of course then made it something you wanted to aim to have. It’s a neat way of creating a distinction for an open show.

  5. I like the idea of a bit more copy too. I want to know the media, especially if it is mixed-media or includes found objects.
    A bit off the subject, but I’m looking for gallery lettering (signage) that I would use for the name of the show and dates. Something lightweight, letters about 7″ to 8″ high and about 1″ thick. Does anyone have a good resource to pass on?

  6. Alyson Stanfield

    Susan: Not sure about that, but most galleries and museums use vinyl lettering. You can get it at almost any sign store–national or local. Easy to rub on and to remove and it looks really classy.

  7. Thank you for answering Alyson. We rent the building and some walls are textured (stucco like) and others have a grass cloth wall covering. It looks better than it sounds, but the vinyl looks lumpy and it won’t stick to the wall covering. Looking for something solid and reuseable.

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  9. I run a little contemporary art gallery/exhibition space in Chicago and we do not use labels. I find them tacky and distracting. Instead, I leave an info sheet by the entrance of the gallery with small images of the work and the artist’s name and the title of the piece. Simple.

  10. Has anyone gone the route of using mobile devices to disseminate artwork information? For instance, QR codes are used all over in magazines and store fronts to deliver marketing material. Has anyone tried QR codes for the artwork labels? Or is it too gosh, and distracting. Is there also any worry about clients using the phone to take pictures of the artwork, and thus becoming a policing problem?

    1. I’ve tried them before and most people do not have the QR code reader on their phone. Also, it seemed like a fad. At one point, they were really popular and then they weren’t. We’ve stopped using them.

  11. Alyson Stanfield

    Steve: The Denver Art Museum’s current exhibit “Blink” uses QR codes on some of the labels.

    I think it’s important to have the basic info (your credit) on the label and have the QR code be only for extra.

    When I went through the Blink exhibit, I didn’t see anyone but me using the QR codes. Also, a guard told me that some people had a hard time getting service in the galleries. So, you want to make sure that’s not an obstacle.

    I hope to write on this soon.

    1. I’m on the West Coast and won’t be able to make the DAM “Blink” exhibit, but thanks for the reference!

      Are the QR codes directing to the youTube channel? I liked the Golan Levin TED talk; did he have any of those works present?

      I’m helping put together an art show that will use QR codes as a portal to extend the artist statement and minimize the amount of text on the artwork itself. We are leaving the requirements very open and it will be interesting to see how both artist and viewers react to this approach.

    2. “I’m helping put together an art show that will use QR codes as a portal to extend the artist statement and minimize the amount of text on the artwork itself.”

      So the reader can see the extra text only if they have a mobile device? Isn’t that unfair to people who don’t?

    3. Jocelyn: This is an interesting post. I recently saw a show where you had to have a cell phone to snap a picture to see what was inside (hole very small and up very high). It was done this way on purpose – to bring up issues of accessibility and limitations.

    4. For some cases, yes it would be a mistake to assume personal mobile phones as the only access/entry point into the artwork.

      For this particular show, it was amongst a closed population that’s providing applications and software support for mobile devices, so no it was not unfair or ignoring a segment of the expected audience. If someone didn’t have a phone which could utilize the QR code, we actually wondered what kind of social interaction might occur? Would people share their screens? Would there be any way to qualify a ‘divide’?

      It was also being used to augment and not replace, so again not really a ‘fairness’ issue. The main purpose for the show was to experience the artwork of colleagues in an environment where people gathered to hear technical discussions. The QR code usage was a sideline extension and wasn’t played up as integral to the pieces being displayed. It was meant as an additional channel to re-contextualize the Artist’s Statement paradigm.

      I do understand that there are issues with accessibility when assuming everyone in an audience fits a particular requirement. As artist and curators, we need to be vigilant that we check requirements of the targeted audience against the goal of our communication.

  12. lucinda linderman

    Is it easier to sell work when the prices are on the labels or when there is a price list that people can walk around with?

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lucinda: I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I really don’t imagine there would be much difference. Usually high-end galleries keep off prices next to art and use the list.

    2. I believe there is a HUGE difference when the price is not on the label next to the painting.
      Many people look, want, look at the price and buy, but many ( both high end clients and viewers) like the price there to see so that they don’t have to look around, ask for the list etc and then see that they don’t want it according to its price and then be stuck talking to the gallery attendant when they would rather be looking at the art.
      Plus don’t forget many people are vain about wearing glasses and so to have to look at a sheet of lists makes it harder.
      The price list is irritating to me as an artist and also a collector of art as I need to keep referring to it rather than just have the convenience of having it on the label.
      I also believe it hurts sales of art as many are too embarrassed to ask ( and this includes the wealthy)
      It is an archaic and pompous way of labelling and I know considered to be the way by high end galleries , but I am finding more and more of these same high end galleries putting prices on the labels. Thank God.


    3. Corrie: It will be interesting to see how this changes.

      I’m not convinced that prices on labels are any larger/better to see than price on a list. Usually labels are harder to read.

      But your other points are valid. Things are changing!

  13. Alyson,
    I had a question regarding photography. What is a good price to start selling prints, during this economy, its seems absurd to charge 75 USD for an 8×10 when I myself am having trouble paying 4 USD for a gallon of milk.

  14. Hi,
    Do you have any suggestions for papers to print color labels on?
    I’ve been trying to find out how some museums are able to print their object labels so that the color of the labels match the wall behind them.

    Also, I appreciate the tip about the reverse bevel cut, I kept wondering how to solve the problem of having the edge color match the wall as well.

  15. Aesthetic Cataclysm

    given the choice and time, I will use vinyl wrapped sentra, as many museums use. I worked in the print department of a world wide exhibition company and this is what we used exclusively. They look clean, professional, are legible and consistent when they need to display information about the subject. Tonight I was looking for a template in lieu of being able to access the old print room. The search continues. Opening tomorrow.

  16. Hi All,

    I’d like to print labels but with adhesive, and a clear background so that only the letters are visible. These will be placed on clear plexiglass panels. Any suggestions on where I can get labels like these? Perhaps a standard p-touch machine will do?

    Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you!


    1. C: You can probably buy them at an office supply store.

      But I’ve never seen these labels look good in an installation. They get air pockets behind the label, which discolors them and they become distracting. Maybe they make them better now, but they used to look pretty crappy after they were up for awhile.

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  18. I am looking for some ‘plastic tags’ that I had bought a long time ago (and the vendor is nowhere to be found) that were just a bit bigger than a business card. It had on the back of it a tab that you could screw into the frame of a painting/picture. The tags were useful to put artist/painting info and were reusable. Any sources, or ideas? Thanks!

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