Curation: What Are Exhibitions For, Again?


A couple of years ago, in those halcyon days of seminar rooms crowded with bodies and the preamble of projector problems, I took part in a panel talk titled ‘What are Exhibitions For?’ organised by students at IADT. I can barely remember what I spoke about, nor the contributions of the other panellists, but the title question of the panel discussion haunted me then and returns to haunt me again – especially now that exhibitions themselves are being quickly redefined as experiences for the screen.

In over 12 years of making exhibitions in physical space, and learning to make exhibitions before that, I had never previously been asked the question so pointedly. I could always muster things to say about exhibitions; I was sensitive to their special ways of bringing things together, believing in the relationships, artistic registers, activations that are possible between artworks that share space in a room. It seems strange to admit that the bigger question of what for? was never part of my momentum.

The question of the panel talk at IADT was not being asked from a position of artistic ignorance or disinvestment, of course. It was being asked by a cohort of degree-level art students at a reputable art school – a position that was intrinsic and embedded with the values of artistic practice. It was from this position that the exhibition (as a format of presentation; as a format of artistic experience) became a question of implicit functionality, whether that function was for themselves, their practices, or the constellation of publics they sought to address.

As someone who has defined their work primarily through exhibition-making (as a curator and as an organisational director), the question ‘What are Exhibitions For?’ ping-ponged in my brain between positions of defensive retrospection and excitable speculation. The question suggested that the values of exhibitions and exhibition-making were not self-evidencing (to art students, at least) in the way that I had often assumed them to be. It also suggested that exhibitions were accountable to the conditional effects of how art could be seen, received, and circulated; in turn, suggesting – in theory, at least – the efficacy of other organisational models. For a generation of art students who were developing their practices in the context of a housing crisis, the depreciations of the home, the studio, and diminishing opportunities to exhibit their work, could logically translate into critical scepticism. It wasn’t just about certain kinds of exhibitions that displayed certain kinds of content that were being required to prove their instrumental worth and relevance – it was exhibitions in their most general sense.

Despite a long and rich history of artists who have worked beyond the exhibition – producing their work in public spaces, educational environments, through publishing, broadcast networks, and the postal system, for instance –  the exhibitionary assumptions of the visual arts still dominate the organisational infrastructure and its immediate horizons. It’s there in our educational models, funding frameworks, in the architecture that is built, in the cultural policy documents that are written, and in the attitudinal and behavioural imaginations of a visual arts audience. When we consider that the exhibition format that we’ve inherited is quite specifically and directly descendant from the white and wealthy context of 19th-century European society, it’s perhaps remarkable that the exhibition (as a format of presentation and artistic experience) has so far survived the dismantlement and decolonisation that continues to reshape institutions and other public arenas.   

In the years that immediately preceded our current COVID-19 predicament, the exhibition had taken us as far as what Stephen Wright describes as a ‘sustaining environment’; so much so that any comparable infrastructural imaginary for artistic production and its public reception has been increasingly hard to conceive.   

In April 2020, however, we saw the beginning of a sudden online migration of the ‘exhibition’ by organisations and galleries whose physical spaces were made inaccessible by the pandemic. Most of the examples that I encountered could be more accurately described as screen-based exhibitions, especially because it was the digital screen, rather than their online status as such, that characterised the experience. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call them exhibitions either. Screenings of artists’ video via Vimeo links, embedded into institutional websites that were only ever designed for promotional or informational communication; slide sequences of rectangular paintings, flatly photographed with the same archival austerity; three-dimensional renders of gallery spaces that are navigable with a touchpad, not dissimilar to the sketch-up models that many larger organisations use to mock up their installation plans. I have not yet seen the migration of programme content online resulting in any new interfaces or platforms of experience for the way that art is either produced or encountered; it mostly seems to force art to perform its old exhibitionary resemblances in the digital corridors of the institutional office.

Of course, as the Director of EVA International – a biennial that had to remodel its programme into a phased and blended schedule of venue-based, online, and offsite presentations – I am entirely sympathetic to the difficulties that have led many exhibition-orientated organisations online, with little other immediate opportunities to continue their work. I am not so concerned with art being online or being viewed on a screen in principle. My concern is precisely that, in the scramble to emerge from this ongoing crisis, we might miss an opportunity to recast a new imagination for the way that visual art can enter and circulate in the world. I’m increasingly unsure that the ‘exhibition’ provides a relevant or useful model for thinking this through.

Matt Packer is the Director of EVA International.