Themed Art Exhibits Gone Amok

I have a big gripe that has been festering since the early 1990s when I was a curator.

That was a long time ago, but as best I can remember, two women artists proposed an exhibition with the theme of trees. It was to be an exhibit women artists working with the tree theme. (There was a reason for the trees, but I can’t recall what it was.)

I turned them down. We already had a gallery in town that was producing mostly theme exhibits and I saw no reason for the art museum to follow suit. That wasn’t what we were about–at least under my watch.

Themes are gimmicks. I’m not opposed to gimmicks, but let’s accept them for what they are.

Forced clever or cutesy themes rarely produce great art.

In fact, they often result in rotten art.

When you ask artists to make art for your theme, you’re doing them (and the rest of us) a disservice. They have to conform to your vision and we’re asked to look at the (usually) less-than-stellar results.

If you want to curate a themed exhibit, do your homework and find artists who already work in that theme. You’ll have a much stronger show.

If theme exhibits are your thing, fine. But don’t use them as a crutch. And don’t let them interfere with the important work you were intended to do.

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16 comments to Themed Art Exhibits Gone Amok

  • Amen. Most of my work that has been for a theme was frustrating to make. Now I only do themed exhibits if I already have the piece made. It feels a lot better for myself and the process in which I work.

  • Oh definitely. I realised very quickly that I work best when I just crack on with my own work and only apply for exhibitions that fit what I’m already doing. I hardly ever work to a brief these days and will only consider doing so it coincides with my own interests.

    That said, when I was curating, I always loved having a theme for my shows but it was usually a bit more amorphous than ‘trees’. Having some correspondences between the art or the artists can make for a stronger show.

  • I’ve always felt a themed exhibition can be a way to really stretch yourself. That being said, I tend to stay away from themed exhibitions, unless they are somewhat close to what I do, but they can also be a real challenge if I want to take it on (however, since most have quick turnarounds and deadlines, they really aren’t ideal conditions to examine a new concept in depth – that’s probably why so many themed exhibitions have less than top-notch work). Plus, just looking at the lists of themed exhibitions out there gives me a huge list of what kind of ideas people out there have about art. I look at those lists as an opportunity to ask myself, “how would I deal with this kind of thematic content?” It gives me a chance to look outside of my comfort zone.

  • Seems to me, themes are a recent trendy artsy sounding way of putting artists feet in the door of acceptable show formats. As an artist, I hate trends and conditions. I hate state and federal grants that make artists into performing seals, that have to bark for their dinner using social statements, popular trends, political back scratching and forced creativity as their fodder.
    If an artist is working on a subject or concept, and a theme results as a by product, or an intention of creative exploration, then fine. I don’t recall Van Gogh pumping out themes, or Matisse, or Pissarro or Picasso.
    Themes, a recent creation of the times, are fabricated to produce monetary rewards, grant approvals, popular social name dropping parties, and yada yada. Seems there are more phony reasons to paint and create than there are artists.
    What artists don’t need are parameters to fall into. A caged tiger is no longer the animal observed in the wild. Artists should remain the wild beasts that they are, in order to let the muse work its wonders.
    Please don’t feed the artists. -They work best when driven by their own devises.

  • Thank you Russ! I just read that out loud in the car and everyone agrees!

  • I second what Kirsty said. Do your own work and if a theme show comes along that your work fits into, that’s fine. It’s another opportunity to show your work. Just make sure it’s a really good match and something that you’d be proud to put in your bio or CV.

  • I agree! I think it also comes under the topic of pigeonholing yourself too, sometimes. Which you’ve talked about before. By chance I’m hoping to do a themed show in 2011 but only because there’s a small group of us in a larger society who all do work about water, it’s our existing theme and we thought it might be interesting to do a show together. There’s a ceramicist I’d also like to show with for the same reason.

  • I can never seem to get up the muster to do a theme that I am not interested in producing. And deadlines to enter themed shows are always a problem for me to meet. If a theme show comes along and I already have a piece that fits into that theme…I will enter.

  • I agree about themed shows although the ones I’ve been invited to have almost all been ones that are already in my genre; equine art.

    A local arts council put on an equine themed exhibit two years ago to which I wasn’t invited, even though I’m known in the local horse community for my work. The curator invited her friends only. Some of the work was okay, but much of it looked like artists working out of their element. None of it was outstanding work.

    On a related point, Alyson, what do you think of themed exhibits where the “theme” is so vague that you have no idea what it’s about? One of the local arts groups does these regularly, and I feel stupid having to ask for clarification of the theme. Seems to me that it should be defined in a more obvious way to the artists while still leaving room for interpretation and expression. Art should not be obtuse.

    I rarely enter these shows.

  • It seems there’s many sides to this coin.
    - If select artists are asked to produce something they would prefer not to merely to fit the theme, I can see where it’s not a good fit. When it’s a juried open call to any artist, perhaps you’d get a more interesting sampling.
    - When the ‘theme’ is actually just a description of wanted subject matter, it may limit the interpretation of the art down to strictly the objective description or of it’s a ‘pretty picture’ of the subject. (*yawn*)
    - If the theme is a concept, I would hope part of the challenge of the show (as an artist, curator or viewer) would be the interpretation of the theme. Karen, call me weird, but I like vague themes. I like to see the mind of the artist working in how they interpreted the theme.

  • becky nielsen

    Working to a theme can be deadening, just as sometimes trying to meet someone’s expectations on a commission feels futile. But if I can find any live spark when someone mentions a theme and I let it smolder a bit, I occasionally have found myself going in a direction that I would not have anticipated – and it’s great! I’ve discovered some new and exciting (to me) ways of working that I never envisioned. That is great fun.

  • Thank you Jenny. I don’t think I’ve ever been read out loud in a car before. I feel honored.- Thanks for the moral artistic support, from “artists who stare down themes.”

  • YES, thank you. I dislike themed shows, they hem you in and for me this never results in my best work. Yes, it is a way to stretch yourself, and sometimes the results have been good, but too many times they have not.

    ‘Vague’ themes are the best because they can be interpreted in so many different ways. It is really fun to see what others have come up with.

  • Louise Farrell

    Actually I like themed shows. If one isn’t comfortable with the theme you can pass it by and not get involved. But a theme pulls a group show together and gives it a core.

  • “Words and Symbols” is my current exhibit in our 8 thousand sq. ft. gallery. A theme, if you wish. But what makes this work here in Miami, is that there are several thousand artists all wishing to be seen.
    I do several themed shows a year. This is how I find new artists. However, I send out the notice only two weeks prior to deadline and I do that for three reasons.
    1. I do not believe in pressuring an artist to perform.
    2. They either have the work available or not.
    3. I do not believe in forcing an artists budget

  • Like Karen and Anna Maria a theme can cause me to look at my art, but not begin a piece. Unless I already have a piece that matches the theme, I pass. When I unhooked income making from art making I defined my art as that which makes meaning in my life. Because we don’t find meaning in life, we make meaning in life. So, if I have a piece that made meaning, I can offer it. Otherwise, I can enjoy the work of others. Looking is an important part of being an artist, too.