On art
An inside look at the decision-making process on how paintings are hung.

Insights on seeing an exhibition curated

An inside look at the decision-making process on how paintings are hung.

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.

We artists create our paintings, prepare them for presentation and sale - and then most of the time someone else chooses how they are displayed in an exhibition. What does this mean for your work?

Obviously the people curating the show want every piece to look its best. But compromise is often necessary in a mixed show.

Out of artistic curiosity I recently was privileged to observe a mixed show of over 120 paintings being curated for an exhibition in five rooms.

The first stage was to roughly allocate paintings to rooms, then the second stage was to decide exact placement on each wall from the paintings propped in that room.

Here are some things I learned.

Size matters. If you want the best spot in a room or a highly visible location, paint big.

It’s a no-brainer really. If a curator has to fit a lot of assorted shapes in a limited space, it makes sense to start by placing the biggest ones first - they may only fit in a limited number of places.

A large painting will also dominate a wall and impact on the whole room. So the large paintings were allocated not just to a room but also to the exact spot in the room straight away.

(A small powerful painting can also dominate and have impact, but it needs to have space around it. The Mona Lisa is a small painting displayed all by itself. Group shows often don’t have the luxury of extra wall space, and sometimes paintings are rejected during hanging due to running out of hanging space.)

In this particular exhibition there was also a highly visible open area, and the curator chose to hang large, bold paintings there.

Small paintings can always be fitted in somewhere and would logically be dealt with towards the end of the curating process. But in this instance there was a small room that was really only suitable for small paintings. There wasn’t enough room to step back and look at larger paintings. So the smallest paintings were hung in this one room, quite densely and up to three paintings high. Quieter small paintings were respectfully placed to look their best, but there was unavoidable competition for attention.

From there, a curator has many options of how to group paintings for each room, as you can discover from googling. The method I observed was just the method chosen in this instance, to group like subject matter together.

Several paintings had arrived with similar themes, for example, animals or seascapes. Most regular exhibitions experience this element of randomness, where some years there will be a lot of paintings of Venice or flowers for example. So paintings on a similar theme are displayed in the one room.

This meant that a final room ended up with the odds and ends, whatever didn’t fit the themes that happened to emerge from the paintings submitted. So if your paintings are quite different from the usual, your work may end up in a grouping like this.

There were some surprises when it came to deciding on the final placement of every painting. In each room we started in the centre of each wall, placing the largest or strongest piece first, and then worked outwards.

As an artist I automatically assess any painting I see, using my own personal criteria. But here we were simply looking for what would look best next to the already-placed painting. Amazingly, often a lesser work would shine in the right location. It was a matter of how a similar or contrasting colour, shape or design in the second work made both works look good.

Of course towards the end a lot of juggling happens when the final painting in a room just doesn’t work and works have to be moved around between rooms. The curator has to carry a lot of images in their head for retrieval at this stage.

How do watercolour paintings hold up in a mixed show? I have read interviews with watercolour artists of quiet pieces saying that their work can struggle to project in a mixed show. Some of my paintings feature strong colours and designs that carry well against fairly bright work; and I have seen some of my quieter paintings take a bit of discovering in a wall of paintings. This can happen with any media but particularly when featuring watercolour’s more subtle traits.

Where it is permissible I often take a photo of the wall of mixed paintings around my work to analyse later how well or badly my painting projected. I don’t think there is an easy answer as you should paint what you want to paint. Perhaps the best solution is to exhibit with fellow watercolourists at times.

Seeing your own work curated as just another painting in a show is a valuable experience.

Perhaps the best you can do to help how your painting is curated is to include in your artistic process a reminder that you’d like your painting to have a strong presence, for wherever it ends up.

- June 2018

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.