Saturday, July 26, 2014

Art-world trend watch: Could this be the end of the wall labels?

Program from NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial
Let me start by saying that one of the things I like most about museums is the thoroughness of curators when it comes to labeling the art on view.  Commercial galleries frequently don’t label works by leading artists.  Instead, you have to ask for “The Book.”  Even a fearless art fan like myself is sometimes too intimidated by some of the more lofty galleries.  Plus, as someone who likes to take pictures of the art I see and write about it later, snapping a quick picture of the wall label means you have valuable information that can be used when posting photos later on.

So imagine my concern when I arrived at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) to see NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial and there were no wall labels! Instead we were given “programs,” as if the museum’s jealously of all those Broadway Playbills had just become too much to take. I still would have preferred wall labels, but I was willing to try out this new idea of a museum program.  Unfortunately the diagrams in said program were quite confusing and some of the listings were obviously blatantly wrong.  It made for a fairly confusing experience.

A confusing diagram from the MAD program.
One woman with a classic New York accent was so flummoxed she confronted the gallery attendant and pleaded for help.  The gallery attendant was startlingly clueless.  After loudly complaining to her friend, she approached me saying, “You seem to know what you’re doing.”  I showed her how the diagrams worked and helped her figure out where she was in the exhibit and after thanking me, she wandered off, stepped up on a low platform holding a bass drum turned into art and began tapping on it. This got the gallery attendant’s attention, who scrambled to remind the woman not to touch the art.

I left MAD not particularly concerned about this development.  But just a few days later I wandered into the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and headed for the exhibit Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 – 2010.  And guess what? No wall labels! Instead there were pedestals filled with “programs.”

Program fro MoMA
Both the MAD and MoMA programs shared some similarities: printed with black ink only on cheap, newsprint-like paper; approximately the same size, similar to a Parade magazine; filled with diagrams of all the galleries with numbers that corresponded to the art listings.  Where they differed is in user-friendliness.  The MoMA program was much clearer and easier to follow.

If all this isn’t alarming enough, just a few days ago, I was making my daily review of stories on Bloun Artinfo and came across this story.  In it, Scott Indrisek talks about attending the press day for MoMA’s upcoming Christopher Williams show, The Production Line of Happiness.  According to Indrisek, “. . . for some critics in attendance, the truly hot-button issue seemed to be the exhibition’s lack of wall labels.”  At this point, one can only wonder if this rampant use of “programs” at museums might somehow signal the end of the wall label.

A charming detail from the MoMA program.
Now I’ll admit that for the Sigmar Polke exhibit, not having wall labels made for a more visually appealing experience.  Polke’s work is experimental and varies widely in style and mediums.  Eliminating the wall cards helped simplify a somewhat  chaotic affair. And while I couldn’t snap pictures of wall labels at either of the shows, I did walk away with a complete list of every work in each show. Plus the program included more information than you might get on wall labels. That was nice when I was writing about the exhibits later. 

But don’t think I’m supporting this new trend. I like my wall labels.  And so I beseech art fans everywhere, join the cause.  “Wall Labels for the People!”

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