The Exhibition Matrix

Made in Pakistan, Gandhara area, Head of Buddha, Kushan period, late 2nd-3rd century. Schistose phyllite, 14 ½ x 7 ¾ x 9 ¼ in., Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. JohnD. Rockefeller 3rd Collection (1979.2). Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

What role do exhibitions serve at an art museum? Museums, after all, are a particular type of institution defined in large part by the presence of a permanent collection. There are institutions without (or with limited) collections that focus exclusively on exhibitions. Known as kunsthalles (literally, ‘art halls’ in German), these spaces are more popular in Europe, although there are some notable examples in this country.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is decidedly not a kunsthalle. Yes, we have our 4,500-square foot Mason Gallery, along with two smaller temporary exhibition spaces (the Millner Gallery for Works on Paper and the Jacobsen Gallery for American Art), but we also have five thousand works of art spanning five thousand years of human history. Why, given this responsibility to preserve and display our survey collection of historical artworks, would we give some twenty percent of the museum’s gallery space over to temporary exhibitions?

Like most things, there is no single, simple answer to this question. While the Cummer Museum has broad holdings, our collections are not encyclopedic, so the ability to complement what we own is a guiding aim of the Cummer Museum’s exhibition strategy. Take, for example, this summer’s show French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950. The exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art from the Brooklyn Museum had a great many merits, but chief among them was that European modernism is not a strength of our collection. Of the forty-nine artists represented in the show, fewer than five of them routinely are displayed at our museum. Exhibitions allow us to expose our audience to more and different artworks than you might normally find at the Cummer.

Face and Shoulder from an Anthropoid Sarcophagus, 332–30 B.C.E. Black basalt, 18 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 5 in. (47 x 52.1 x 12.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1516E.

Of course, French Moderns was also a draw. Over the twelve-week run of the show, we saw more than fifty-five thousand visitors. Exhibitions also serve as a way to expand our audience and introduce new visitors – or reconnect those who have not been in some time – to this gem of an institution. But this does not mean that exhibitions are profitable. As a general rule, exhibitions lose money. Exhibitions may be an audience engagement tool, but they are first and foremost a service to the communities in which museums operate to help broaden perspectives and connect their communities to the world.

So how, then, does a museum choose which temporary exhibitions to bring to their communities (beyond complementarity with the permanent collection)? There are logistical concerns like cost (can we afford it?), space (is the gallery big enough?), timing (do we have any conflicts?), and these, among others, are more or less consistent across museums. In spite of these tactical commonalities, most museums differ in some degree when it comes to their strategy for choosing exhibitions. At the Cummer Museum, at least during my tenure, we have committed to using exhibitions to tell a global history of art. This global focus serves three purposes: First, it demonstrates that the highest quality art has been produced across time and space. Second, it connects Jacksonville to the broader world and helps situate our current contemporary moment in its historical context. And third, a truly global focus ensures visitors will feel represented in the artwork displayed at the Cummer Museum.

LaPlaca Cohen, a New York marketing firm, has undertaken a longitudinal survey of cultural participation patterns for nearly two decades. According to their research, the second most cited reason for not partaking in a cultural activity is reported as “it’s not for someone like me,” which is to say, the individual does not feel represented. We live in a country of immigrants, and it would be hugely inappropriate for the museum to assume people will identify in any particular way – we all have unique and complicated identities. However, at the Cummer Museum we use a matrix to help guide our decision-making on exhibitions to ensure that we have geographic and chronological diversity in our program over any three-year period.

Tiffany Studios, Two Vases, 1898-1900, photograph by John Faier, ©Driehaus Museum, 2013.

If that is the machinery, then, you might be wondering, what is the outcome? To answer that, consider our three major exhibitions this year.

The first major show of the year, Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures of the Driehaus Collection, opened on October 18. Though perhaps best known for his glass, which is amply represented in the show, metalwork, furniture, and more demonstrate the breadth of accomplishment Tiffany oversaw in his studio. That Tiffany and the artists he employed (both men and women) sought inspiration in nature connects this show to our gardens, and we have exciting programming linking the two that we will be announcing shortly.

Read MoreBy Adam Levine, Ph.D.

Author: Arbus

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