Exhibition titles – love or hate them, we must create them

by Susan J Mumford

 I was once engrossed in a conversation with a photographer friend, in which we were evaluating the relationship between writing and visual art. For some pieces, having a title and concept is  vital however, this isn’t always so. Consider a  classic Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite National Park. The image  speaks for itself, and as a life-long Adams follower, I  needn’t see anything but the photograph, though the addition  of descriptive text (location and date) does not detract. 

However, words are absolutely essential in one form of art presentation, as all exhibitions require a title. (This is unless  you decide to do a Prince, such as the “exhibition without a title…?)  

The most effective show listings, including  printed publications such as newspapers and local zines and online collections of current and upcoming shows, start with a catchy and  specific title. This can be followed by a subtitle that provides more detail. 

First and foremost, let’s consider solo exhibitions. The title will incorporate the artist’s name and a description of the body of work being presented. Consider a show I  visited at the National Maritime Museum: Ansel  Adams: Photography from the mountains to the  sea. While not  elaborate or ostentatious, the simple wording will draw attention to readers who admire Adams as well as those who have a taste for  photography of mountains or the sea.

Next, in  considering group shows, they most often start with the title, which is  followed by a sub-title that lists artist names. A top tip is to never  under any circumstances give a title such as, “Group show” or “New  paintings”. These are such general descriptions that they in no way  pique interest, in listings, email subject lines, printed posters and so on. In order to draw intrigue, consider this  captivating example: “The Grand Canyon reinvented with Virtual Reality: Susan  Mumford and Chris King present an experiential exhibition, complimented  by original polaroid photographs.” While the idea is great, how do you come up with  effective titles?

There’s a great temptation  to keep titles basic, as it’s easy to start pulling out your hair while  anguishing over what to say. In my own experience while curating  exhibitions for over a decade, I found that sitting myself down in a  coffee shop (or wherever your own creative place is located) and giving  oneself an hour to brainstorm with a goal to leave with the title done  and dusted worked a treat. If I told myself that I would leave with a  title, I would. It’s goal-setting within a short time frame. You could  of course bring in others to help you come up with ideas, whether at the  coffee shop, studio, or pub.

As for who should come up with the title, the artist  or gallerist / curator? There is no “should”.  Some artists naturally come up with their own, others can’t stand  creating titles, and sometimes, it’s a joint effort between show  partners. So long as the balance of power between an artist (or group of  artists) and curator stays fair, do what feels right.

My biggest recommendation for creating titles?  Don’t be shy! My self-created  all-time favourite has received a lot of attention over the years:  Art is why I get up in the  morning.” This was the first phrase  that struck me for a big group show. After second-guessing myself and  spending hours devising alternatives, I returned to it. And since the  show was rated number one exhibition of the week by an art critic, the title must’ve been okay in her books! 

You can also get ridiculously  creative… Consider the time that I  created a non-existent word (not kidding) for a show. About a year  after the exhibition had taken place, the artist asked:  Is that even a word? I  laughed off the question and moved onto another subject of conversation.  Who knows if she ever worked it out…! 

In conclusion? Devising snazzy exhibition titles, while perhaps not your all-time  favorite activity, stands to draw attention to your show. If you’re  looking to increase visitor numbers, sell (more) art and get your show  reviewed, it’s worth making the effort to present a title that’s worthy  of the body of art it compliments, and for which it provides a  framework.