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Big Ideas: The Ideal Wall Text

This article is part of Big Ideas, a series exploring Chicagoan’s thoughts about contemporary art.

To explore new approaches to wall text, I asked three Chicagoans to offer alternatives to the current style. Below is the second response by Greg Harris, Assistant Curator at the DePaul Art Museum.

Writing wall text for an exhibition is one of the trickiest things I do as a curator. The objectives are many — provide background, explain context, make an argument, etc. — and it often has to be using less than 100 words (the word count varies depending on the kind of wall text you’re writing, but you get the point). The audience can be extremely varied, from seasoned scholars to middle school children on a field trip, so writing something that will be engaging or educational for such a spectrum takes some wrangling. Even if you think you’ve done a good job, you rarely please everyone. For one of the first shows I worked on at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wrote a label to accompany a photograph taken by Robert Frank in the late 1950s. I’d done my research and thought my argument was in line with current scholarship; the text was approved by no less than four editors, all of whom deemed it accessible and not exceedingly controversial. Nonetheless, a particular visitor took umbrage with what I’d written and filled out a comment form to let me know that I was way off base. Among other colorful comments, the visitor referred to the curator (me) as a “commie whackjob” (I wish I’d hung on to that comment form). My feelings were a little hurt, and I had a good laugh about it, but it drove home for me very early in my career that there was in fact an audience looking at the exhibitions I put together and they gave a shit about how the artwork was presented.

I don’t know that I can articulate what the ideal wall text would be, but there are a few things I try to keep in mind when I’m writing for an exhibition. The way curatorial texts are presented in a gallery space, especially in a museum, they tend to come off as the authoritative final word on the artwork when they’re really just one person’s take on a set of issues. With that in mind, I try to write wall texts that will work in consort with the art objects to further the larger argument of the exhibition. I try not to be too heavy handed in my approach. Filling in some of the relevant but not immediately apparent context or explaining how the work functions within the exhibition are some of the main goals. I tend to avoid academic jargon and try to not describe the piece since it’s right in front of the viewer and I don’t want to rob them of the opportunity to have their own experience of the work. When I can, I like to work in some of the artist’s own words. It adds a more personal element to the text and bypasses the curatorial viewpoint. Ultimately, I try to keep the text short and direct. It’s a wall label, not a book, and the audience came to see the art, not to read my ramblings.

Martin Parr. Fashion Magazine: Fashion Shoot, New York, 1999. (image courtesy of DePaul Art Museum)

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