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Why do art museums not publish a list of works in a show?
June 5, 2014 7:31 PM   Subscribe

Why do art museums not publish a list of works in a show?

Recently I attended the Modern Masters show at the Denver Art Museum. Before I went, I emailed them asking a question about tickets and also this question:
Is there a list of the works in the show?
And I received this reply:
Unfortunately we don't provide full lists of works in the exhibit for security reasons. I'm sure you understand!

Actually, I don't understand. Why don't they? Do they think that the lack of a publicly available list of works in a show is going to stop an International Art Thief?

Dr. Evil: Mr. Bigglesworth would like a Van Gogh for the lair.
I.A.T.: Well, there is a show currently in Denver that might have a Van Gogh, but we just can't be sure.
Dr. Evil: Did you check their facebook page for a list of works in the show?
I.A.T.: Of course, but nothing there.
Dr. Evil: Twitter?
I.A.T.: What kind of schmucks do you think they are? They don't tweet that kind of information.
Dr. Evil: The director, she is a worthy foe, quite cunning.
I.A.T.: RISD just doesn't hand out MFAs to anyone.
Dr. Evil: Perhaps we will have to kidnap her and persuade her to talk.
Scott: Why don't you just go to the show and make your own list?
Dr. Evil: You really just don't understand the evil business.
posted by falsedmitri to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've designed a few museum exhibition catalogs, those have always (in my experience) had the full list of works on exhibit.

That said, many, many, MANY of the curators I've worked with change works out up to the last minute before an exhibition opens. (No lie, I've had registrars come to me for the list of works because the object labels I designed were the most accurate accounting of which pieces actually ended up on display.) As design support staff, we find it super annoying. I can only assume that once the show is open, nobody really cares if there's a list made public, since people can just go see it for themselves.

TL;DR - in my experience, curatorial slacking/disorganization and poor administrative oversight, unless the curator wants to do a book.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 7:49 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I'm a book editor at an art museum. Actually, checklists for exhibitions are routinely included whenever a museum publishes an exhibition catalogue. If the exhibition doesn't have an accompanying catalogue, though, there's just not much demand to publish the checklist alone (though sometimes it might be on the website, for example if it's a particularly popular show or something).

So the appeal to security strikes me as a little bit of b.s. that's designed to sound plausible. I mean, yes, I guess you don't want to attract international art thieves, but A) that's why museums are supposed to have security systems in the first place, and B) there are plenty of ways to find out what a museum has on display in a particular exhibition or in its permanent collection. Anyone who wants to steal a Van Gogh is going to do more research and planning than just emailing a museum for a list of things in a show.
posted by scody at 7:51 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


As far as security goes, I don't know about that. I would think that DAM has pretty good security.

Usually the PR folks want to drum up as much excitement as possible for an exhibition. That means they want as many interesting images of objects/works as they can get their hands on, to distribute as widely as possible.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 7:54 PM on June 5


That said, many, many, MANY of the curators I've worked with change works out up to the last minute before an exhibition opens. (No lie, I've had registrars come to me for the list of works because the object labels I designed were the most accurate accounting of which pieces actually ended up on display.)

Oh, and this is totally true. Works can change up to the very last minute due to many reasons. I just went to the opening of a show last night at the museum where I work, and the associate curator mentioned that one painting we'd been expecting for the past two years (and which we reproduced in the catalogue) just never arrived, because the overseas lender just stopped answering emails and phone calls a few weeks ago to finalize the shipping arrangements.

Our exhibition labels also serve as the most accurate final accounting of what's actually in the show, especially since there's a lag of several months between when a book has to be printed and when the show opens. So the checklist in any exhibition catalogue will usually have a notation in fine print that reads something like "the list of works in the exhibition is final as of DATE," which is the date that the last changes were submitted to the printer on the final proofs before the presses actually started rolling.
posted by scody at 7:57 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Mmph, common practice in Australia is to include a list of works on the web site. It's super not-unusual here, at any rate. That "Security" thing is patent nonsense as I think it's safe to say anyone planning to steal incredibly valuable artwork might, you know, rock up to the exhibition to scope out security and layout first!
posted by smoke at 8:17 PM on June 5


Uh, well we do sometimes? It's not a request I get often but I've printed out an exhibition checklist with tombstone info, maybe thumbnails, turned it into a PDF and emailed it to somebody who asked for it. THe show is there, you could make your own list, if there's a catalogue it'll have a pretty complete list. Exhibitions that works appear in become part of the piece's provenance...so I think the security thing may be a polite fiction for "sweet Jesus I'm trying to install two shows and get these fifteen loans managed and the director has a new idea she wants to talk to me about, I cannot do this right now." Although some of my registrial brethren are a wary breed, so it could be in the loan contract or in house policy, I suppose.
posted by PussKillian at 8:44 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


The Modern Masters show is I think a loan show, i.e. the works in it don't actually belong to the Denver Art Museum. It could be that the lenders set some sort of conditions on the loan or the insurers did, or that the DAM does not feel comfortable listing all the loan works for some reason.
posted by gudrun at 9:11 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


There's a partial list as part of the Media Kit for the exhibition (pdf).
posted by Jahaza at 9:25 PM on June 5


They want people to come visit the museum and see the art. Especially for temporary shows, which is one of the main ways museums get non-members and non-tourists to visit.

If they published a list of works online, you could just google and look at each one and feel you'd "seen the show" without actually going.

Nthing, too, that a lot of temporary exhibits feature works that are on loan, and the museums may not have permission to do this. I think it's unusual that they would say "no putting out a list of pieces", but, again, there is a lot of proprietary IP happening and the lending institutions may also feel that there's no point in lending if potential visitors are just going to satisfy themselves with a google image search. There may be confidentiality agreements in place.

Another angle -- most museums sell catalogues, coffee table books, and other publications associated with specific shows which include full color plates of all the works in the show. If they give away a list of works to people who aren't even going to come to the museum, that's basically a lost sale. This is especially so for smaller museums who probably don't publish these works themselves but simply sell them in the giftshop. The original curator of the show/publisher of the catalogue may hold exclusive rights that would be violated by making a complete list of works public.
posted by Sara C. at 11:34 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


If they published a list of works online, you could just google and look at each one and feel you'd "seen the show" without actually going.

This might have been a general feeling in recent years, but as more and more museums are putting their collections online, publishing digital catalogues, etc., the opposite line of thinking is much more prevalent now -- that is, the more images that museums make available, the more it generates the momentum for people to come into the museum. If seeing things online discouraged people from going to museums, then the ubiquity of digital imagery should mean that we'd be seeing broad declines in museum attendance. But the opposite is actually the case. Our own attendance has gone through the roof in the past five years (I wish I had the stats in front of me) precisely as we've made more material available online than ever before.

Nthing, too, that a lot of temporary exhibits feature works that are on loan, and the museums may not have permission to do this.

Yes and no. I think it would be virtually unheard of for a lender to forbid a museum from simply including an artwork on a list to be made available to the public (which is what I think the OP is talking about). But yes, disseminating an image of every work in the exhibition, however, would be another matter. It's certainly true that of the hundreds of loans we acquire for an exhibition, we only clear a relatively small number (say, 20 or so) for press/publicity purposes (with press/publicity purposes being distinct from publication in the catalogue). This is, in part, because it's not just the lenders who have any say about an image being cleared for publication; if it's a work still in copyright, the artist or artists' estate has to clear the usage as well, and if there's a photographer who holds the copyright to the photo itself, that has to be cleared, too. (And all these rights clearances aren't always cheap.)

there is a lot of proprietary IP happening and the lending institutions may also feel that there's no point in lending if potential visitors are just going to satisfy themselves with a google image search

Some lenders -- though usually private lenders more so than institutions -- are concerned about this, but I think it's less because they think a google image search will "satisfy" somebody's desire to see a work of art without actually attending the exhibition, and more out of concern that a digital image can be reproduced, disseminated, altered, etc. in ways that the lender won't have control over. But again, in my experience over the past five years or so, institutions have generally made peace with the idea of putting imagery online.

Another angle -- most museums sell catalogues, coffee table books, and other publications associated with specific shows which include full color plates of all the works in the show. If they give away a list of works to people who aren't even going to come to the museum, that's basically a lost sale.

I've worked with our museum shop managers, our copublishers, etc., over the years, and I just don't think this is the case. Whether they buy it at the museum, in a bookstore, or online, people do not spend (say) $60 on a 256-page exhibition catalogue primarily for the 10 pages at the back listing all the works in the show. They buy it for the actual reproductions, as well as for the essays and supporting scholarly material, even for the book design itself. Books function as objects, as souvenirs, and as sources of research. A list of works in a show, in and of itself, is actually of very limited use. It might be handy for someone to know what they can expect to see at an exhibition, and it can be useful for researchers years later in reconstructing the content of a particular show, but it is no substitute for a catalogue.

The original curator of the show/publisher of the catalogue may hold exclusive rights that would be violated by making a complete list of works public.

This isn't how it works. Curators might hold the rights to their own written texts in a catalogue (though usually it's just the institution that holds the copyright for the entire catalogue), but they don't hold the rights to the specific arrangement of works in a public exhibition, because that's not actually something that can be copyrighted or made private. Curators and museums are not interested in actually keeping the contents of an exhibition secret, and institutions or private owners who don't want information about their artwork to be made public won't lend the object in the first place.

Seriously, it's not this complicated. Museums don't always publish a specific list of every work in an exhibition because there's just not much demand for it.
posted by scody at 12:39 AM on June 6 [14 favorites]


Yeah, Sara, I can't help wondering if you're speaking from curatorial experience in this case?

Everything Scody says i definitely the case here in Australia. The other thing I didn't add - not so much for art museum exhibitions which are often smaller, but for museum museum exhibitions is that if it's a traveling exhibit that they've purchased for a set amount of time, the curatorial staff is really under the pump to get it installed and opened - time is a definitely a factor and if there's hundreds of objects (I'm thinking of a Kubrick exhibition a museum I once worked for put together and subsequently sold on where there were over 500 objects), there simply isn't the resource to catalogue every single thing and upload to web or put in a document.

Part of the appeal of buying 'travelling' exhibitions is that while the upfront costs is high, you get it back in increased ticket sales and lack of spending on curators, lead-in-time etc.

Also, interestingly, my experience for two social history museums I worked with here was that they were surprisingly cool with image distribution and sharing on web, even up to allowing picture taking in the exhibition on a couple of occasions!
posted by smoke at 1:33 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]


So the appeal to security strikes me as a little bit of b.s. that's designed to sound plausible.

This was my first reaction, as well. (I've worked in front-of-the-house positions in a handful of art museums, but have been on the curatorial/collections side of things for the last few years.) The appeal to security reminds me of a museum version of the Miss Manners "that won't be possible": something that politely shuts down a line of questioning that the person might not be able to answer. In a larger museum, or one with a more conservative work culture, the person fielding e-mails from the public is likely new/young/part-time/temporary and probably has to triage a lot of similar inquiries.
posted by Austenite at 11:50 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


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