By Ken Tanaka
Did you ever wonder how a major photography exhibit (or any transient art exhibit, for that matter) gets produced at a museum?
Who does what? Who pays for what? Who gets paid for what? How do the pictures ultimately get put onto the museum gallery walls?
There is no standard formula. Each exhibit presents curatorial staffs with unique mixtures of challenges that can seem more kindred to a Broadway theater production than to a museum exhibit. Indeed, to attract more visitors, major exhibitions are becoming multimedia extravaganzas often involving published catalogs (which are often completely authored books), various presentations by the artist and curators, video presentations, commemorative posters, dinners, community outreach tours, etc. The Jeff Wall exhibit that recently toured through the Art Institute of Chicago, and is now in San Francisco, is a good example of just such a complex show.
But what about the money? Even modest exhibits are far more expensive than most people realize. As a small sampling, budgets must be allocated for matters such as assembling, insuring, and transporting the art, preparing the gallery (painting, graphics, electrical requirements), and publicizing the exhibit. If the exhibition is a significant one-person show at a larger museum there will probably also be a budget for travel and per diem expenses, as well as an honorarium, for someone (the artist, an archival curator, a scholar of the work, etc.) to present a lecture or attend some similar event at the museum. These are generally not lavish sums (unless the museum is in the Middle East). The spirit of museum exhibitions tends to be one of academic recognition and retrospection rather than loot.
Where does the money come from? The answer will vary for each museum and each exhibition. Sometimes a single corporate sponsor will foot nearly the entire bill for an exhibit, particularly if the artist’s work can relate to promoting the company. But more often a museum will have to quilt together patches of funds to make an exhibit happen. Museums, particularly the larger ones, have multiple pockets of funds from which a department can draw for an exhibit. Private donors, for example, sometimes establish departmental-level funds directed towards supporting exhibition expenses. A photographer’s gallery, as another example, might be coaxed to pick up travel expenses and schedule other events in the area to promote the photographer’s work to collectors.
The expense and complexity of major exhibitions is greatly diffused when several museums collaborate. The Jeff Wall exhibit is an excellent example. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collaborated to put this large, expensive show together. Each museum is hosting the show for several months. But each shared in, and benefited from, the logistical equity established by the group.
The people to truly salute for a good exhibit are the museums' curatorial staffs. From afar you might have the impression that they live in an insular world where they spend their days walking about stroking their chins and saying "Hmmmm" a lot. Some do. But most are up to their necks in alligators every week chasing down the thousands of details required for nearly every exhibit. In their "spare" time they’re responsible for other jobs such as courting and catering to donors (who can be a prickly lot), giving talks, mastering knowledge of the museum’s collection, and keeping abreast of their respective segments of the art market. A strong, savvy, imaginative curatorial staff can propel a museum to new stature in just a few years.
So there's a very cursory glimpse under the skirts of museum exhibitions. It's actually a fascinating, nerve-wracking undertaking not meant for the squeamish.
Ken Tanaka is a semi-professional photographer whose work was shown most recently in a Frank Gehry retrospective exhibit at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario. He is also actively involved with the Art Institute of Chicago's Department of Photography.