What makes a good or a great exhibition?
The Birmingham City University School of Art Degree Show has been and gone and some students have landed exhibitions else where in the country and internationally.
Now it’s time to sit back and reflect on the show. The Head of School, Jonathan Harris, does just this in the following piece. Well done to all the final year students who participated in this year’s Degree Show. The show received many positive comments and will certainly be remembered for a long time.
What makes a good or a great exhibition? I’d say it has to have three ingredients. Firstly, there must be a coherent theme that unifies the inevitable variety of works to be displayed. The viewer has to have a compelling sense that these objects fit together meaningfully – which is not to say that they have to share much else. In fact, diversity is often part of that coherence, as odd as that might sound.
The good show enables the viewer to perceive the underlining connection because of as well as despite the surface and other differences between artifacts exhibited. The second ingredient is a high quality of technical accomplishment in the fabrication and presentation of the works in the show. Ideally all the works should be of the same high if not excellent standard.
This actually then becomes a part of the coherence and impact of the exhibition as a whole. Again, this element doesn’t exclude diversity in terms of what ‘fabrication’ and ‘presentation’ means: in a show that includes paintings, sculptures, videos, installations, performances and much else there will never be a single standard, or perception, of ‘build quality.’
Thirdly, the exhibition must be understood by the viewer to arise from a significant context or motivation – which might mean a particular institution, or social moment, or historical circumstance (or a combination of these).
“We want our students to be hard thinkers and good makers: to understand the world, to add meaningful objects to it…”
Gambol and To High Places by Narrow Roads – the two exhibitions by level 6 students on, respectively, the Fine Art and Art & Design undergraduate courses at Birmingham School of Art in the summer of 2018 – demonstrated, I believe, how these three ingredients should ideally be combined.
The themes, if I summarize them bluntly, were to do with speculative playfulness and what I would call projective concision. Don’t assume, however, that these two themes exemplify the difference between the two courses, as if the first was an expression of ‘free creativity’ and the second a matter of socially responsive (or responsible) production.
My sense was that the best works in both of these shows combined these characteristics (that they somehow imply each other, actually) and that they both indicated the quality of ‘thinking into making’ that Birmingham School of Art promulgates.
We want our students to be hard thinkers and good makers: to understand the world, to add meaningful objects to it that make a difference within it. Our partnership development activities – with museums, galleries, art centers, businesses and much else besides – is one of the ways through which we support our students toward this engagement.
I won’t single out particular works here – though I have my favourites. What matters more than taste, however, is that broader sense of meaningful context that I thought the exhibitions communicated, connected to a higher quality of fabrication than I have seen in my time here as Head of School. Across all the works on display, in very different ways, was a sense of engagement in and with the world, though this took vertiginously different forms. That, though, is the point: Birmingham School of Art encourages individuals to respond individually, in a creative manner, as all great artists, through their designs, always have.