How to Write an Exhibition Review, Part 1

Writing an exhibition review is an important and rewarding activity for an artist and essential for an aspiring art writer.  For an artist, writing from the ‘other side’ will shed light on your own practice in ways you wouldn’t expect and for a writer; the exhibition review is the cornerstone of your writing career.  It’s not as hard as it may seem, especially with some pointers.

Part 1 covers the things you should consider when looking at the show.

Before You Go:
-          Look through event listings to see what’s on and choose something that  grabs your attention.  Writing about something that intrigues you is a good place to start.
-          Find out who the press contact is and make a date with the gallery or museum to review the show.  Be on time, look professional and be sure you have a business card to leave with the press manager.
-          Have everything you need to take notes or record your thoughts as you walk through the exhibit.  Plan to spend as much time as you need and go alone this is business, not an afternoon looking at art.
-          Research the exhibition and the background of the curator and the artists; you should be familiar with the show premise and the individuals involved.

When You Arrive:
-          Take note of your first impressions of the space, the work and the presentation, these may contribute to an important aspect of your review.
-          The press manager may or may not walk the show with you, go along with either situation.  Make the most of their presence by asking questions, but then ask to be left alone to consider the show and take your time.  I’ve spent as much as five hours considering a show.   The amount of consideration you give to the work will be evident in your review.  If you need to go back, do so.

Walk the Show:
After you’ve spent time with the press manager and absorbed their slant on the exhibition, start again from the beginning – literally.  These are the things to consider as you look:

What strikes me?
-          Do the works relate well to the show premise?
-          Have the curators developed relationships well?
-          Do these relationships further the show premise?
-          Does the premise relate to current or past art practice?
-          How is it relevant to art history?
-          Are the artworks well crafted?
-          Is it easy to view the works?
-          Does the gallery space facilitate the show experience?
-          Does the space create a relationship to the work/premise?
-          What is the reaction of other viewers to the show?

What are the artists saying in their work?
-          Read the artist’s supporting materials and consider what the artist is doing.
-          Have they achieved their aim?
-          What is behind their work (links to cultural identities, philosophy, art history, politics, sociology/psychology, etc.)?
-          Is this influence evident?
-          Has the artist made a poignant response to these influences?
-          Is the artist breaking new ground?  How and Why?

Has the curator succeeded?
-          Is the premise developed fully?
-          Did the curator make good choices?
-          Do the relationships between works create another level of experience for understanding the work or exhibition?
-          Does the physical positioning of work communicate something more about the artwork or premise?
-          Is there a sub text evident in the presentation and/or among the relationships of the artworks?

Research anything or anyone who has been mentioned or quoted that you are unfamiliar with, it will add depth to your review and further your personal knowledge base.  Find a theme and develop it in your review.  For example, if there is a subtext running through the show, develop it by referring to various examples which give evidence to the subtext.  Include how decisions by the curator in placement or presentation reinforce this subtext.   Discuss what didn’t work and why; state this clearly and cogently giving your reasons for saying so.  It’s no good giving an opinion without reasons to back it up.  Offer clear, succinct examples of how it could have worked better.  Stay balanced and honest in your point of view, remember, the people you’re critiquing have feelings; even if you hate what you see, say so honestly and in a fair way without trash-bashing.  The term ‘art criticism’ means the discussion of art, discuss the art and experience you have before you.

When You Leave:
Speak with the press manager before you leave and thank them.  Make arrangements to get images from the show.  Usually the press manager will want a list of the images you want in an email, be sure to communicate the kind of image files and size you need if you have specifications from a magazine.  The press manager will probably greet you with a press kit, if they haven’t, be sure to get as much written information on the show and artists before you go.  (Follow up to let the press manager know when your review is published).

Part 2 will discuss how to compose and structure the review…


Further Reading:

Judy Radoul presents some very fine examples and clear advice for critical writing in Notes on Writing Exhibition Reviews.

Writing about Paitning is a thorough and scholarly article by Robert M. Seiler from the University of Calgary.


If you enjoyed this article, visit the Bookshop to find a selection of books on writing about art. Take an additional 10% discount plus free shipping worldwide on book purchases made through May 14.

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