Titles, Artist Statements, & Accessibility

Being a gallery director wasn’t always fun, but the people-watching opportunities were fantastic. More than anything else I have done, that job made me profoundly aware of viewers — of how different people interact with an exhibit, and how the setting can affect a person’s response to a work of art. Some artists don’t care much whether people “get” their work or not, but for me it’s all about connecting with my viewers. I especially want to engage with those who do not have a lot of experience with the arts, or who have found the arts intimidating and unwelcoming in the past.

One of the most important things I learned as a gallery director is that even very inexperienced viewers aren’t stupid. That runs contrary to the common assumption that art must be dumbed-down in order to be accessible — but in my experience, viewers often require only a small starting-point to understand highly complex works of art. I don’t worry anymore about making art that’s too abstract or too complicated for my least-experienced viewers. I am confident that, with just a little hint or nudge, they are perfectly capable of comprehending and relating to my work.

Titles and artist statements are ideal for that purpose, because written language can serve as mediator for viewers who aren’t experienced with visual meaning. Language also happens to be a geeky love of mine, and many of my titles make reference to literature or linguistics. Creative use of language allows me to choose short titles that offer multiple layers of meaning to a curious viewer.

Writing an artist statement allows me to take the hints and nudges one step further. Obviously it’s not effective to explain every aspect of the work — even if that were possible, it would be heavy-handed and redundant and insulting to my viewers’ intelligence. Instead, I keep my statements very concise, suggesting the two or three most important things that I hope my viewers will notice or consider when interacting with the artwork. Viewers don’t seem to read past the second paragraph of any artist statement, so a big part of the challenge is deciding what information or ideas are most valuable. Rarely do my posted artist statements extend past half a page.

Choosing titles and writing statements are some of my least favorite parts of being an artist, but I take them very seriously and often wrestle for a long time trying to get the wording exactly right. It works, too. Time and again I have seen intimidated and inexperienced viewers have a really positive and meaningful interaction with my artwork — not because it was dumbed down, but because a well-chosen title and a well-written statement gave them a valuable starting-point to understand it. That, to me, is worth it.


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About Sarah Jane

Working artist, university professor, community educator. Currently living in community at the Grunewald Guild, Leavenworth, WA.

5 responses to “Titles, Artist Statements, & Accessibility”

  1. Lew Curtiss says :

    “Some artists don’t care much whether people “get” their work or not, but for me it’s all about connecting with my viewers.” “I don’t worry anymore about making art that’s too abstract or too complicated for my least-experienced viewers. I am confident that, with just a little hint or nudge, they are perfectly capable of comprehending and relating to my work.”

    These two ideas really resonate with me and my own art-making. I had a featured artist show on view over the holidays and was at the gallery one evening for each of three months. I delighted in viewer questions and especially in their expressions of, “Ahhh, yes, I get it.” As you’ve said, all they needed was “just a little nudge…” Most of the time they were already thinking what I helped them to verbalize.

    I agree with you, connection is everything.

  2. Jessie says :

    I agree! One day while I was an art student at a university, I saw two English students wandering our art hallways full of student work. The art was mostly your typical angry freshman projects with upside-down crosses and decapitated Barbie dolls, with nothing written to accompany it. The English students silently perused the length of the hallway, then I overheard one say to the other: “I hate art.” There was no reply.
    Soon after that experience I launched an art gallery at my church. We use education and communication to connect, develop, and challenge our artists, but we do the same for our non-artists and pre-artists. Written statements are a huge way of assisting viewers who feel insecure around art. Everybody benefits. And viewers who already personally engage with the art can always choose not to read the accompanying statement.

  3. Sarah Jane says :

    Thanks for the comment, Lew. I agree that — for me, at least — making that connection and seeing that my work has impacted my viewers is incredibly rewarding. It’s one reason I think that having shows is so incredibly important for every artist. We get plenty of messages that the work we do is frivolous or self-indulgent, so it’s vitally important that we be reminded that our work has the potential to engage and affect others in a powerful way.

    Welcome, Jessie! What a great story about the exhibit of student work. One thing it illustrates for me is that all artists go through awkward phases where our art is simply not ready for exhibition. Those times are entirely necessary and productive; we have to pass through those stages and learn from them in order to discover our mature work. However, a good professor or mentor should be able to recognize when the work isn’t ready for exhibit, and gently push us towards further development.

    I love your description of using written statements to help viewers make that initial connection with the artwork. I also find that many times viewers are more comfortable when they’re able to speak with the artist in person (either informally at a reception or at a more structured gallery talk) or to learn more about the technical process by which the work was created. I always saw hospitality as a big part of my job as gallery director. It’s not enough to just hang stuff on the walls and leave — part of helping viewers have a good experience is making sure that they have effective ways to connect with and understand the artwork.

  4. Stephen James says :

    It’s not that art has to be dumbed-down for people that don’t usually take in art. It’s that it has to be dumbed-down for the non-curious. Put a curious person in any rich or complicated setting that lightly directs a path and they will stumble down the lane, but enjoy themselves along the way.

  5. Sarah Jane says :

    That is well-said, Stephen. There certainly are things an artist can do to rouse a viewer’s curiosity — it’s one reason I believe aesthetics still matter, even in conceptual art — but it is neither possible nor gracious to force a viewer’s attention against his or her will.

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