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.