The Case for NO wall labels

August 4, 2020
Center Image Above: Peter Granados, Agora, 2017

If you are a regular museum attendee, you may have noticed the increased use of descriptive wall labels adjacent to artworks.  In addition, there are often sets of headphones that the visitor may utilize to listen to pre-recorded statements by curators about the exhibition and about specific artworks as you traverse the space.  Don’t think there is not useful information on the wall labels and curator recordings, because there is.  But …

There is much merit in viewing the art by FIRST spending time considering it without any preconceived ideas as to what to focus on or what a particular artwork may be “about.”  In other words, spend time looking at the artwork before you read about it.  By encountering an artwork for the first time this way, you are free to look/listen and notice colors, shapes, details, use of materials, sounds, relationships across the piece, and otherwise intuitively come to a personal observation and understanding of the artwork.

By taking this approach to look first, you are then ready to read and listen to the curator’s descriptions.  And those descriptions will be colored by your first observations, which will not preclude you from having your own satisfying experience with the artwork.  When you read/listen, you will likely learn quite a bit more about the artwork, the artist and the historical context of the artwork.  But you don’t have to accept everything written or recorded about an artwork by a curator.  And you don’t have to discount your observations, observations that you might not have had if you had not looked first.

What is the relevance of this discussion to an art gallery viewing experience?  Whereas, there are limited approaches to presenting artwork at a typical museum, a non-profit or commercial art gallery experience encompasses a much wider range of presentation.  With the look first principle in mind, at Joseph Nease Gallery, what we typically do is this:

  • At the reception counter is a book with the artist’s resume, statement, press release, and any essays about the exhibition.  We neither encourage nor discourage reading the material before or after the viewing experience.  Still, we find that most people choose to look first at the artwork.

  • We have no wall labels, letters, or numbers.  Instead, we have a visual guide of the show on a sheet of paper with small images, titles, dimensions, and media.  We hand these to visitors as we greet them.  Visitors tend to head toward whatever artwork interests them first, look, then consult their sheet for the title, etc.  A title can give a viewer an additional clue to consider, but knowledge of the title generally does not limit the interpretation of the artwork.

  • We find most visitors appreciate this trust in their viewing and experiencing of our exhibitions.

If you are not already doing it, we encourage you to give this look first approach to encountering artwork a try.  We think you will enjoy it.

You are welcome to share any thoughts on this topic with us.  Thank you.

~ Joseph Nease

Joseph Nease Gallery is currently open by appointment only. Our hours are Thursday through Saturday, 12 to 4 pm. Appointments can be made by calling the gallery or by emailing our Gallery Manager Amanda Hunter at manager@josephneasegallery.com. All visitors are to wear masks, and we will be routinely disinfecting common surfaces within the gallery space.

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