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Commentary: Good titles play an important role in attracting visitors to art exhibitions

If an art museum exhibition had the name of artist Monet, Picasso or Raphael in it, that would probably be enough to draw a crowd, but that's not usually the case. Unique titles are a huge draw for attendance at museum exhibitions.

 I give the award for best titles for visual art exhibitions to Art Saint Louis, a local art institution in downtown Saint Louis whose mission is to enrich lives through creative activity of our region's contemporary visual artists.

Here are some of my favorite titles created by Robin Hirsch Steinhoff, Artistic Director of this institution: "Blink," artworks that capture, depict or describe a very brief moment in time, as in "the blink of an eye;" "A  Room with a View," artworks about interiors and exteriors, both physical and emotional; "Beholder," artworks that deal with what is considered unconventionally "beautiful," addressing "beauty is in the eye of the beholder;" "Blur," artworks that blur concepts or are visually blurred or blurry; "Under the Influence," artworks that are inspired by periods/ styles that reflect an era or time/artist in contemporary or ancient art history, or works that have direct influence of a mentor or other key personal influence of a person or even religious influence. "Silence and Noise," exhibits artworks that reflect the push/pull of noise and silence in one exhibit, the two concepts as a force; in "Serendipity," the art-making process is serendipitous, artworks that happen by happy accident, by mistake. And one of my favorites, "Food, Glorious Food," artworks about food and beverages and sized no larger than 14 inches, the size of a large plate. 

"Reigning Men" was one of my favorite art museum exhibition titles and recently closed at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The title, of course, is a play on "raining cats and dogs" and included 300 years of men's fashion from 1715 to 2015. Curators Genevieve Cortinovis and Zoe Perkins created a brilliant crowd pleaser with this ground breaking exhibition which was thematic rather than chronological and displayed the connections between contemporary and historical men's costumes. The show was not at all subdued, but was flashy and fun.

The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto also has had wonderfully fun and pleasing titles of exhibitions such as, "Killer Heels: the Art of the High Heeled Shoe;” "Standing Tall: the Curious History of Men in Heels;” "Fashion Victims: the Pleasure and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century;” and "The Rise of the Sneaker Culture."

Susan Mumford wrote an article titled, "Exhibition titles--love or hate them, we must create them.” Mumford says, "Words are absolutely essential in one form of art presentation, as all exhibitions require a title. (This is unless you decide to do a Prince, such as the "exhibition without a title”). She goes on to say that as for who should come up with the title, the artist or gallerist/curator, there is no "should." Some artists naturally come up with their own. Others can't stand creating titles, and sometimes, it's a joint effort between show partners.

Ann Landi wrote an article for "Art News" titled "Title Fights: How Museums Name Their Shows." She says, "Generating a title for a museum show involves curators, directors, publicists and more. It can be grueling. It can be fun, and it sometimes takes years to find the right one. Yet even the catchiest title is not always ratified without a struggle. Elena Pakhoutova, assistant curator at the Rubin Museum of Art, recalls a tug-of -war over the naming of the 2010 exhibition, "Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures.” Those involved, she says, "had to fight for it.” Others thought it was totally off-putting and morbid, that people would not want to see a show with that title. In the end, people loved it. They even made T-shirts saying "Remember That You Will Die" which is really just a literal translation of the familiar art-historical concept known as memento mori.

In the same article in "Art News," the conclusion says, "Like naming a baby, getting the title right can do much to determine how others perceive and remember an exhibition and how many people will attend.” "The worst thing is for a curator to put all his work into an exhibition and have nobody show up" says Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Of course, the same can be applied to titles of movies, books, plays, songs, etc. Someone once said, "You can't tell a book by its cover," but whether we can or not what draws us to the thing to begin with??

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.