Title Fights: How Museums Name Their Shows

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

Got a show to curate? Need a title for your exhibition? You might look to the Internet and click on Rebecca Uchill’s Random Exhibition Title Generator, which will give you such plausible-sounding banners as “Breaking Dissent: A Remix of the Local” or “After Illusion: The Video Art of Urban Experience.” Uchill, a former independent curator who is now a Ph.D. candidate in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cooked up the idea and worked with a programmer friend to launch the site in 2010, plugging in words and syntax that seemed to recur in her experiences with museum and gallery titles.

Uchill’s spoof provides an instant fix for the titling dilemma, but in reality, curators and members of museum marketing, communications, and publications departments put a great deal of thought into naming their shows, and the process can take months, even years. “The title is your initial marketing hook,” says David Rubin, curator of contemporary art at the San Antonio Museum of Art. “I’ve worked outside New York most of my career, in areas where art is not necessarily part of the daily diet, so if it’s too esoteric people won’t have a clue what the show is about.” Rubin tends to follow the formula of the two-part title: “a cliché everybody knows or a sexy hook,” followed by a colon and a fuller explication. Thus, in brainstorming with critic Barbara Rose for an upcoming show at SAMA about electric light in contemporary art, Rubin came up with “Generally Electric: Light and Electricity in Contemporary Art.”

But Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, says, “The long-standing algorithm—part of the title to the left of the colon, part to the right—doesn’t always seem to work anymore.” Lehman continues, “What people are really getting away from is a title like ‘Treasures of . . .’ or ‘Masterpieces from . . .’” He says that there was a time when “every museum had a title like that, or else it was ‘The Golden Age of . . .’ And those have gone by the boards.”

One of the more popular projects at the Brooklyn Museum is called “Raw/Cooked,” which may call to mind the famous volume by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In this case, though, it’s a series of exhibitions of unknown artists working in Brooklyn who have never had a museum show. “The title was meant to be provocative and to suggest but not tell what this series of exhibitions was all about,” Lehman says. “It’s been hugely successful. It talks about the vast number of artists who are working undiscovered and just need a break.”

Sometimes, literary sources offer the guiding idea for both a title and a show. Toby Kamps, formerly senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and currently at the Menil Collection, was reading The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus’s analysis of folk music and contemporary culture, while the 2008 presidential race was under way. “People were talking about American values and American exceptionalism, and I had in my mind this crazy counter-universe to the one that was being spun so heavily during the election,” he recalls. “I also noticed lots of artists reaching back into unofficial histories of America at a time of political turmoil. Then of course you want to get the author on board, and we managed to convince Marcus to let us borrow his title.” The show opened at the CAMH ahead of the presidential election and later traveled to museums on both coasts.

Sam Durant’s motorized diorama Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching, 2006, in the exhibition “The Old, Weird America” at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2008. ©RICK GARDNER PHOTOGRAPHY/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BLUM & POE, LOS ANGELES

Sam Durant’s motorized diorama Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching, 2006, in the exhibition “The Old, Weird America” at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2008.


Franklin Sirmans, now curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was on the curatorial committee at MoMA PS1 in New York when he was reading poet Ishmael Reed’s writings on Neo-HooDoo, which posits that “every man is an artist and every artist a priest.” The subsequent show he organized in 2008–9 brought together artists—such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ana Mendieta—who addressed the practice of ritual in contemporary art, and the ultimate title chosen was “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith.”

As with “NeoHooDoo,” one phrase alone—as alluring as it may sound—is not always enough to sum up a show in a way comprehensible to both audience and institution. Lehman cites the example of “Who Shot Rock,” a show that originated in Brooklyn and has been traveling the world for the past three years. “The exhibition is about the photographers who brought rock and roll to the public’s attention between the period from the 1950s almost to the present,” he says. “We decided that ‘Who Shot Rock’ by itself wasn’t going to provide enough information. We decided we needed more and came up with ‘Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present.’”

There may be other, more practical reasons for a lengthy title. “One important lesson I learned from a publisher years ago is that, in the world of Internet search engines, the more key words, or ‘tags,’ provided by your title, the better,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, curator of contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, reflecting on advice she’d been given when she was chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art in California.

“When I was working on an exhibition and a book about midcentury California art and design, we came up with a title that everyone loved, ‘Birth of the Cool,’” the name of a 1957 album by Miles Davis. “But our publisher pointed out that people looking for books on California design and art weren’t going to find our catalogue. So the final title we gave it was ‘Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury.’”

An installation view of “Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury” at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California, 2008.COURTESY ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA

An installation view of “Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury” at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California, 2008.


In a small institution, the curator alone might be responsible for a show’s title (subject to the director’s veto), but more common is a meeting involving other aspects of organizing and selling the exhibition. “Our curators and educators come together, the marketing and communications staff—nine people in all. We even involve our business manager,” says Kathy Foley, director of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. “We bounce around a rubber room, if you will, in the most creative way.”

At the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Kathleen Morris, curator of decorative arts and director of exhibitions and collections, says a similar process prevails. “We can get quite silly when we’re doing this,” she says. “We just throw ideas around. In my experience, it’s that teamwork—having multiple people in the room talking to one another—that builds its own energy. Sometimes it takes a few rounds before we come up with a title everyone is happy about.”

At a larger museum, where it can be difficult to pull multiple departments together, e-mail may be the only way to go. “The curatorial staff comes up with the idea for a title, and then they send it around to a group of us, including the director, the director of exhibitions, and myself,” says Kim Mitchell, chief communications officer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “We look at what else is in the market, because we wouldn’t want a title that is already too similar to current or upcoming shows elsewhere, or is too close to anything we did in our recent past. We ask, ‘Does it express the concept the curators are trying to convey? Is it concise? Does it have audience appeal, and is it fresh?’” Dates can help anchor the concept, as in “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913– 1917,” organized by John Elderfield and Stephanie D’Alessandro in 2010. “We didn’t want to mislead people into thinking it’s a retrospective,” Mitchell says.

“When I’m working on an exhibition title, I play around with it as much as possible—often for up to a year,” says Armstrong. “I run the possibilities by family and friends, scholars and artists. And colleagues, especially those who work with audiences, education, and design, until I really feel we’re finding that place where the core ideas of the exhibition and the art are captured in a respectful yet catchy enough way.”

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.

A Cittipatti skull mask and costume from 19th-century Mongolia, part of “Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures” at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, 2010. MR. IAN TRIAY

A Cittipatti skull mask and costume from 19th-century Mongolia, part of “Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures” at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, 2010.


When the organizers are far flung and the show has multiple venues (and is a potential blockbuster), finding the right title can be a drawn-out challenge. For “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde”—which went from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Grand Palais in Paris—the three main curators met in each of their respective cities on a regular basis for years to pull it all together.

“We would have discussions in person, and then follow up by e-mail,” says Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA. “We knew the French were going to choose something different and there would be a different publication in Paris, but it was important to us that the titles for the two American venues match because we would be sharing the catalogue.” The name Stein alone did not generate sufficient heat. (Gertrude was the family’s best-known quantity, but there were two other collector-siblings to consider.) And although the show included many members of the Parisian art scene of the time—Renoir, Cézanne, Juan Gris, Francis Picabia, and others—Matisse and Picasso were deemed to have the highest name recognition. In the end, the dual title prevailed, with the active phrase “The Steins Collect” drawing more “yeas” than the more passive “The Stein Collections.”

If a show travels, titling can demand flexibility. In New York, the Whitney Museum’s retrospective “Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World” from 2011 morphed into “Lyonel Feininger: From Manhattan to the Bauhaus” when it went to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts a year later. The Montreal organizers “felt even his name would be unfamiliar, so in the title they would have to show how he fit into the grand sweep of art history,” says Barbara Haskell, the curator who put together the Whitney show. “It was their city, and they made the assessment that the title wasn’t going to work. I was happy to go along with the change.”

But sometimes the organizing institution is dead set on its title, even when important subtleties are lost in translation. “There was a show that we took from Berlin called ‘New York States of Mind,’” says Tom Finkelpearl, executive director of the Queens Museum of Art. “If you’re in New York, you think of Billy Joel’s song ‘New York State of Mind,’ which was really not about New York City, but about New York State. This was by a guy whose family left the city and lived on Long Island. That was a really inappropriate title for our context, though I think in Berlin it might have worked, because it had to do with the state of mind of New York City. But they didn’t get it, and they wouldn’t change it.”

When a living artist is the subject, he or she may come up with suggestions and will, of course, be consulted on any curatorial choices. The recent midcareer survey of Wade Guyton at the Whitney is a case in point. His preference was for “Wade Guyton OS,” an unusual title but one that was apt for an artist who builds his imagery through desktop computers, ink-jet printers, and other digital technologies. “OS stands for operating systems,” explains Scott Rothkopf, curator and associate director of programs at the Whitney. “You don’t expect to see that attached to an artist’s name, and some people wouldn’t know what it meant. In the end, I thought it was a great title, but it took some explaining internally to colleagues and to other departments.”

Five untitled ink-jet works in “Wade Guyton OS” at the Whitney Museum in New York, 2012–13. RON AMSTUTZ

Five untitled ink-jet works in “Wade Guyton OS” at the Whitney Museum in New York, 2012–13.


Los Angeles–based artist Frohawk Two Feathers gave his current show at Hamilton College’s Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art in Clinton, New York, the extraordinarily long title “You Can Fall: The War of the Mourning Arrows (An Introduction to the Americas and a Requiem for Willem Ferdinand).” Through faux artifacts and historical paintings, the exhibition, which started out at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, recounts the fictional histories of two embattled colonies in 18th-century North America: Nieuw Holland (actually, New York) and New Sweden (New Jersey). The portion of the title before the colon, “You Can Fall,” derives from a song by the British electronic band Broadcast. “I didn’t receive any opposition. When I first spoke with Mary Birmingham, curator at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, I gave her the title and even added to it,” Two Feathers says. “I’ve always been fond of lengthy titles. It harkens back to my days as a rapper—verses upon verses.”

Surprisingly, according to virtually all those consulted for this story, heated arguments seldom arise during the naming process, though a better title will often come from outside the curatorial ranks. “With my Jasper Johns show, we originally talked about ‘Works by Jasper Johns from Bay Area Collections,’ which is pretty dull,” says Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA. “Our head of publications said we had to come up with something that had more juice and suggested ‘Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye,’ a title that was really about the essence of the artist.”

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 this work into an exhibition and have nobody show up,” says Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. “We want to give ourselves as much of a chance as possible.”

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