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The Role of an Artist in a Museum or Gallery

Tue Nov 14th, 2006

Artist as intermediary?

An intermediary is a third party that offers intermediation services between two trading parties. The intermediary acts as a conduit for goods or services offered by a supplier to a consumer. Typically the intermediary offers some added value to the transaction that may not be possible by direct trading.

The artist can have many roles in a museum or gallery. The focus of this series of articles for Artist’s Panel 2005-6 is on those artists who are specifically concerned with the encounter between the art work and the public, whose role encompasses that of ‘intermediary’, such as facilitator, educator or mediator, and how this overlaps with other roles of the artist, such as curator, exhibitor, lecturer, resident, etc. For some artists, the capacity to shift in and out of these roles is integral to their practice.

The definition above, suggests that an intermediary can provide ‘some added value’ to a transaction that may not be possible by ‘direct trading’. While this language is lifted from the lexicon of the business world, the nature of the exchange it describes is of value in attempting to clarify the role of the artist who mediates between the art work and the public. The typical encounter in a museum or gallery space is between the viewer and the art work – “direct trading”. Ideally, this exchange is unaided; however, some work can be challenging or seem inaccessible and the encounter can benefit from the ‘added value’ of mediation. This might take the form of text on a label or wall panel, an informal discussion with a mediator, a formal talk, a gallery guide or an exhibition catalogue.

The ‘added value’ can also take the form of the artist functioning as an intermediary. This can be the artist who made the work or an artist who may be able to mediate the work by drawing on their own experience as an artist and their knowledge of contemporary arts practice. Another aspect of this ‘added value’ is to be able to offer the viewer an opportunity to interact with, and respond to, the art work through discussion and workshop-led experiences.

The public is not the only potential beneficiary from this exchange. The artist can also gain something from this role as an intermediary between the art work and the public, through discussion, interaction and exchange of ideas and methodologies. This may influence their own practice and/or how they consider the public reception of their work.

Contemporary art is evolving in a de-centred and expanding art world, and museums and galleries concerned with the presentation and promotion of contemporary art must ensure that their policies and programmes remain relevant and cognisant of these changes. Recently there has been a renewed interest in collectivity, collaboration and direct engagement with specific social constituencies. The museum has an inherent responsibility built into its public remit to engage such constituencies. The emergence of performative curators and relational artists who seek to deconstruct or disrupt prevailing mediation systems represents a new challenge to the conventions and mediation strategies of the museum. In his essay, ‘The Artist in the Institution’, Mick Wilson refers to contemporary museums as ‘proactive laboratories of social evolution’. Similarly, Christine Mackey proposes re-thinking the museum as ‘way-station’. Art critic Alex Farqhuarson suggests that the exhibition and museum are now discussed in terms of ‘construction site’, ‘laboratory’, ‘think-tank’, and ‘distribution channel’, metaphors borrowed from the vocabulary of industry, the media, corporate culture and science. He proposes that a ‘performative’ definition of curating would be that it actively structures and mediates the relationship of art and audience.

What then is the role of the artist as intermediary in this dynamic? According to Maria Lind and Søren Grammel, formerly of the Kunstverein Mϋnchen, ‘contemporary art has become increasingly involved in mediation as a theme or operates directly with mediation strategies’ and the artist is central to the development and implementation of these mediation strategies. For example, the Sputnik project in the Kunstverein Mϋnchen involved artist-advisors in an extended relationship with the institution over a number of years, contributing questions, critical commentary and ideas with a view to influencing how the institution operates. The outcomes of these relationships took a variety of forms including exhibitions, publication, conferences and interventions.

While IMMA has a long track record of working with artists as ‘intermediaries’ with an infinite number of social constituencies, this is, nevertheless, a relatively new and unchartered area of artistic intervention. The museum must consider the role of the artist in this complex relationship between the public and the art work, posing questions that expose this area to critical consideration, such as:

What does it mean for an artist to mediate another artist’s work?
Should the art work speak for itself?
What is the role of the artist as intermediary between the art work and the public?
What does it mean for the artist to function in this role of facilitator / mediator / educator?
What does it mean for the public to encounter the art work with an artist?
How does the role of the artist as intermediary relate to the artist’s own practice?

The essays by Mick Wilson, Clíodhna Shaffrey and Christine Mackey are intended to open up a critical discussion about the role of the artist in a museum or gallery context, posing questions and citing possibilities around such practice for the Museum, for the public and, most importantly, for the artist.

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Further Reading

Artists´ Panel

The Artist and the Museum: Another Way

Clíodhna Shaffery selected, at random, three artists from the Artists' Panel: Patricia McKenna, Beth O’Halloran and Cliona Harmey and interviewed them about their experience. She also considered written feed...

by Cliodhna Shaffrey / Tue Nov 14th, 2006
Artists´ Panel

The Artist and the Institution

In his essay The Artist and the Institution, Mick Wilson, artist and writer, and currently Head of Research and Postgraduate Development in the National College of Art and Design, considers aspects of the ro...

by Mick Wilson / Tue Nov 14th, 2006
Artists´ Panel

Re-thinking the museum as a ‘way-station’

Christine Mackey, a practicing artist and a member of IMMA’s Artists’ Panel for the period 2005 – 2006 provides a unique ‘insider’ perspective on the role of the artist in a museum or gallery context. Drawin...

by Christine Mackey / Tue Nov 14th, 2006

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