Art Term Tuesday: What’s in a Label?

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Cultural institutions are often marked as spaces for specific audiences, instead of for the entire community that they strive to serve. Art museums, in particular, are often viewed in the exclusivity of the “art world” as spaces reserved for undefined elites. When, in reality, art is for all to enjoy!

Feeling overwhelmed by all the art? Not sure what you’re looking at? Start by reading the label! Art exhibits can include a lot of text, so let’s break it down a little first:

            Title Wall: the title wall features the title of the exhibition, for example, The 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards or Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection. It also includes the dates the exhibit is up and who curated the show.

An image of Title Wall text for an exhibition at FWMoA.
The title wall of an exhibition includes the title, the dates, and the exhibition text. It may also include the name of the curator! Photo courtesy of Katy Thompson.

            Exhibition Text: exhibition text details the background of the exhibit and can include artist backgrounds, work backgrounds, curatorial details, and historical information pertinent to the exhibit.

                        Image Text: additional text that goes into more detail about certain chosen works (see below).

            Label: the who, what, when, where, and how of the artwork.

A label is created using the following pieces of information:

  • Artist Name
  • Nationality
  • Years they lived
  • Work Title
  • Medium
  • Year(s) the artist created the work
  • Where we got the art from (gallery, donation, or the artist)
  • The accession number, the catalog number for the art in our collection

An artwork that we have every piece of information on will have a label that looks like this:

An example of a label you will see posted next to an art piece in a museum. It includes the artist name, nationality, and birth and death dates along with the title of the piece, the materials, and where we got the piece from.
An example of a complete label. The artist is still alive, which is why she only has a birthdate on her label.

As Elizabeth Goings discussed in her Treasures from the Vault this month we don’t always know everything about a work, even if it is in our Permanent Collection! An “incomplete” label may look something like this:

An example of a label you will see posted next to an art piece in a museum. It includes the artist name, nationality, and birth and death dates along with the title of the piece, the materials, and where we got the piece from.
An example of an incomplete label. What information are we missing? How do you think this affects our knowledge of the artwork?

This is because we don’t have definite dates for his life or this particular artwork. Sometimes, with some research, we can determine the rough dates for an artist’s lifetime or their work. Then you may see a question mark next to that date, meaning we think this is correct but we cannot be 100% positive. The older the artist and the works, the harder this research becomes.

I realize if you’ve come to an art museum you have probably come to look at art, not necessarily read a bunch of text on the wall. Labels, however, can help make art more accessible for those of us who feel intimidated in the austere museum setting or who enter with a limited art background. They provide viewers with key information that not only helps them look at the artwork in question but also, thanks to the mini Internet in our pockets, Google any part of the information that piques our interest.

When visiting an art museum, I suggest taking a minute or two to just look at the work in front of you. What do you think it portrays? What colors does the artist use? What medium, or material, did the artist employ? Is the artistic style familiar to you? Does it evoke a mood, like happiness or anger, or a memory? Then look at the label!

Amazed by a drawing? Make sure it is! A couple of our lithographs, currently on display, look like drawings or paintings.

This lithograph by Erlebacher is a still life of fruits and vegetables. In the center is a bowl with four eggplants and three apples. Surrounded by that are four bananas laid on their side, then around that are pears and eggs alternating.
Martha Mayer Erlebacher, American, 1937-2013. Still life with Eggplant #1. Lithograph, 1974. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Weatherhead Foundation, 1974.01. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Look at the label of the drawing pictured above, what information does it provide? What do you think the #1 means in the title? What is a still life? Does the museum own this lithograph?

Looking at an abstract, or non-representational, piece and confused? Check out the title for clues!

Not sure what art movement this piece falls into? Use the date the piece was made and put it into Google!

Curious if this is an early work before the artist found their style or a later work? Check out their birthdate and use it as an anchor to construct their artistic timeline!

What is important to remember, though, is what a label does NOT do.  It does not tell you how to feel about a work. Labels provide context, so you can understand what you are looking at, but they do not tell you whether or not you should like the work. Each of us here at FWMoA have our artistic likes and dislikes, for example, I’m pulled toward anything with bright colors, often ignoring black and white works completely. Our Director of Children’s Education, Alyssa Dumire, can stand in front of a Joan Mitchell for hours! When I first look at a work, my gut reaction can be positive or negative. When I dig deeper into it’s history, however, sometimes that initial reaction can change. This is why providing a label for artworks is so important!

The next time you visit us, take a moment to read the label. You never know what a little bit of information, like a name or a date, may lead you to discover!

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