By way of an introduction, it’s probably worth reminding ourselves that the convention of the exhibition, and even the gallery, haven’t really been around for all that long – and they certainly haven’t been around for as long as the paintings, sculptures, prints and diversified arts activities that they now host and signify. It was around 250 years after the Renaissance, (and most probably in the first part of the 18th Century), that audiences first began to see the development of a commercial market for art. This market extended beyond the patronage and commissioning of religious, floral, animal or familial subject matter that had been the staple to-date.

Between 1730 and 1770, a number of emerging venues started to hold exhibitions of selected artists work, this was the period of the Parisienne Salon and London’s Royal Academy to name but two. Suddenly, not only was there a market, but there emerged the early, astute, market-makers for the commodity of art. This period also saw artists who were agile and savvy enough to re-style their work to meet the developing tastes of buyers. The remora of art criticism also began to attach itself, with notables such as John Ruskin becoming increasingly involved in what was, to all intents and purposes, a new outlet for writing. Perhaps for the first time since Vasari, authors re-insinuated themselves fruitfully between art and audience.

By the late 1850’s the first major national touring exhibitions had begun to arrive in the form of the Art Treasures Exhibition [1] in Manchester, England and the Exhibition of National Portraits in London [2], held in three instalments between 1866-68. As the art salon of the late 19th century became increasingly controlled by market forces, alternative exhibitions of artists who could not get shown materialized in opposition and protest [3]. Notable ‘rejects’ included Whistler, Manet, Cézanne and Pissarro. By the end of the 19th century, artists became increasingly proactive in holding brief opportunistic shows of their own work in less orthodox venues (we would now probably call them ‘pop-ups’ of course). Such under-the-radar activities were inevitably frowned upon by the conservative academy and its servant critics.

In 1913 the International Exhibition of Modern Art show that was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and it effectively became the first large exhibition of modern art in America – in fact it lasted only 8 weeks - but its legacy still abounds [4]. This show was curated by 5 artists from the Association who saw themselves as arbiters of public taste rather than followers – though one doubts that they self-identified as pioneer curators [5].

This travelling extravaganza displayed some 1,300 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by over 300 avant-garde European and American artists. Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist works astonished and outraged audiences more accustomed to realism. News reports and reviews vilified the show, featuring accusations of participants’ mental illness and immorality alongside satirical sketches and plain insults. The then US President Theodore Roosevelt famously declared of the works: "That's not art!", but despite the brickbats, the show went inexorably on.

The advent of the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 emphasized the shift away from museum exhibitions based on loaned-out historic masterpieces in favour of the unfamiliar. And this was just the beginning of an exhibitions ‘culture’ that swept the globe over the following decades. Newsworthy exhibitions became important not only in determining the art markets, but also a litmus/proxy for the civic and cultural credibility of cities, regions and even nations.

I would further argue that the defining moment of this shift from old to new curatorial power structures took place in the 1970’s with the signal event that was the Artifacts from the Tomb of Tutankhamun at the British Museum exhibition. As a show, though admittedly not an art show, it was a curatorial phenomenon that broke new ground and became an engagement template for museums for the next half century. This exhibition saw, for the first time, the effects of intense TV media, press pullouts and word of mouth coincide, generating huge queues and serious sales of the large illustrated catalogue. Tutankhamun became the defining ‘Blockbuster’ exhibition - seen at the British Museum by over 1.6 million people.

The importance of this show cannot be overstated: Tutankhamun toured the world for 9 years [6], attracting crowds of astonished visitors wherever it went [7]. People queued for hours or days to see this in the UK, the (then) USSR, the USA and Europe. More importantly, museums and cities were awakened – some rudely – to the fact that this was a whole new ball game, a new affluent, transient audience, a new and substantial stream of income through ticketing and merchandising, and a whole new genre and scale of exhibition was born to the 20th Century.

The rest, as they say, is history, as museums continue to vie, with varying degrees of success, to outdo each other and to emulate the behaviours and cache of the spectacular. The symbolic importance for major cities of having cavernous, state-of-the-art spaces able to put on mega shows of the greats: Picasso, Matisse, Post Impressionism, Monet, Hockney, Ai WeiWei, Banksy and the rest, is uncontested.


[1] Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester 1857, and the beginnings of the Manchester Academy in England.
[2] (at what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum)
[3] Now generally known as the Salon des Refusés ("Room of the Refused")
[4] The show’s venue in New York City's 69th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets it became known as the Armory Show. The exhibition toured on to the Art Institute of Chicago and then to The Copley Society of Art in Boston
[5] From 1972-81
[6] It remains a sad truth however, that since that male-dominated moment, the incredible achievement and role of the seminal exhibition designer, Margaret Hall, has been largely overlooked by history
[7] The exhibition also became an important diplomatic vehicle at the time for Egypt, which was in a state of war with Israel.