Queen's Policy Engagement

An insight into curating contemporary exhibitions and audience engagement

Ruinan Peng reflects on how audiences can gain meaningful experiences through contemporary art exhibitions

An insight into curating contemporary exhibitions and audience engagement

The contemporary art exhibition has become a main way to promote and engage with contemporary art. Audiences are increasingly looking to gain meaningful life experiences through contemporary art exhibitions. However, the experiences of audiences may be diverse. Audiences may be excited, touched, enjoyable, confused, helpless, or disappointed while they engage with the exhibitions. Why do audiences have these feelings? What might improve the audience’s experience?

To answer these questions and the aim of improving the quality of the public’s art life and popularising contemporary art, I researched two contemporary art exhibitions in Dublin (Take This Dog for Example in DGH) and Belfast (Midnight Feast in the MAC) respectively in 2023. I used a method of autoethnography to reflect on my experiences in both exhibitions and analysed this experience to respond to my research questions. Figures 1 and 2 show photos of the exhibitions taken by me for my research.

Figure 1. Case one: Take This Dog for Example, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, Ireland (photos were taken by the researcher)

Figure 2. Case two: Midnight Feast, Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC), Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK (photos were taken by the researcher)

My feelings about the two exhibitions were different in a number of ways. The first exhibition: Take This Dog for Example was confusing. Even though the exhibition title was about a dog, most artworks did not feature any dogs. Meanwhile, the show involved smell, sound, and animation to attract my attention. However, I was confused, feeling helpless and lacking direction since there was no guidance, labels, or suggested route in a large exhibition space. For the other exhibition: Midnight Feast, I encountered two types of experiences. The first type of experience was of colourful and impactful scenery. However, the colourful surface hid a painful memory of The Troubles, which made my emotions shift from enjoyment to sadness. I expressed my feelings towards both exhibitions in the form of visual autoethnography (see Figures 3 and 4 below).

Figure 3. Visual autoethnography of case one (Take This Dog for Example)

Figure 4. Visual autoethnography of case two (Midnight Feast)

These various experiences were mainly affected by three factors: the features of contemporary art, the definition of art, and the curatorial concepts. Firstly, contemporary art primarily expresses the artist’s ideas and feelings rather than considering audiences’ experience. For instance, in the exhibition: Take This Dog for Example, the artist had absolute freedom to use any materials and art form to generate his art. Also, art appreciation is subjective and affected by individual cultural experiences. Therefore, each artwork may not meet all the audiences’ tastes.

Regarding the curatorial concept, ‘against interpretation’ is popular to some extent in curating contemporary art, which insists that interpretation of art damages the audience’s sensibility and thinking. In this case, some curators prefer to use sense stimulation (e.g., sound and smell) and no interpretative or less interpretative approach in curating (such as no labels and no guidance route in the exhibition of Take This Dog for Example), which may challenge audiences’ ability to understand of artworks. I also used a critical discourse analysis to analyse the handouts from two exhibitions. I reviewed the curatorial text to establish an authority of knowledge. The use of opaque terminology and academic vocabulary can mean that accessibility is lessened particularly for cross-cultural readings. Figure 5 shows my annotated copies of curatorial material, illustrating my active engagement with the curatorial texts.

Figure 5. Annotated exhibition handouts with critical discourse analysis

I found that my engagement process for the exhibitions can be seen as a form of knowledge learning since the exhibitions offered resources and activities in different timeframes. For example, Midnight Feast included various knowledge supports in the exhibition, such as labels, a video of the artist’s interview, recommended books, and guiding questions. By comparison, Take This Dog for Example did not offer these types of support in the exhibition. Instead, different events were arranged, such as an artist talk, tours, a workshop, and a response performance. Increasing the availability of available learning supports may stimulate audiences’ interest in the exhibitions and increase the time spent engaging with the art.

After an insight into audience engagement, the findings from this research may contribute to the role of the public, curators and institutions in boosting contemporary art. It encourages the public to have an open mind when participating in exhibitions because of the features of contemporary art and the subjective aesthetic of the individual. For curators, it suggests that they should accord to the artworks’ features, audiences’ educational level and needs to design the knowledge support in the engagement process, including an adjustment of the professional and academic discourse to be more accessible. In terms of institutions, organising more communication events will encourage diverse audiences to share opinions on the art, contributing to the understanding of contemporary art and achieving a cultural democratic vision.

Reviewing my research process, relevant modules studied during the course of the MA in Arts Management at Queen’s University Belfast supported me in the research journey. I gained theoretical knowledge of cultural research and practised critical thinking, which developed my ability and confidence to finish the independent research.  As part of the 2023 ESRC Festival of Social Science, this research will be presented at the event: ‘MA Arts Management Showcase: Spotlight on new thinking on inclusive, creative cities & organisations’ on 7th November. Everyone is welcome to participate. Please register here.


Take This Dog for Example https://thedouglashyde.ie/exhibition/uri-aran/

Midnight Feast https://themaclive.com/exhibition/louise-wallace-midnight-feast


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Ruinan Peng is a graduate of the Masters of Arts Management from Queen's University Belfast (expected December 2023). She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art and Design and has seven years of working experience in marketing and brand planning.

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