Curatorial issues

As an examiner I’ve  read a lot of curatorial rationales over the last few weeks, and I wanted to share some rationale-related reflections.

If you are a Visual Arts student in your first year (and in a May session school) then in around 9 months – or before – you will be writing one…

 The words of the top HL Curatorial Rationale descriptor

There are two strands – but many students hardly even address one.

“…fully justifies the selection and arrangement of the exhibited works as appropriate to the student’s stated intentions and…effectively articulates the relationship between the artworks and the viewer within the space made available to the student. “


OK, its “only” 3 marks…

  • The rationale is only worth 3 marks, so maybe students figure it’s not worth bothering about?
  • But it’s a relatively easy 3 marks and a surprising number of students only get 1 mark.
  • Also, what you write can help the examiner understand the exhibition coherence and conceptual qualities, so there is an incentive to do a good job in addition to the three marks.


1 “Selection of the exhibited works” and stated intentions

  • This is the one that almost everyone gets OK.
  • Almost all students talk about their intentions and ideas and the work they selected to show those intentions/ideas, although just working through a list of your artworks and explaining the intentions and meaning of each is only doing part of being asked.


2 “The arrangement of the exhibited works” and stated intentions

 A few may have mentioned that they showed their work on a wall, or on three display panels, or in a corner etc., but even then, it’s still only partial (1 mark) rather than mostly (2 marks) or fully (3 marks) justified.

  • Tell me about the ARRANGEMENT together with reasons (i.e. ‘justify’ the arrangement)


3 The relationship between the artworks and the viewer

(It’s not just about YOU – it’s also about the VIEWER)

Tell me about the space available and the relationship between the artworks and the viewer in the context of that space! (Referring to the viewer is usually helpful because it means that you are starting to consider the ‘relationship’.)

4 “The space made available to the student”

My own school currently has fairly limited display space, so students have to set up using free standing display panels to create individual exhibition areas that are within quite claustrophobic.

It’s not great and there is no opportunity to step back to view the work from any distance.

What is the relationship between artwork a and viewer and how might the space help or hinder that in your school?

What is the space available? School sports hall? School gallery/exhibition space? School library? Corridor?

As an examiner I am able to look at the beautiful exhibition facilities that some school have and experience a little ‘facility envy’ – although of course I remind myself that in assessment terms size/space doesn’t matter: as the exhibition clarification document says:

The space where the exhibition is presented must not influence the marking and constitute any bias. Candidates must not be put at disadvantage because of the space in which the exhibition is set up. Assessment criterion D refers to the selection of works and to what extent the curatorial rationale justifies the selection and arrangement of a group of artworks in a designated place, but no reference to the quality of the space itself is made in the Visual arts guide – first examinations 2016.”


Opening lines

Finally, here are a few examples of “opening lines”.

Sometimes the student and possibly the teacher seemed to think that anything could be written in the CR.


“The planet is spinning, the dog barks, we talk and laugh, we are young and about to leave a safe cocoon, I have travelled to many cultures and observed their differences, I have talked to my friends, we think about grad school…” (etc. etc.)

Yes? OK, I’m trying to stay with you here but to be honest you’re not helping. Tell me about your ART!!??


“I tried to work out what I should write for my curatorial rationale so I thought how would I write a great song? It needs a theme…”

You don’t need to work out what to write. Ask you teacher or look at the visual arts guide or the curatorial rationale assessment criteria – that will give you a good idea about what to write.


“I’m using my art to try to discover and show the meaning of life.”

This is ambitious and I’m afraid that no student yet had actually managed to use his/her visual arts exhibition to really show the meaning of life to his/her audience.


“My theme is about how women are repressed and subjugated throughout the world. They have no voice; my theme is unfairness and the pressure in teenage girls, we are expected to conform to an impossible idealized image!”

It could be that the exhibition that follows is moving, subtle and complex, with creative and sophisticated references to this issue; but unfortunately, what often follows is much more predictable – a series of artworks that are little more than posters, frequently incorporating cut up images from magazine pages.


“Life for a teenager these days is incredibly hard. My parents don’t understand me. My exhibition is about how tough life is these days”

Angst and anger can be great starting points for meaningful art, and again the exhibition could well be a deep and intense journey, but all too often there is a gap between what is intended and what is presented.


“The planet is being destroyed, so my exhibition is all about pollution.”

Pollution is a popular theme but often conceptually weak, with repeated obvious images (e.g. a lot of bad art work made from plastic bags and/or other trash items)


“My life is all about baseball so my exhibition is all about baseball

Really? I hope that in addition to baseball you’ve thought about things like – for example – conceptual subtlety and sophistication, assured technical competence etc.