A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

I started teaching DP Visual Arts a little over thirty years ago, in Tanzania, in the 1980s (at ISM).

At that time both the IB and ISM were relatively new – the IB started in 1968 and ISM started in 1969.

I was entering a new stage in my life:  living in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, going on regular safaris into the Serengeti, learning about a new school, a new country, new cultures – and also joining these two relatively new organisations: the International Baccalaureate and the International School Moshi.

Since that time both have flourished!

At that time, of course, a different version of the visual arts course existed, but elements have remained consistent – primarily the idea that there should be research, evidence of process, and a final exhibition.

I attended a memorable IB teacher workshop, also in the 1980s, in Hamburg – and learned about the importance of the ‘theme’.

Thirty years ago, the theme was seen as an integral part of the visual arts exhibition.

But that was then.

This is now…

It’s true that if students take a creative approach and refer to the current visual arts guide, their exhibition can be successful and have a theme.

But many teachers seem to be under the impression that exhibition success depends on a theme. It’s as if they are still in the mindset of previous visual arts courses – perhaps not as far back as the 1980s, but certainly not the current visual arts course.

The current course…

Along with many others, I was involved in the development of the current course, and we deliberately removed the word “theme” from the entire visual arts guide.

The coherence descriptor does not refer to a theme, but to “thematic or stylistic relationships”.

In the guide the plural occurs only twice: “what themes can be identified in the work, or what experiences have influenced it?” (p57) and “the work demonstrates elaboration of ideas, themes or concepts” (p60).

This is because of the importance of visual elaboration (criterion C) and of links and ‘thematic or stylistic’ relationships between pieces (criterion A).

There is no reference in any of the assessment criteria to having a theme.

But there is the potential to lose marks if the works submitted are repetitive (criterion A) or predictable (criterion C).

Communicate your relationships…

I had hoped that by now some art teachers may have reflected on the results and feedback from the 2016 and 2017 sessions and be more in tune with the criteria.

I’ve recently read many curatorial rationales, from students from all over the world, and maybe some have…but having looked at the submitted exhibition files of more than 100 students I have to say that many students seem to still feel that they have to have a theme, and I’m afraid that many lose marks because of this.

Students seem be unaware of the importance of communicating thematic or stylistic relationships across individual pieces.

Too often relationships across pieces were visually repetitive rather than imaginative, and I suspect this is because the idea of following a theme persuades many that it’s OK to be repetitive.

Looking back at the exhibitions that I saw in the last examination sessions, there were many inspirational and creative collections, and the best did NOT have a single, constraining theme.

Of course, that does not just mean that there were just random and disparate artworks in successful exhibitions: the strongest exhibitions had linked IDEAS. Not a theme.

These ideas were elaborated (e.g. not simply stated but developed into striking and successful artworks) and there were creative links that threaded through the collection: a series of ideas, concepts and themes rather than a single, limiting ‘headline’ theme.

Quoting from a student (Curatorial Rationale)…

One student admitted in the rationale:

I started with the theme of (title removed to preserve anonymity), and in the beginning had works that were all based on theme ideas. But then my theme ideas dried up. After a time, I realized that my theme…actually limited my work. I was trapped rather than inspired by my theme. Everything had become dull and repetitive”

The curatorial rationale of many weak exhibitions invariably started “My theme is…” and having read this, I then frequently found myself looking at between 8 and 11 visually similar artworks, restricted by the theme.

Who is telling students that they need a theme? Is it their art teacher? Why?


Yes, some successful art exhibitions do creatively reflect an overall theme.

But beware – the theme can also become a hindrance, a destructive constraint.


Relevant posts:

***In October 2015 The Exhibition…A “coherent” body of works? /kə(ʊ)ˈhɪər(ə)ns,kə(ʊ)ˈhɪərəns

***In April 2016 From Clouds to Desire (“Thematic Relationships” in your visual arts exhibition)