This sculpture is huge, towering over the wall of the museum. There appears to be two people dancing together. Patricia D. Pfundt Sculpture Garden and Outdoor Sculpture Program.

Steve Tobin, Dancing Steelroots, 22 feet high. Collection of the artist.

Out of This World, an exhibition featuring the work of Steve Tobin, is in full swing here at the Michener Art Museum. When you visit the exhibit, you might notice that there is a limited amount of text panels and titles.  In addition, Steve Tobin doesn’t often title his work, so this leaves the work open to interpretation. For some, this might not be enough, but for one viewer the minimalism created a more meaningful experience. Here is what he has to say:

I had commented to my wife that without any titles or text panels, I enjoyed the work much more. The nature of Tobin’s work is that of an unfolding journey of experience- of the art. Thanks for not telling me the meanings, the associations, the dates, the influences, or their names. Thank you, thank you, thank you for not telling me any of these things. I have experienced his work more directly as a result. A peripatetic human encountered art. – Tom

Text panels can provide so much information about different works of art and sometimes they help us understand the motivation behind them. But, at the same time, I can find them to be overwhelming on occasion. I know for myself, I don’t often look at text panels when viewing different exhibits. Sometimes there may be a lot of writing that I do not want to be bothered and other times I might not be interested. Sometimes, I think that text panels can interfere with the experience, specifically when it is suggesting how we should feel about the art it represents. 

In a conversation about this statement with my supervisor, Adrienne N. Romano, Director of Education, New Media and Interpretive Initiatives, she explained, “When text panels are written effectively, and that is the key, they can cause you to reflect, question, and learn more about the work. They can guide you to look deeper at the artwork. Curators spend years and years working at this craft. Researchers in the field of museum studies look closely at what visitors want to learn and how they interact with these different kind of elements in an exhibition. This is an area that leads curators to think critically about how they write, what kind of information to present (or not to present) to the visitor, and even the word count or length of the text. It is an ongoing challenge in exhibition interpretation and debate in the museum field. How much information is too much information? What kind of information is important?

But, sometimes, text panels might not be needed for everyone, and that’s ok. Curators might make the decision to include a minimal amount of text just for this purpose. I can understand the experience of this visitor, as I have had this experience myself. There has to be a good balance. If a curator wants to provide an interpretation of a work on view through a text panel, I feel that this curator should just present it as his or her own perspective and lead the visitor to create their own. And sometimes, like the works of Steve Tobin and with even the work of photographer Wendy Paton in her “Reclaiming Dignity” series, the artist may not title their work. The artist wants you to experience the work and let it speak to you, rather than giving the work a title and possibly leading you in a different direction. Many factors go into the process of creating and installing an exhibition.”

In reading this quote above, do you agree with this visitor? Why or why not? Do you feel that removing the text panel entirely creates a more intimate and emotional viewing experience? If you could write a text panel, what kind of information would you want it to include?

Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin in the Paton|Smith|Della Penna-Fernberger Galleries will close on October 12. The Beans Gallery and the Outdoor exhibitions will remain open through October 26.

What are your thoughts on the Steve Tobin exhibit? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

-Taylor Hunkins, Michener Art Museum Intern