Description Labels

How to read an art label

If you ever visited an art museum you might have noticed that a label with several lines of text is usually displayed near each work of art. These labels can tell us a lot about what we are seeing. Museums usually display the same kind of information with art shown on their websites too. Included with the sample label below is an explanation of what each line of information means.

Jamie Wyeth, (born, 1946)
Kalounna in Frogtown , 1986
Oil on Masonite
36 x 50 1/8 in. (91.4 x 127.3 cm)
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.163

aacl-how-to-label-aJamie Wyeth—The artist’s name. If the artist’s name is not known, sometimes the label will indicate that.

aacl-how-to-label-b (born 1946)—The year the artist was born. If an artist has died, his or her year of death is included too. Sometimes the artist’s nationality or the country in which he or she was born or died are included as well.

aacl-how-to-label-c Kalounna in Frogtown— The title of the artwork. Sometimes the artist creates the title for his or her artwork, as Jamie Wyeth did for this painting. When the artist’s title isn’t known, which is very common, a museum curator (the person who helps to create and study the museum’s collection) may develop the title.

aacl-how-to-label-d 1986—The year that the artwork was made or completed.

aacl-how-to-label-eOil on Masonite—The medium or materials that the artist used to create the artwork. Here the materials include oil paint and Masonite (a type of board made of compressed wood fibers).

aacl-how-to-label-f Image: 36 x 50 1/8 in. (91.4 x 127.3 cm)—The dimensions of the work of art. For paintings, the height and length are provided. For objects like sculptures, the width is included too. This information is especially helpful when looking at art on websites or in books, as it’s hard to understand the scale of an artwork without seeing it in person.

aacl-how-to-label-g Frame: 41 7/8 x 56 in. (106.4 x 142.2 cm)—Sometimes the dimensions of the frame for the work of art are also provided.

aacl-how-to-label-h Terra Foundation for American Art —The owner of the artwork.

aacl-how-to-label-i Daniel J. Terra Collection—This part of the label explains how the artwork became part of the collection that now owns it. “Daniel J. Terra Collection” tells us that the painting was owned by Daniel J. Terra before it became part of the Terra Foundation for American Art’s collection. Sometimes one person or a family will donate works of art to a museum. Other times several individuals come together to help museums purchase a work of art. An artwork may also be on loan from another museum or private collection.

aacl-how-to-label-j 1992.163—The object number (this is sometimes also called an accession number). Each work of art is given a unique number when it enters a museum collection. This number helps the museum with its record keeping. The number usually contains the year when the artwork entered the collection. In this example, the painting became part of the collection in 1992, and was the 163rd artwork to join the collection in that year.

Exhibition Labels for Artwork


Wayne-Thiebaud---De-Young-1 label


There are a few questions I constantly receive, and one of the most common is how to label artworks in an exhibition. The truth is, there is no single standard format, though most labels include the same key elements. I have written a previous post on the subject, How to Label Artwork in an Exhibition. Below, I have expanded on some of the specifics, as well included more examples of artwork labels.

The most standard information included on artwork labels is:

1. The artist’s name
This one is pretty straightforward!

2. The title of the work
Depending on your preference, the title of the artwork can be plain, in italics, or bolded. Italics are often used to differentiate the title from the rest of the information, as well referencing english grammar rules for titles. The title could also be in bold as a different method of differentiating it from the remainder of the information.

3. The date of the artwork
Generally, the date of an artwork is the year that it was completed. Sometimes, if a work has been continued over a long span of time and the artist would like to acknowledge that, multiple years can be included (for example, 2012-2014). If the date of the artwork is unknown (usually for historical works), “circa” is included: for example, c. 1919.

4. The size of the artwork
The measurement of an artwork usually refers to the outer size of the canvas, paper, or other material that is the base of an artwork. Unless the frame is an integral part of the work itself, its measurements should not be considered the size of the artwork. The standard is to list the height, then the width. The depth, if applicable, would be listed third. For example, 57 x 46 x 3 inches. Sometimes, there is no specific dimensions for a work (for example, video work, or work which changes size depending on different installation circumstances). In the case of no specific dimensions, it is appropriate to list dimensions variable.

4.a The duration of the work
For durational artworks such as video or audio, this format is often used to list their duration: 00:00:00 (hours, minutes, seconds). You can also simply list 1 hour, two minutes, or however long your work is. It is not absolutely necessary to list the duration of work, however works of this nature are often catalogued in this manner.

5. The medium of the artwork
This seems straightforward, although sometimes it can be difficult to decide what should be listed and what should be left out. It is really the artist’s choice how detailed they would like to be. For example, you can list your medium as simply as possible (for example, oil on linen). You can include more detail, if you feel it is integral to the work (for example, gel medium, tea, sand, dirt, grass on found canvas).

6. The price or the credit listing
Should you be selling your work and you would like to include a price on your label, place it at the bottom. If the work is not for sale, you can leave this area blank. If the work is loaned, this is where you would credit the lender. For example, Courtesy of Cleopatra. 

7. Additional information
Museums or larger establishments showing artists of historical significance often list further information on their labels. This could be the birth year and death year of the artist (if applicable), the museum’s own cataloguing number for the work, and a credit to the donor of the work if applicable.


Below are some visual examples of artwork labels:

For a loaned artwork:

Roy Lichenstein
Acrylic and oil paint on canvas
68 x 160 inches
Courtesy of the Tate Museum

For an artwork for sale:

Paul Cézanne
The Card Players
Oil on canvas
38 x 51 inches

For a durational artwork:

Joan Jonas
Double Lunar Dogs
24 minutes
Courtesy of MoMA

Bruce Nauman
Two color video monitors, two laser disc players, two laser discs (color, sound), and metal table
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of MoMA

The original post on this subject How to Label Artworks in an Exhibition includes tips and ideas for physically creating your labels.

Whenever you visit galleries, take note of how they label their artwork. What do you think looks best? What do you find to be the most effective method for labelling artwork? 

Hornell Picture Show

It’s time to start brainstorming for the Lightwell exhibition.

What do ya’ll want to happen? We can think of the gallery space as more than just a place to exhibit our own work.

Due February 23: A one page proposal for an exhibition in the Lightwell Gallery or alternative space.


Here is an example of what a group of artists did in a small town Art Center:


Photographs from a free souvenir photo event at the Hornell Arts Center in Hornell, NY on November, 10, 2012.

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Co-op Galleries vs. Vanity Galleries


Marketing Mondays: Co-op Galleries, Yes. Vanity Galleries, No

“I find it a bit ridiculous that co-op galleries are given more credibility than the much-maligned vanity galleries. They are in effect the exact same thing.”

The quote above is from an e-conversation I’ve been having with a Facebook friend, and I’m going to disagree with her today on Marketing Mondays, because it’s a topic worth sharing.While it is true that artists pay to show at both venues, there is a world of difference between co-op galleries and vanities. Here’s a quick, totally subjective rundown of vanity versus co-op. For the record, I have never shown in a vanity gallery nor been a member of a co-op, though I have participated in curated group shows at good co-op galleries and will continue to do so when the opportunity arises.The Vanity Gallery

. None. There is no career benefit to a serious artist

. It costs money, often an exorbitant amount, for you to show—$1500 for a work or two in a group show; $3000 or $4000 for a “solo”
. The “solos” are often set up booth style, so that up to a dozen such presentations can take place simultaneously
. You have little or no say in what other artists will be showing during your “solo”
. The gallery owner, money in hand, has no need to sell anything
. Any “press” comes from the gallery’s in-house publication
. Not only is there no benefit to a serious artist, affiliation with such a gallery can be a career stumbling block. No reputable dealer wants to work with an artist who has a history of paying to show in this way.

Two views of pay-to-show galleries, photographed in 2008 in Chelsea
Above, several “solo” show running concurrently
Below, a “salon-style” group show that uses every square inch of wallspace

By contrast, a well-conceived solo at a good co-op gallery is indistinguishable from a well-conceived solo at a commercial gallery . . .

. . . Here, installation view: Rose Olson’s solo, No Curves Just Color at the Kingston Gallery, in Boston, 2008 .

The Co-op Gallery
. Each artist is a cooperating owner, which means you have a say in who gets into the gallery and what the gallery policies are
. Juried membership means that you will be in good company
. Becoming a member in such a gallery can, in the best of circumstances, mean becoming part of an existing artists’ community. For emerging artists, or for an artist who has relocated to a new city, or for artists with a particular point of view, this can be a huge benefit
. For artists who have full-time jobs and don’t need to depend on the income from sales, a co-op gallery offers visibility that juried shows and hit-or-miss exhibiting do not
. For artists who depend on sales, the co-op gallery gives you the option of working as hard as any commercial gallery to promote yourself and your work: ads, gallery talks, Saturdays in the gallery, whatever you think it will take to bring in and sell to your audience. (Most commercial galleries prefer their artists to have a limited role in the business part of the gallery.)
. You may show the work you wish to show, even if it’s not commercially viable—an installation, a performance, highly political work, whatever—and unless the co-op rules expressly forbid it, you may show it in the manner you choose, such as pinning work on paper to the walls, or piling your sculptures on the floor
. You may use your exhibition slot to curate a show instead of doing a solo, or you may propose to curate a show in one of the co-op’s flexible slots
. Some gallery cities embrace their co-op galleries as equal (or nearly equal) partners. Boston is a good example, where in the gallery-rich South End, four co-ops hold First Friday openings and get reviewed alongside 15 or so commercial galleries. Critics, curators, collectors and artists make the rounds of them all. And in terms of sales, says one Boston co-op member, “Co-op versus commercial makes no difference to the average gallerygoer. Most are unaware of the distinction.”
. Indeed, a well-established co-op gallery with an experienced manager and a cohort of talented artists has far more to offer than an upstart commercial gallery that may have an inexperienced owner, no collector base, no history of reviews, and no community support, and which may well close a year down the road. I could name at least two directors of established Chelsea galleries who started their careers as directors of co-op galleries, and dozens of artists who started out by showing at co-ops and who are now affiliated with commercial galleries
. There’s no reason you can’t move over to a commercial gallery if the opportunity arises. A good show gives you the opportunity to create a visually compelling postcard, brochure or catalog, just the thing to get a dealer in to see your work
. You retain somewhere in the vicinity of 70% of the sale price. .

. There is a financial obligation in the way of an initial fee and monthly dues, but these are typically not as onerous as a vanity (and if the gallery is run well, the gallery’s share of sales will go right into the operating budget)
. You also have some work obligations, such as one day a month in the gallery and volunteering for specific tasks. Some artists pay a part-time staffer to take on their hours, but others relish the opportunity to meet their public and advocate on their own behalf
. You will be seen by some artists and dealers as not quite as “legitimate,” but that view may change if their gallery closes as you get ready for the opening of your next solo show.

Over to you.