In galleries all over Australia, on just about any day or night of the week, one of the keystone events of the art world is taking place: the opening of an exhibition. And at those openings there are certain formalities that need to be observed, namely the tradition of opening speeches. If you are called on to give a speech at an art exhibition opening, you are most likely one of the following: a gallery director, an artist, a politician, an art critic or other. The following cut-out-and-keep guide will help you understand the requirements of your role and the important things that need to be said.
In all likelihood you’re giving the opening speech because you’re very good at giving speeches. Sure, you’re a little awkward at public speaking; you have a strange and off-putting manner, an eccentric management style and have most likely alienated your staff, but people like you despite all these foibles and, besides, old ladies and the artists’ families and friends say you “rock the mic like Fidel Castro”. When it comes to the actual content of your speech, let your imagination be your guide. Certainly, while it’s best to mention the exhibiting artist/s, it’s not entirely necessary. If you’re the director of a commercial gallery, be sure to acknowledge your personal and/or business partner, prominent collectors and the bar staff. You are not limited by time so be expansive: mention any old thing that comes into your head and, if you’re a professional, add a hint of bitter irony to your comments when it comes to the art biz. If you’re the director of a regional or other funded gallery, be sure to mention all politicians present, the chairperson of trustees, any advisory boards, friends and societies, and anyone else who wants you sacked. Mentioning the art is also optional.
If you’re an artist opening an art exhibition it’s probably because you’re not the artist having the show. You are most likely an artist with some kind of public profile, having won a big art prize, having campaigned for a worthy cause or at the very least being in the same stable as the artist/s in the show. You can say whatever you like: be profane, slightly mad, rambling and/or cryptically witty and, in a surprise move – and despite whatever expense has been undertaken just to get you there to make the speech – go short. That’ll fox ’em.
Politicians are everyone’s favourite speech givers. They know a rhetorical flourish and how to use it. If you’re a federal or state politician, you’re no doubt adept at saying the same thing over and over, at an ever-decreasing tempo, so you have the magic gift of making three minutes feel like three hours. Use that gift and when you sail over the time limit, simply ignore it. It’s best to also ignore the art on show and perhaps confess that you don’t know a lot about it (especially if that’s your portfolio) – but always add that you’re eager to learn. Repeat a joke or witty observation provided by a ghost speechwriter and/or junior staffer who did some research on the web. Acknowledge important people in the room – councillors, mayors, etcetera – but also important people who are not in the room, such as the actual mayor or minister for the arts, who are unavoidably elsewhere. Alternatively, you may recall old university lectures you attended while studying Arts/Law and make some bold proclamations about the importance of the arts. No one will really care what you say and you can retrospectively claim the speech as your arts policy once in government. Note: Male politicians should always wear a suit and tie to an opening and female politicians should feel free to hang their fur coats on a sculpture.
No one really likes art critics and their presence at openings is one of the art world’s necessary evils, so if you are an art critic giving a speech, it’s probably best to keep it short so you can make a hasty exit with your complimentary bottle of wine. If you decide to keep it short, say some interesting-sounding stuff about art and art history but remember: keep it enigmatic and mysterious. Or you can go long – very long – as you demonstrate the vastness of your mostly irrelevant knowledge, describing how you wrote your last doorstop volume of art history. And don’t forget to set up some ill-defined sense of ‘us vs them’ so people can warm to your all-encompassing bitterness.
If you’re someone else opening a show, you’re probably an actor, sportsperson, musician, media personality, journalist or author, businessperson, historically significant figure or minor royalty of some kind. You’ll be happy to know that since you are not ‘in’ the art world, you can say whatever you like while subtly promoting your most recent role/tour/project/publication/hostile takeover/memory/relevance. Time limits and subjects are completely open so make the best use of your moment in the spotlight.
NB: If by some horrible twist of fate you’re an artist who is obliged to open their own show, go home – you’re drunk.
You Are Opening an At Exhibition, Art Guide, August 2015.
Illustration by Oslo Davis.