Approaching art can be daunting. I dare you to walk up to a painting and figure out what it means. What is the artist trying to communicate? Why is this piece “good enough” to be in a museum?
Helpfully, a small white rectangle with black text hangs next to the work, offering information about it. But what if the wall label is only in English, and that’s not your preferred language?
That’s why Twin Cities art museums are increasingly creating multilingual wall labels and exhibition texts.
“Our hope is that it’s sending a message of welcome, rather than assuming English is the native language,” said the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s deputy director, Matthew Welch.
A 2019 show by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide came to the museum fully translated into Spanish and English, with a subtitled video of the artist screening on a loop. And for Mia’s recent exhibit about the Vietnam War, the museum translated wall labels into Hmong, Vietnamese and Laotian, making it more accessible to refugee communities who settled in the Twin Cities after the war.
The number of Minnesotans over age 5 who speak a language other than English at home has nearly doubled over the past two decades, to 583,378 — 11% of the state’s population — according to 2017 data from the Minnesota State Demographic Center. The most common languages are Spanish, Hmong and African tongues, including Somali and Oromo.
Translation can be tricky
Casey Riley, Mia’s curator of photography and new media, worked with 10 teenagers to create wall labels for the new exhibition “Just Kids.”
“Wall labels are a point of entry, an invitation to engage with the work emotionally, intellectually, personally,” said Riley.
Mia’s 2019 exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” spanned 50 tribes and 60 languages. The museum offered translation services to every living artist in the show, ensuring that their indigenous language was honored even if the artist did not speak it.
“By translating something, you are always opening it up to somebody else,” said Juline Chevalier, head of interpretation and participatory experiences at Mia.
Because the museum is located on Dakota homeland, the act carried symbolic power — especially considering the U.S. government once forced Native Americans into boarding schools that banned their native tongue. Some languages are now considered endangered, such as Southwestern Ojibwa, which has fewer than 5,000 speakers left, according to the Endangered Languages Project.
But some things — especially when it comes to jargon-filled artspeak — are tough to translate.
“The Dakota language is a more describing language,” said Sisoka Duta (Joe Bendickson), who translated labels from English to Dakota for the exhibit. “There were some abstract words in the labels and I had to describe what the artist is trying to do.”
Translation didn’t make sense to Rosalie Favell, a Canadian artist who incorporates her Métis background — she’s a mix of Cree and English — into her photo-based practice. While Mia offered to translate the label for her digital print “The Collector/The Artist in Her Museum” into Cree, she wasn’t sure which dialect would make sense (Plains Cree? Swampy Cree?) because the blood mixing went further back than she could trace. The history of the Métis is complicated, originating in the 1700s when European fur traders married Cree and Anishinabe women, forming their own culture.
“It seemed false to adopt a language I don’t feel connected to,” Favell explained by phone.
Walker Art Center’s 2017 exhibition “Adiós Utopia” presented different challenges. A group exhibition featuring 106 works by 63 Cuban artists, it needed to reflect Cuban idioms in translating labels into Spanish. For example, the word “bus” is autobús in most Spanish-speaking countries, but in Cuba it’s commonly referred to as guagua.
Still, translating that exhibit “was a no-brainer,” said Nisa Mackie, director of education and public programs at the Walker. “We saw a huge spike in Latinx audiences coming to the museum to see that show.”
She sees the wall label as “a voice of welcoming to our audiences. You wouldn’t throw the front door of your home open without greeting somebody.”
Not all artists want it
Translating shows is done on a case-by-case basis. For solo exhibitions, institutions usually leave that decision up to the artist.
But St. Olaf College in Northfield insisted on bilingual labels for its recent exhibit “Swimming on Dry Land/Nadar en Seco,” by Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco.
“That was not my decision,” Fusco said by e-mail. “St. Olaf made the labels.”
Jane Becker Nelson, director of the college’s Flaten Art Museum, said it did so as part of “a decolonizing strategy that aligns with our field’s ongoing efforts to name the legacies of colonial power that are embedded within museums and their practices, and an effort to work toward greater equity and inclusion.”
This show is the museum’s first fully bilingual exhibition. Becker Nelson said the museum wanted to welcome the college’s Spanish speakers and Latin American immigrants. (Northfield is 8.7% Hispanic or Latino.)
Labels were solely in English for a 2018 Walker show by Mexico City-based conceptual artist Mario García Torres. “Illusion Brought Me Here” was his first U.S. solo exhibit.
Asked why labels weren’t translated into Spanish, García Torres said that was a matter of museum policy and he “wasn’t sure how that worked.”
According to Walker staffer Mackie, “Some artists very strongly identify with a particular cultural narrative and have a desire to have their text translated or be reaching audiences from their racial and cultural background. [But] you have some artists who are people of color who are not interested in that.”
In the case of García Torres, his work is not particularly identity-based, and is contextualized within the canon of American and European conceptual artists, who are predominantly white men.
Some artists don’t want labels at all. That was the case for Nairy Baghramian’s 2017 solo exhibition “Déformation Professionnelle” at the Walker.
“We put all the interpretive information for the show into a booklet people could pick up,” said Mackie.
Sometimes shows aren’t translated because the text simply doesn’t translate, and the budget won’t allow for it, as was the case with “History Is Not Here: Art and the Arab Imaginary,” a recent show curated by Mizna, the Twin Cities’ Arab arts organization. Only the show’s subtitle was translated to Arabic. Mizna opted instead to translate some text for a printed catalog, which would live on beyond the show’s closing date.
Are wall labels even read?
For all the energy put into translating wall labels, are these texts getting read in any language?
During Mia’s 2017 blockbuster show “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters,” which was translated into Spanish, the museum conducted a survey of how many visitors spoke Spanish.
“It was small — only about 5 percent,” said Chevalier. “But we made the effort.”
Mackie did an experiment at the Walker’s Theaster Gates exhibit, which closes Sunday. She found that of 100 visitors who came through during a one-hour period, only 45 read the wall text.
“I think a lot of them say: ‘Well, I like to look at things and make up my own mind. I don’t like to be told how to think about something.’ ”