Museums Explained


(above: Georgia Museum of Art, May, 2011. Photo © John Hazeltine)


Mission, Organization and Accreditation







Non profit Art Museums, Galleries and Art Centers with permanent collections have usually a small fraction of the artworks they own on public display at any one time. Sometimes long term exhibits of portions of the venue's own collection are called "ongoing" or "permanent" exhibits. The rest of the collection is stored in vaults, or portions of it are on tour. Many venues also organize temporary or "special" exhibitions which have a specified time frame.

Many venues have the financial resources and staff to organize exhibitions held at their own facility. Others host exhibitions organized elsewhere. Some venues also have the ability to plan and manage exhibition tours. While venues sometimes tour exhibitions that they have organized, they usually do not manage the touring of exhibitions organized by others.

When a venue rents an exhibit from a tour organizer the venue's curator may enhance the exhibit by adding works from its own collection or from the collections of other owners. Sometimes the venue will present a derivative exhibit along with the rented exhibit.

Some non profit art centers, galleries and museums either have either no permanent collection or very small collections. These organizations may organize exhibitions with artworks borrowed from collectors and other organizations and/or rent exhibitions organized by other entities.

While most touring exhibitions are organized by non profit Art Museums, Galleries and Art Centers, many are organized by entities that are not venues. For an example of a for-profit touring firm see the Resource Library [1] article "The David Smith Story: Sharing the Arts." Other entities include Landau Traveling Exhibitions and Exhibits USA

There are many elements to planning and executing an exhibition. Some elements include:

concept design
curator, registrar, education director recruitment
vendor selection and contracting
catalogue design and production
grant management
preparation of agreements
legal review
crating, insuring and transporting of art works
security planning

The non-profit Exhibition Alliance has created a video which, according to the American Association of Museums,

"shows the best methods for handling artworks and artifacts, using demonstrations and a question-and-answer format. The 26-minute video is an excellent training tool for registrars, curators, art preparators, artists, students, shippers, or anyone responsible for handling works of art or historical artifacts."

The Exhibition Alliance also has a web page containing "technical briefs" which are illustrated and helpful for learning how to prepare artworks for exhibition and shipping. They have prepared a page including a budget worksheet to help in planning and management of exhibitions.

Mark Walhimer of Museum Planning, LLC maintains a Frequently Asked Questions blog post. A section of the blog named "How do you create a museum exhibition?" has links to topics of planning, design phases, fabrication, installation, maintenance, evaluation and creating a traveling exhibition. Another section named "How much do museum exhibitions cost?" has links to a 2011 cost survey and a general information page. While generic in scope, the links provide insight into the creation of art exhibitions. A separate page by Mr. Walhimer on the MuseumPlanner website titled "Museum exhibition design" covers steps in the exhibition development process. For more information also see our Planning, Organizing and Touring Art Exhibitions and the website for the National Association for Museum Exhibition.

Venues that exhibit American representational art may be found in the Art Museum, Gallery and Art Center index and the Academies, Associations, Ateliers and Societies index. They have provided source materials for articles and essays in Resource Library. Other non-profit organizations besides museums may also originate or present exhibitions. The can be libraries and even airports.


Exhibition catalogs and related paper-printed documents

A historic staple of exhibitions is a paper-printed document either for sale to the public or given out free in galleries holding an exhibition.

Exhibition catalogs are generally cloth-bound or paperback books that are made for sale to the public and brick-and-mortar libraries. They usually have illustrations of art objects in an exhibition coupled with one or more scholarly texts. Parts may include a table of contents, foreword, preface, introduction, one or more essays, a checklist, images of the artworks in the exhibit, a bibliography and index. Some have few texts but most always images.

Brochures are more modest in scope than catalogs, have fewer pages, and may be for sale or free. Brochures may have essays although not as many in number as catalogs. Images of all of the artworks in the exhibit may not be included.

Gallery guides are lesser in scope than brochures and are usually available on a stand or wall container in the galleries of the exhibit. Sometimes they are free to the public and may be taken from the premises. In other instances they are restricted for use in the galleries of the exhibit. Restricted gallery guides may have plastic coatings on the pages to lessen wear and tear due to extensive handling.

A growing number of catalogs and brochures are published online. For more information on online publishing, please see our Survey of Online Exhibition Catalogues, Brochures, Gallery Guides and Related Materials, Digitizing initiatives not intended for profit and Digitizing initiatives with revenue and profit aspects.

More and more museums are offering a rich online menu of materials to accompany physical exhibits. This is partially to attract younger audiences who seek knowledge onilne. Depending on the quality of their online experience, there may be an inflection point soon when a sizable portion of them will prefer that option over physical visitation. Following is what ChatGPT software (likely crafted by young engineers) had to say in response to somewhat rhetorical questions in March, 2023.





If you are interested in discovering brochures, catalogues or gallery guides published concerning topics or artists, conduct an advanced search within the domain, typing a topic name from Topics in American Art, a deceased artist from America's Distinguished Artists, or the name of a living artist combined with the keyword "brochure," "catalogue" or "gallery guide."


Make the most of your visit

If you are touring, you will find American art venues to visit Indexed by State within the United States. Call the venue in advance to see if you can:

join a docent tour to interpret the exhibition
make a reservation to have lunch in the museum cafe

Always verify dates directly with museums before visiting their exhibitions. Exhibit opening and closing dates in magazines and online calendars may be inaccurate. Sometimes exhibit closing dates are extended. Other times exhibits are canceled altogether.

Museums often have closed days. Mondays are common in the United States but sometimes there are other closed days or multiple closed days. It's a good idea to arrive early or late in the day when there are less crowds. Many museums have tours for school children in the morning, causing increased traffic. Some museums have evening hours and many offer free days throughout the year. Also, allow time to rest during your visit. Standing on hard floors for several hours isn't comfortable for most people.

When arriving you can get an idea of what the museum considers it's most cherished works by scanning the postcards in the museum gift shop. Or take a look through books that describe the museum's collection. Larger museums have kiosks, brochures, and even computer rooms for viewing the collection on a screen.

Search Resource Library to read articles and essays about many of these exhibitions.


Bring your tablet or smartphone

Sophisticated museums know that at some exhibits with thick crowds it's hard to comfortably read wall panels and extended object labels. Increasingly, visitors are using mobile devices to solve this problem by either reading exhibition texts online that are physically distant from art objects while in the galleries, or before their visit. use your phone - where allowed to take pictures of the art



How to Visit an Art Museum is a 28-minute video produced at the Art Institute of Chicago which helps visitors make the most of every art museum visit.  "In this video you will learn how to see more of what is in a painting using simple techniques, how to plan museum visits around your special interests, how to appreciate the pleasure of gallery walks made alone or with others, how to look at art in different ways and come away with greater understanding, how to develop your imagination through art's power to surprise, how to make new discoveries in works of art you feel you already know, how to deepen your feelings for art through the many activities offered by museums, how to create your own art as part of your visit, and how to help young people feel at home in museums -- whether you are a parent or a teacher.[2] (right: box cover of How to Visit an Art Museum. Photo courtesy of


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1. Resource Library is an online publication devoted to American representational art. The publication includes aspects of both a popular magazine and a scholarly journal and maintains a balance between both emphases. Resource Library is published as a complimentary public service without a subscription fee by its nonprofit owner and publisher, Traditional Fine Arts Organization. Resource Library 's content time line spans the Colonial period to the present and covers significant artistic achievement in every state of the Union, while building an interconnected body of knowledge including, but not limited to, the relationships of American artists to their teachers in European and American art centers, schools and ateliers. The publication provides a comprehensive record of American museum exhibitions and evolving cultural emphases within its field on interest. References to the specific art museums listed above contain links to pages in the publication.

2. quote courtesy Audio Visual Institute of DuPage.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc. (TFAO) neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.


Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

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