Ethical Questions of Contemporary Art Exhibitions

by Anna Parsec
Updated: May 9, 2024
20 minute read
Ethical Questions of Contemporary Art Exhibitions

Table of Contents


Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that reflects and influences various frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality. In this paper I will discuss ethical issues that arise in the event of contemporary art exhibitions. 

Since ethics reflect principles of a particular social group art institutions have to be adaptive, open and sensitive to the different cultural values of the target audience of the art exhibition. The text is therefore organised around two set of questions. The first set of questions revolve around the artist or the art institution: should the artwork be judged by the ethical outlook of the artist and should a gallery or a museum account on their activities? The second group of questions is about the censorship and freedom of exhibiting any artworks. 

This paper aims to provide the examples of recent ethical issues of art exhibitions that were raised in Russia and the UK in these first 18 years of the 21st century – and to analyse their results and consequences.

Why are contemporary art exhibitions so controversial?

Due to the fact that so many different ethical questions can be raised in relation to the art world before discussing the issues that will be raised in this paper it is essential to define the specific area that I am going to look at – contemporary art exhibitions. Contemporary art is the art, produced in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century. Contemporary artists work in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, using the combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that continue to challenge traditional boundaries and aim to provoke, thrill all the senses of the audience. 

Contemporary art as a whole is distinguished by the lack of a uniform but freedom of speech, fantasy and desire to express and impress. Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue between various social groups as a whole as well as separate individuals and often refers larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality. Despite the possible cultural shock, the acceptance of contemporary art (which is often a synonym to non-traditional art) at exhibitions, galleries and museums has increased due to changing perspectives on what constitutes an art piece.

Contemporary art exhibitions are temporary art events lasting from one day up to a year that may include performances, installations, private events, and the exhibited items as a ground for discussion. 

Transformation of the approach to exhibition of art became contemporary in a way that anything can become art. There is a very representative example of the dispute about contemporary art exhibition when Charles Thomson attacked 1999’s Turner Prize and artist Brad Lochore was defending it. Lochore replies, “You could say everything is art…” Thomson says, “Is my shoe art?” while at the same time his shoe appears in front of Lochore, who observes, “If you say it is. I have to judge it on those terms.” (Milner, 2004). 

To sum up, Contemporary art can be very regular thing until it is exhibited at the relevant exhibition space and is claimed to be art.

What is the relationship between art and ethics?

Many professions have a code of ethics – doctors, lawyers, journalists etc. In fact being professional is often  understood as having some code of ethics. But there is no such thing as code of ethics when it comes to art.

Such freedom allows art to be highly subjective and boundary-pushing. Art can open us up to new ideas and beliefs, and artists can make a massive impact as role models, either in a positive or a negative manner.

In the art world ethics are generally seen as a set of guiding principles of good practice that art managers refer to curating while organising art exhibitions. Art ethics are about individual vision and a sense of moral accountability to the various groups that art institution serves to.

Ethics are ‘not carved in stone’ and of course ethical questions adjust to sensitive issues in different ways  and should primarily be understood as conflicts in cultural values. Even within the same culture ethics change as the needs and values of society and museums change (Gazi, 2004). Museum and exhibition ethics are mainly about social responsiveness and honesty to the various audiences museums serve (Chelius Stark 2011). 

What range of ethical questions can be raised?

Exhibitions are one of the main grounds on which ethical battles in museums are fought. Indeed, when objects are put on public display some of the values associated with them are opted for over others and this often leads to heated debates among the various parties involved (museums, curators, citizens, indigenous peoples, governments or nations, collectors, art dealers etc (Warren 1999). Besides, exhibitions are very powerful representations that attract lots of attention and as such are responsible for shaping the public’s perception in many ways.

This places artists in a position of unprecedented exposure, and means that they influence our lives more than they ever have done before. Some argue that this places extra responsibility on them as moral role models, and obliges them to behave accordingly. If artists have special ethical obligations, are the implications that we should treat them differently. Should we judge artists by their work or their ethical position? 

Can we appreciate the artistic achievements of such figures and art institutions despite knowing their characters and approaches? To mention, artists are mere human beings and they may have unattractive ethical outlooks. Yet again, the answer depends on a combination of your own vision and your opinion of art. Some would argue that art should stand on its own, and we should not be judgemental about the ethical standpoint of its creator. Others would say that art cannot be seen as separate from the person who created it, because it has some kind of ethical message (Dunn, 2018). 

Decisions about what to include and what to exclude, what is valued and what is not, the means of presentation, space, design, language, and so on, are made by art managers who influence the audience’s perception in many ways. Exhibitions inevitably reflect the beliefs, assumptions and ethical values of the persons making the decisions. Decisions about exhibition content bring about a whole set of crucial questions which may be divided into two groups. The first set of questions revolve around the artist or the art institution: should the artwork be judged by the ethical outlook of the artist and should a gallery or a museum account on their activities? The second question is about the censorship and freedom of exhibiting any artworks. 

a) One of the recent examples is when The Design Museum in London has returned around a third of the works in its exhibition to artists who criticised its decision to host an event for an arms manufacturer. In July 2018 nearly 40 artists signed an open letter demanding their work be removed from the London museum after discovering it had hosted a reception for Leonardo, the world’s ninth biggest defence company (Picheta, 2014). The letter reads: “It is deeply hypocritical for the museum to display and celebrate the work of radical anti-corporate artists and activists, while quietly supporting and profiting from one of the most destructive and deadly industries in the world.It also urges the museum to adopt a new policy which refuses any funds from arms, tobacco and fossil fuel companies. Among the works returned were the iconic 2008 Barack Obama “Hope” poster by the American street artist Shepard Fairey, designs by the American artist Milton Glaser, who created the “I ♥ NY” logo, and works by the British graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook. A statement from the museum earlier this week said: ‘As a charity, 98% of the museum’s running costs come from admissions, retail, fundraising and event hire, such as the one hosted that night. This was a private event of which there was no endorsement by the museum’ (Museums Association, 2018).

b) The Knight of Despair / Warrior of Beauty exhibition by Jan Fabre opened at the Hermitage on October 21 and featuring stuffed animals in weird poses and situations sparked hysteria in Russia. Shocked visitors, animal rights activists and even The Russian Christian Orthodox church called the event disgusting and inappropriate (Guide to St. Petersburg, 2016).

c)In 2013 the Tate had removed from its online collection 34 prints by Graham Ovenden, the artist who was last week found guilty at Truro crown court of six charges of indecency with a child and one count of indecent assault (Higgins, 2013). The museum also considered the “wider ethics” of showing work by Ovenden.

Should be there ethical restrictions to exhibited artwork?

However, according to Rachel Cooke, “the qualities that won them a place in the Tate’s collection can’t be extinguished – rubbed out, like chalk on a board – by the perversions of the man who created them. If those qualities now make you feel uncomfortable as you look on, well, that is a part of their power” (Cooke, 2013).  

As a relative protection and awareness, art manager prefer to include a visible statement by the exhibition curators that the content presented represents their own thoughts and beliefs, and that it is as accurate and true as current state-of-the-art knowledge of the subject allows  exhibitions (Gazi, 2014). 

The ethical responsibilities facing art managers are obvious and yet often overlooked. What they display and they say about the exhibited artworks is critical in shaping public’s perceptions. In other words, what we exhibit and what we say authorizes, authenticates, and soothes, or, in contrast, offends, disturbs, and irritates. It is important to remember that exhibitions communicate values, and that these values are often competing or contested (Gazi, 2014). 

It has further been suggested that a key ethical principle guiding all exhibition work should be openness and honesty. Moreover, artworks presented honestly and open-endedly invites visitors into the interpretive process and allows them to challenge both the views of the curator and their own preconceptions.

a) Going back to the example with the Design Museum in London where museum directors decided that they do not want their programmes to be co-opted by the agenda of others and they stand by our curatorial independence. “The outcome of these protests will be to censor the exhibition, curtail free speech and prevent the museum from showcasing a plurality of views” (Design Museum, 2018). Besides, it would be a different matter if the Design Museum had been taking items off display or choosing to exclude them in order to please a sponsor, but this wasn’t the case with this exhibition.

b) The Hermitage museum said it would not stop the exhibition.The reaction of the museum was very calm. The director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky said in his interview that the exhibition will last to April 2017 as planned. He also expressed pity for the fact that “the public proved undereducated”. The Hermitage even organized a special event to explain the gist of The Knight of Despair / Warrior of Beauty (Guide to St. Petersburg, 2016).

c) In 2013 he was jailed for two years and three months by the Court of Appeal. Following his conviction, some galleries removed images of his work from display. In 2015, a judge ordered that Ovenden’s personal collection of paintings and photographs be destroyed (Tate, 2018).

Overall, it is only through the process of systematically reflecting on, and assessing our ethical commitment to our diverse audiences, that art managers may eliminate some practices as unjustifiable, offensive, or wrong (Wylie 2003). For the visiting public this may entail empowerment, increased sensitivity towards delicate issues, exploring new ideas, and the breaking of stereotypes.

The ethics of museum exhibitions is not only about sensitive or disputed content, It is also about our beliefs, our assumptions, and our image of the world. So far as we, museum professionals, are ready to recognise the ethical dimension underlying most museum activities and to question taken-for-granted or unintentional practices, contemporary art exhibitions may become a ground for reflexivity and respectful thinking. 


Cooke, R. (2018). The idea of ‘ethical art’ is nonsense. We have to separate art from life | Rachel Cooke. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].

Dean, D. (2018). Ethics and Museum Exhibitions. Museum Ethics, pp.218-224.

Design Museum (2018). A letter about Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].

Dunn, M. (2018). What is the relationship between art and ethics?. [Blog] Theory of knowledge. Available at: [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].

Gazi, A. (2014). Exhibition Ethics – An Overview of Major Issues. Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, 12(1), p.4.

Guide to St. Petersburg (2016). Provocative Jan Fabre’s Exhibition At The Hermitage Went Under Fire. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2018].

Messenger, P. (1999). The ethics of collecting cultural property. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, pp.1-26.

Museums Association (2018). Design Museum return artists’ works after arms controversy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].

Tate (2018). Graham Overden. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].

The Guardian (2018). Tate removes Graham Ovenden prints after indecency conviction. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].

Wikipedia. (2018). The Stuckists Punk Victorian. [online] Available at:

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First published on: September 28, 2018

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