The Different Faces of the Luminary Archetype at Contemporary Art Galleries

A luminary’s role in society is to ‘make us aware’ and it is this motivation which guides directors and curators at major contemporary art galleries around the world. The archetype of luminary acts as a metaphor for ‘illumination’, with the revealing of truth and knowledge serving as the archetype’s purpose.  It is these unconscious associations deeply embedded in the human psyche that make the luminary archetype a meaningful narrative for contemporary art and the galleries that display it. 

Over the past eighteen months we have had the privilege of working with a Toronto based luminary gallery, The Power Plant.  Housed in a 1930’s coal plant, this non-collecting contemporary art institution is dedicated to engaging visitors with the best of contemporary art in order to increase the public’s awareness of the issues, art and culture of our time. ‘To understand contemporary art’, suggests Director Gaetane Verna in her Director’s message, ‘is to understand the world you live in’.    

 We looked at contemporary art galleries in North America and Europe.   We were intrigued by the way in which each of the institutions has imbued the luminary archetype with unique qualities and how this helps them position their programs and create distinct visitor experiences.   

 For example, MCA Denver has imbued the luminary archetype with playfulness and disruption.    These qualities reflect an intentional focus on the youth market and the use of contemporary art to help teens and young adults discover personal and societal truths.   A playful disruptor leads to such programming as the inspired Sh*T talk tours led by stand up comedians.  The comedy team was given docent training and then let loose to guide using well honed improv skills and asking questions many would dare not ask.  These tours illuminate by adding levity and engagement and allowing visitors to relax and recognize that it’s okay ‘not to get ‘ what is presented to them. 

Meanwhile the Serpentine in London appears to imbue the luminary archetype with sophistication and innovation.   Their ‘rethinking school’ program tenet and dedication to challenging the traditional pedagogy is evidence of this. Their sophisticated approach to having young people guide the process and define the relevant questions speaks to a motivation to make society aware of the cracks and the gaps in curriculums and to offer innovative options.    

We found another luminary who is experimental and urban.  Yet another luminary is empathetic and reassuring.    So there are multiple faces of the archetype and yet each engages the visitor differently in the dual discovery of self and the world in which they live.    How they motivate that discovery varies with how the archetype is uniquely brought to life.  The richness of possibilities for interpreting archetypes is an inspiring take away for the power of archetypes.