Idiot’s Checklist For Exhibiting Your Work When You’ve Never Done It Before – by A.N Idiot

It’s not quite true that I’ve never done it before but, compared with a table in a village hall and a tent in a garden, actual wall space in an actual gallery room was not only a step up but also came as something of a culture shock.

There’s a big difference between unstable carboard easels at child grab height or chasing after art work knocked off its stand by a heaving tent flap, and fresh white walls with barely visible hanging devices you’ve no idea how to make use of. Who knew fishing line played such a part? Or sticky things that aren’t sticky and hold paintings flat against the wall? Those are Command (not Commando – different thing altogether!) strips. And labelling is an art form on its own.

So it was that I had to leave my paintings propped up against the skirting board in the gallery because, despite thinking I had them prepared to hang anywhere, the anywhere in my head depended on hooks to accommodate the loops on the boards or the wooden stretch frames of my canvases. The other two artists, probably struck by a combination of horror and sympathy, got them on the walls for me, and so began the search for advice about a process I had never had cause to know anything about before.

The videos below give an indication of the kinds of climbing, hammering, measuring, limbering, lifting, manipulating, and in one instance interior decorating, skills artists seem to need to participate in the simple act of showing their work. It’s quite physical.

I’m not in the first flush of youth and, while I have no registrable disability, I do have some limitations that generally fly under the radar until challenged by unusual circumstances such as ladders, holding large pieces of unsupported work steady while on top of a ladder, being able to see the invisible fishing line while not losing my balance, or negotiating stairs with big things in glass frames. That’s the short list and I began to wonder how some of my colleagues on the OCA art degrees manage; people whose disabilities qualify them for aids and supports but nevertheless hamper their physical range and are much more than a perfect storm of inconveniences. Is it essential to be physically fit, able-bodied, youthfully agile to be a practising artist? It kinda looks that way.

There’s a lot of advice in these videos, and I know I would have found them extremely helpful had I been as physically able as the presenters. But I’m a bit short, a tad balance impaired, I need two pairs of glasses to get from measuring a wall to making a dot to lining that dot up with another dot. Then I need another hand to balance a spirit level on something I needed a third arm to grab. I have a bit of arthritis, an injury which is invisible and tolerable as long as I don’t do a lot of bending, standing still, or sitting in unsuitable seating; and I could probably do with a roadie to get to some venues with my stuff.

So do I give up and just accumulate art work in the loft for that time when family inevitably has the task of emptying it? Do I aim for digital only products? Or do I pull on my big girl inventive pants and find a way round this?

For now I’m going with the Big Girl Pants.

The solution seems to be preparation, scouting the territory and making notes about the set-up. What’s there and what isn’t; what sizes are their usual displays; how do you want yours to appear; will you need a roadie to help with transport and hanging? This is the conclusion I’m coming to and obviously there’s a cost implication. But before I get all uppity about that I have to remind myself that I already pay now for several services that I wouldn’t have needed to purchase before, and this one differs significantly in that I stand to gain monetarily from an exhibition.

So what do I need?

  • Ideally a packer who might be the same person as the lifter, shifter, and hanger.
  • A roadie to collect, load, transport, unload, and deliver to the venue, then reverse the process when the exhibition closes. That’s two chunks of time.
  • A checklist so let’s start here:
    • Speak to the organiser of, for instance, an art trail to find out what’s expected generally.
    • Speak to the owner of the venue, which might be a shop/gallery, a gallery/shop, or an actual gallery if you finally broke through the ceramic ceiling. If you’re in a tent, be ready to chase after escaping art work as adverse weather conditions can interfere with the stability of any display. Also you might find you’re expected to help put up and then dismantle the tent.
    • Visit the venue and ask about space, expectations (how many exhibitors, what size paintings for instance), and what hanging systems are already in place. Will you need to fix your own and if so, what constraints are there? And are there some items that can’t be moved? If this isn’t a permanent exhibition space, it will probably be used for something else the rest of the year.
    • Agree your stewarding duties.
    • Agree the venue’s commission. Industry standard is 40%.
    • Ask how sales are managed. Do they go through the venue’s own books or do you need to supply your bank or PayPal details?
    • Agree dates if those aren’t set by an external body (such as the art trail organiser).
    • Agree delivery and hanging date and times.
    • Agree take-down date and times.
    • Hire roadie and agree hours plus rate per hour. You can offset this, along with any other costs, against tax so don’t be mean.
    • Make a contract for the roadie and ensure you both sign it. Include a cancellation clause that covers fees due to them if you cancel, especially at short notice. Have a backup plan in case you need to replace them quickly or manage alone.
  • When you’re stewarding, remember you’re the face of that exhibition, so if you’re sharing the space with other artists, ask them about their work so you can talk about it to people. And do this before you tell them about yours because that’s just courteous.
    • Find out about ventilation. This pandemic won’t last forever but while it’s here, be safe.
    • Find out about refreshments. Sometimes the venue owner will provide tea/coffee/water but probably not food, although once my host emerged from her kitchen with a full-on salad followed by home-made scones with cream and jam.
    • Take any essential refreshments you’ll need. Fluids will be important (so find out about the loos as well!), and you may need something light to top up your energy levels or blood sugar. Remember stewarding is physical and mental work, draining if you’re not used to it, and that will cause your energy levels to plummet. Best to keep it to something you can quickly set aside so that you’re not inconveniencing a visitor. Bananas and snack bars are a gift.
    • Try to tell the story of the painting a visitor is looking at. Also know when to shut up!
    • Remember questions visitors had about works by the other artists then ask them at handover or by other means so you have that story to hand next time.
    • Remember also that you are representing yourself even – maybe especially – when you’re talking about someone else’s work. People may not buy your paintings but they will remember you and they’ll probably look out for you next time.
  • Populate Instagram, twitter, and Facebook with your work. QR codes next to your works can link to added extras like blog posts showing how it was made, a video of you talking about it, quick vids of animations, you tik tokking it, AR (augmented reality) ‘easter eggs’. If there’s no wifi and the phone signal is poor, do that where those facilities are available and make sure the labels, your business cards or flyers, have those links too.

This list is not exhaustive; in fact much of it is post hoc, things I should have done this time but hadn’t thought about. So please print it, add to it – for yourself, in the comments, or both – modify it according to your own circumstances and what you’ve learned from each exhibition, and pass it on to the next novice exhibitor you meet along the way.

Post script.

My costs at their most basic for this exhibition are £170.00. This includes the participation fee of £40.00; £30.00 for the roadie to get my work down stairs and into my car; and £100.00 for my time on-site, calculated at £10.00 per hour which is just above the National Living Wage for everywhere but London. It doesn’t include preparation of, for instance, labels, the cost of flyers and business cards (I can use those elsewhere), the pre-exhibition meeting with the other two artists and discussions with the owner of the gallery, or my time getting the work to the venue.

Steyning Arts Trail 2021

COVID permitting, this will be happening over the August Bank Holiday weekend and the weekend following; that is the 28th-30th August and the 4th-5th September. So the paperwork is in and I’m waiting to hear where I might be exhibiting. It’s a bit like Clearing.

In the meantime, I’m putting together a selection of easy-to-carry-home paintings that either hang from their box frames or will come with a little self-adhesive loop to stick on the back. Nothing bigger than 14″ x 18″ or 12″ x 16″.

I said nothing bigger but this girl might be there and she’s a big lass …

From an original photo by Gerard Ufera. Scan with Artivive for an AR experience.

Steyning Arts online portrait exhibition

Since first lockdown I’ve been trying to make the front of the house a bit more cheery with bunting and painted pebbles. Then for Halloween, I dressed a christmas tree as a witch [because why not?] and put her in the porch with pumpkins, a shiny metal beetle, and some supposedly luminous stones. Steyning Arts portrait exhibition is online for obvious reasons but I’ve popped mine in the porch for anyone passing by to take a glance at – safely of course.

On the left, ‘Who do I speak to about this PPE?’ Acrylics on cartridge. On the right, ‘Dignity’ from an unattributed photograph of an unnamed woman. Acrylics on canvas. Both are works made as part of my *painting degree and so not for sale as yet.

Find us on Instagram, Facebook, and Steyning Arts website.

Instagram: instagram.com/steyningarts

Facebook: facebook.com/steyningarts

Steyning Arts website: steyningarts.co.uk

*Painting degree: this is with the Open College of the Arts, the part time distance arm of the University of the Creative Arts. [Details here.] We use online blogs to record progress and, embarrassing as that is, they’re public so feel free to take a look. Drawing1 (my first and thankfully passed), Practice of Painting (my second module, awaiting results of formal assessment due this month), and Understanding Painting Media (the third and final module at the equivalent of year one of a full time degree; expecting to submit this body of work for assessment in March 2021).

Steyning Arts Summer Exhibition – from ancient to modern

Loch Arkaig Osprey

There’s a beautiful old church in Bramber that dates back to the 11th century and sits next to the ruins of Bramber Castle. This is where the Summer Exhibition is usually held; where glasses of orange juice and homemade cakes are sold, and where within the stone walls that have seen so much, Steyning Arts members display their work.

COVID-19 has turned all that on its head and booted us straight into the 21st century with an online-only exhibition that will take place over the Bank Holiday weekend. I am lucky enough to have had some paintings selected, all of them the product of COVID as lockdown affected every part of the painting module I have been doing as part of my degree. Ever tried to paint a ‘landscape outdoors’ when outdoors is a foreign country suddenly? Or find a person other than yourself to be your model for figures? Luckily, the university has been as accommodating as you would expect and while I got very fed up of the sight of my own face in a mirror or a selfie, I was able to use some of the many photos I’ve taken of this beautiful place over the years.

The pieces that may appear in the exhibition include two of those landscapes and four rather contemporary paintings that made use of protective packaging, brown paper, cardboard, and string.

There is also a video but while the invitation said something about ‘you in your studio’, I’ve chosen one I made around a piece of art that spent several weeks outside collecting hedgehog footprints (and poo!), snail trails, and bits of windblown garden debris. It’s called ‘Made by Wildlife’.

Filmed on iPhone, processed in Filmora9 by Wondershare. Sounds my own recordings also processed in Filmora.

To see all the artwork, follow Steyning Arts on Facebook, and Instagram

Bisa Butler quilts

Sometimes you look at something and absolutely wish you’d been the one who made it. These are quilts depicting black men, women, and children ‘whose stories were forgotten or overlooked’. Bisa Butler is

essentially a portrait artist who uses fibers and quilting as a medium

according to My Modern Met’s Sara Barnes (6th Feb 2020), and it’s spectacular.

woman in equestrian dress
The Equestrian, 2019. Bisa Butler. Image clipped from My Modern Met 12th February 2020.

Perhaps the colours take me back to the vibrancy of the 60s; but if they do, these are the 60s grown up and giving a population of people, allowed at the time and for many years since, only to be niche, their full stature and dignity. You can see the rest on the website but if you’re really lucky you can see them in Butler’s exhibition The Storm, the Whirlwind and the Earthquake at the Claire Oliver Gallery in New York from February 29 to April 18, 2020.

 

Review of Brighton university MA show: Fine Art, Inclusive Arts, & Digital Arts July 2019

‘Podcast’ review via collage.

img_3502The internal geography of the Grand Parade campus has changed since I was last there (1967-68) and so, inevitably, has the premise upon which art is made. At that time we were being psychedelic, free spirited, and often quite intensively introspective but to little purpose. Politics didn’t enter into our thinking.  But in this show, politics permeated everything that made its purpose clear; some of that personal, some social, and some encompassing global issues. Some gave us clues as to the raison d’etre of the work, the artist’s motivation or inspiration, their process and how it got there in the way that it did. But many didn’t; I’m a psychologist and that intrigues me. Communication feels central and while the art may be a communicatory channel in itself, if the message isn’t received by the viewer, or fails to spark something in the viewer, then I wonder if it can be said to have succeeded. I was there with a friend; we talked about finding ourselves looking at the last frame in the film, the last paragraph of the story, but with no idea of what led up to it.

The show covered three floors; the gallery area at ground level housing the Fine Art exhibits, a room behind this and part of the first floor was occupied by the Inclusive Arts students, and then on the second floor were the Digital Arts installations. In between, on the walls around a landing, were images from photography and fashion. They seemed displaced, temporarily put up in bed and breakfast rather than being allocated hotel rooms.

Fine Art

img_3488I think it’s an unavoidable fact that positioning a piece in elegant and purpose-built surroundings adds a kind of value and confers a dignity and gravitas it would find harder to accrue in less accommodating circumstances. Separating this out from the work itself is quite demanding – does this piece have an impact because of its inherent quality or simply because of where it is? Some pieces were certainly impactful: ‘The Tables are Turning’ for instance showed us paintings on the undersides of small tables that point to emerging restoration of political balance – what was beneath is finally coming to the top, a commentary on the people’s response to oppression. More bafflingly impactful – in terms of the space it took up and the voices played on loop – was a long row of cones wrapped in tights, each with a lipstick on top. This was designated a performance piece but as the artist was not there at the time of our visit, there was no dialogue to provide context. Two artists were on site and one of them came over to see what we had made of this piece. She tried to describe its origins and message but neither of us really understood. She herself was showing a very large abstract painting which occupied both physical and mental space in that its title did not give much clue as to its derivation. When I asked, the artist talked about being in the moment rather than having an end in mind. This in itself added interest and might have been useful to visitors.

The other artist on site was exhibiting a radiator piece which, when we found it, similarly gave away little as to its reason for being there. When we asked him though, he spoke fluently and eloquently about the how, why, and what of his exhibit and set it in a wholly understandable context. The radiator’s back story is one reflecting the horrors of war and represents a documented political assassination in Nazi Germany[1]. Knowing this immediately added the story to this final paragraph and I wondered why something of it did not accompany the piece since it made such a difference to our experience of it.

Some of the pieces were cheeky – ‘People Who Piss Me off’ for instance, an installation comprising a filing cabinet with ticker tape printed with the names, presumably, of those people, spilling out. I can sympathise, many of them piss me off too, and I had a quiet chuckle. Other pieces managed to distance themselves from us by being dull-coloured, abstract, and untitled which made us question ‘what it was for’ – what were we supposed to take away from this artist’s work? In the end, we took very little beyond wondering how long these pieces had taken to make and what had driven the artist to reach these solutions.

Another piece – small wedges of dark wood with collaged images on them attached to a large piece of wood and rising from the floor – was so well executed and had an aesthetic appeal with its colours and surfaces that there was an inherent impact. What it was saying was not so clear – were the two wedges on the floor lost or left behind, or were they are the first of a tumbling avalanche with the rest poised to follow? The label gave no clue and I would have liked a clue.

The overriding impression of this part of the exhibition was that, where context was provided – even just an idea of the developmental process – works became immediately more interesting and held value as a communication. We wondered, along with the artists themselves, what the people who visited made of the work when there was no one to ask; how the thousands of people who had not chosen to visit saw art when they were challenged to ‘experience it’ in a vacuum and whether this was why so many were not there? Are people afraid of looking foolish for not ‘getting it’, or do they see the whole business as an exclusive (and excluding) side show that isn’t for the likes of them?

Inclusive Arts

img_3520The next floor – fronted by a display in the area beneath the stairs that introduced the focus – was given over to the Inclusive Arts programme. This course is the only one in the UK offering artists the opportunity to express their work in collaboration with disadvantaged or ‘othered’ groups, and so works with people on the autistic spectrum, with women isolated by fear, with parents similarly isolated by the weight of caring for a disabled child, with voiceless people lacking connection with art and its positive effects. A sculpture constantly being remade illustrated the ways in which people, as I interpreted it, remake themselves in order to meet expectations; a closed hut with spy holes in it told us how much is hidden from us by so many; knots in fishermen’s rope was the entanglement many people experience in trying to escape or belong. The art on this floor was keen to talk and tell us about itself with postcards, printed sheets, labels and conversation. It wanted us to know and to understand.

Edit July 19th. I had forgotten to mention an accessibility issue which, while they would affect any exhibitor not on the ground floor, seem particularly pertinent to Inclusive Arts. Asking for directions from the ground floor, we were told the lift would be the easiest route, but then advised that we needed a special pass to use it which meant we could not.

 

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img_3514Somewhere between this and the second floor was a small photography and fashion display. It felt like an afterthought, sitting there on the walls in a corridor between spaces.

 

 

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Digital Arts

img_3485Finally, we found Digital Arts where not only did the artists want us to see and know but also participate and make the art, albeit temporarily. That we missed the literature was due not to their negligence but to the darkness of the rooms and our own inattention on entering. There was information on the doors; we slipped past it into the fascinating areas beyond and I had to chase people down later to find out who they were and the titles of their work.

Alberto Sande was unfortunately absent when we visited but very quickly came back with the thinking behind his stunning piece involving deep rhythms, and coloured images given a 3D effect by projecting them through a gauze curtain. A sofa gave us a front row seat and a keyboard – the musical sort – as a way to affect the visual display. Seeded by thinking around a number of ideas drawn from Alice in Wonderland, Deprez’s Drolatic Dreams of Pantaguel, and a Chinese essay on the Thirty Six Stratagems, this installation would have been a challenge to interpret right off the bat. The artist kindly sent me his abstract by email but I would have loved a conversation with him to explore the roads he took in making this piece. It was interactive and projected some deep dark sounds alongside the images and low frequency notes always speak to me of something profound.

Moshref’s The Existential Crisis of the Phoenix* showed us the cyclical rise and fall of ideas and philosophies, emphasising the place of the phoenix as a positive influence. Using a range of equipment, this installation permitted participants to become the phoenix itself and change digital representations on a number of screens. Its particular focus though was resistance to the oppressive regimes that are systematically brutalising women, and we talked about the wings representing expansiveness; women taking up their space in the world by right and not by permission, and our world seeking collaboration as the antithesis to nationalistic insularity. As a visiting maker of the art in this context I could not help expressing my own views but as it was visually but not auditorily reactive, neither ‘Fuck Trump’ nor ‘and while we’re here, fuck Boris’ had any effect on the display.

*Title edited after email contact with the artist.

Summary

Fine Art had a catalogue containing some but not all of the works, and works from a previous show which were not on display. It did not seem to see in its mission any reason to assist visitors in understanding the work but when we asked, those present gave eloquent and valuable responses. Fine Art occupies the best position in the show. Quite often I hear that art is something to appreciate without explanation, and this seemed to be the position taken here too. Sean Scully, in his recent documentary, appears not to be a subscriber to this view saying that there is an inherent arrogance in expecting people to do this, with the implied assumption that, if they fail, then they must be stupid [link to my blog post about art and meaning]. This goes back to the question I started to address with the two artists on site – that of their audience. Visitors were most likely self-selecting art aficionados and there is nothing wrong with that, but what of all those others who were not there, self-excluded because art is ‘not for them’ or they fear not understanding it? At the very least, this misses a marketing trick and one assumes these graduates are hoping to make a living from their work. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Fine Art occupies the main space and has the catalogue.

In contrast, Inclusive Art had all manner of explanatory leaflets, printouts on the walls, and postcards but no catalogue. Nor was their work in the first catalogue. These artists appeared very keen to talk about their motivations, the media they used, the collaborations with disadvantaged groups and individuals, and had produced work that spoke directly to those issues by involving the people affected in producing that work. I wondered later if any of them had been present at the show in the role of artist as they seemed not to have a presence when we visited.

Digital Art was a little harder to find and had only two exhibitors*, but they made up for this with sheer enthusiasm and technical and artistic skill. Their ideas were expansive and the means of expression wide ranging. While one artist, Sande, was not present when we visited, his subsequent response to an email suggests he would have been as keen to involve us as participants in his interactive installation as was Moshref. The Digital Arts show was not just collaborative but also allowed us as visitors to influence the art itself.

*I discovered, after some email exchanges with an exhibitor and the course leader, that there were ten exhibits. Unfortunately, we had not seen any signage to the other eight.

[1] I lost the actual reference but a search using keywords Nazi Car Assassination brings up the heroic act of Jan Kubis who ran out in front of the open top car of high ranking SS officer Reinhardt Heydrich with the intention of shooting him. The gun jammed but he was able to throw a bomb which eventually killed Heydrich, probably saving hundreds if not thousands of lives. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18183099

Images from the day

 

Slideshow

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MA review via collage
MA review by collage and pastels