Ikon, Birmingham: how public galleries find artists
My background is that of a practitioner rather than an academic. I studied Fine Art at Newcastle University. Initially, I helped organise exhibitions through the University’s Hatton Gallery, volunteering before gaining full-time employment.
I was still searching for a direction when I got a job at The Hayward in London. I found myself in this amazing role organizing exhibitions by major international artists. It was a great time for me I learned so much about the processes of creating a programme and working with artists. I decided that I didn’t want to make any more of my own work, but instead help realize commissions and shows for others.
After four years at The Hayward, I left London to become Curator of Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool. When I first started I had lots of conversations about why I left Hayward and London to move to Grundy. They are at such opposite ends of the visual arts spectrum. I felt I’d hit a glass ceiling at Hayward.
Grundy provided me with an opportunity to lead an organization and its programme. Blackpool is my home town and I could see the potential in the gallery. Although the Grundy had very little profile at the time, it is beautiful gallery space. Blackpool is also an interesting context in which to present contemporary art. It wasn’t quite as mad a decision to me as it seemed to others. In an industry where success is reliant on networks and London-focussed, it felt like stepping off the edge of the earth.
I worked at Grundy for nine years before joining Ikon, Birmingham. My career so far has taken me from a university gallery, to a major London venue, to a small regional venue, to a major regional venue. These are four very different organizations. They share the aim of presenting visual arts to a wide range of audiences. Each has a particular remit in what it shows and to whom.
This article is for artists who are trying to get their work shown in public spaces.
My advice is to take time researching organisations, their programmes and reputations. Major regional venues like Hayward and Ikon won’t show the work of unknown artists who are at the start of their careers. Nor will they realise a project from an unsolicited proposal.
My role as curator is to research and identify artists for the programme. I’m doing this in response to the reputation Ikon has built for itself over the past fifty years. And over the past thirty years, Ikon has worked with Jochen Gertz, Susan Hiller, Chris Burden, Laurie Anderson, Mark Wallinger, On Kawara, Cornellia Parker, Ryan Gander, Giuseppe Penone, Steven Shearer. A programme has to build upon the past to sustain and develop a space’s reputation. This makes it tough for galleries like Ikon to take a gamble on someone who is starting out.
It was different at Grundy. I was the one building the gallery’s reputation. There was a whole other set of factors I had to consider – local authority gallery in a major tourism destination. What is consistent is that I was building respect for the gallery among diverse audiences, stakeholders and artists.
Gallery programmes need to have direction, be selective and ambitious. It is through approaching artists with an existing reputation that spaces can
Grow their audiences
Attract support from funders
Become a venue that good artist want to show at.
There is an ecology that makes the whole thing work: a great venue will want to show the work of artists that will further their reputations. This enables them to become or remain attractive to the artists they aspire to show. And artists want to show at great venues because it will further their careers. A great programme unlocks funding that makes the whole thing possible and develops an audience that helps attract more funding. I’ve spoken to a lot of young artists that don’t understand this. They expect to walk into a place and get a show.
The best people to offer advice on how and where to show are other artists succeeding in developing their careers. It’s also important to know what type of career you want: are you aspiring to show at major public venues across the world, or more commercial spaces, or something else? If you want to be critically recognised, it’s not always best to show in a place that has an open selection policy (unless this is early in one’s career). I see a lot of artist CVs that list three showings at their local arts centre. This, to me, looks like someone who is happy to show anywhere and is only getting local opportunities. There is nothing wrong with that unless you want to be critically recognised. Instead, look for opportunities and residencies across the world, no matter how small, which will be challenging and appear more interesting to curators in the long run. Take a look at the CVs of artists you admire (established emerging and mid-career). These are available on their websites or those of their gallery.
What attracts me to an artist’s practice? A strong articulation of an idea that is emotionally or intellectually moving. I’m drawn to the absurd, or work that draws attention to the magic or peculiarities of the everyday.
I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible artists. Working with the Belgian artist Panamarenko was amazing. I had only recently graduated from my fine art degree and I was working at Hayward organizing a show by a man who made flying machines. These elegant, witty inventions, enthused with dreams of flight were spellbinding to me. That spell has directed my programming ambitions ever since to a large degree. At Grundy, I made an eclectic programme. It considered what art, the gallery and exhibitions could be – from deconstructing the gallery space and its functions, evaluating permanent collections in different ways, to championing Blackpool and its unique culture. And things completely unrelated to the local context to imagine everything in a new way.
My job is working with artists to make things happen. To help realize ideas and attract audiences. I see myself as a facilitator sitting between the artist, my colleagues, and the audience. Developing an honest and open relationship with an artist is vital to me and communication is key. I spend the majority of time communicating, finding money, getting things organized and putting plans in place.
It’s great when an artist you’re working with wants to experiment or proposes something ambitious. Then it’s about helping the idea come to life, negotiating between artist and institution’s needs and available resources without sacrificing quality or the integrity of the work. I’ve always worked with organisations where the artist is the most important element. Getting that relationship right, and the balance between all needs and ambitions, creates a rich environment for an audience. I think that’s what I enjoy the most.
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