Kirsty Ogg ­and Marijke Steedman: the gallery problem, or, what artists can do when their work doesn’t fit in galleries

Our sixth, final talk as part of System Failure discussed the strength of galleries on an artists career, and explored how artists are validated by gallery exhibition above all other mechanisms in the art world.

With Kirsty Ogg ­and Marijke Steedman.

Artists have no real career progression: little basis on which to charge more fees or expect higher sale prices, and very few methods with which to distinguish themselves from their peers. How can you tell if an artist is more established, less ‘emerging’ than another?  Arguably, the main traditional marker of an artists career is exhibitions in galleries – objects ostensibly created by individual artists and exhibited in public places for criticism, sale and edification.

But for an increasing number of artists, the traditional gallery system no longer works – and although some galleries are responding, many remain stuck in early twentieth century languages of display that exclude some artists and some practices from public attention.

Galleries as they currently exist are a fairly novel invention – as little as 150 years ago, audiences would routinely pay to view art in exhibitions put on by artists themselves in venues hired for the occasion. The Royal Academy was one of the few public venues where usually wealthy, elite audiences could view work, and artists’ livelihoods were mostly based on commissions. Even more recently, art fairs and biennials have somewhat taken over as the predominant spaces to experience new, international art, but exhibitions in galleries – publicly funded or commercial – remain a crucial step in an artist’s career.

But what if an artist’s work doesn’t fit – architecturally, conceptually, traditionally – within a gallery’s programme? Increasing numbers of artists working in socially engaged practice – where communities and individual people, often unrelated to the arts, form the material and outcome of a practice. Many are involved in this work as a reaction to the elite audiences who still mostly attend art galleries in the UK. Performance and moving image have long been difficult to place in galleries – from audience low engagement to alienating and uncomfortable display methods – with digital work almost entirely ignored. If artists need galleries to validate their careers, to increase reputations and garner more work, then a diverse base of practices must be reflected in their programmes for the benefit of audiences and artists alike. Artists themselves are frequently sidelined in this dynamic:those with socially engaged practices tend to find themselves in museums and gallery education departments rather than the exhibition halls themselves.

Of course, it’s not all one way. Artists also have to understand the financial and political pressures that galleries have to negotiate, treading a fine line between the popular and the critical in their work. Galleries provide a crucial and expensive infrastructure for artists, and must act as gatekeepers to ensure scant resources are properly allocated. And their curators and directors can often understand the stage of a career when an exhibition is needed, or when it would provide only a distraction or stress. Audiences rely on galleries to choose the work they are shown. Without this competitive selection, artists wouldn’t value exhibitions as milestones in their careers.

New galleries are still being built, but generally along the same architectural lines as over the last 200 years. Galleries may be architecturally daring and exciting on the outside while the conventions of the white cube is maintained inside. How can gallery architecture respond to the demands of new art practices while ensuring traditional media can still be shown? And how far should galleries be dictated to by artistic practice which may change with technology and fashion?

This conversation will explore some of these issues and ask how galleries and artists should be working together to ensure diverse practices and artists can be shown, and what the future of this relationship might be.

Further reading and articles

As part of their ‘Beyond the Gallery‘ programme, Axisweb interviewed the Director of mimaand Turner Prize judge Alistair Hudson. In this film, Alistair talks about validation: should validation of an artist’s practice come from the art world or, in the proposed model of the museum 3.0, a broader usership?

View all seven films in this series on Axisweb’s Vimeo page.


Kirsty Ogg is the Director of New Contemporaries, the leading UK organisation supporting emergent art practice from UK art schools. Since 1949 New Contemporaries has consistently provided a critical platform for new and recent fine art graduates primarily by means of an annual, nationally touring exhibition. She was Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, London from 2009-2013, responsible for the re-launch of the Whitechapel Gallery’s triennial open submission exhibition as The London Open. As the former Director of The Showroom, London, Kirsty Ogg worked with artists including Subodh Gupta, Richard Hughes, Jim Lambie, Daria Martin and Eva Rothschild, presenting their first solo shows in London.

Marijke Steedman is Curator at Create London, an agency primarily focused in east London that connects artists more closely with communities through an ambitious programme of public, non-gallery-based projects. Previously Curator of Community Programmes at the Whitechapel Gallery, she was responsible for The Street, a programme of artist projects, events and research taking place both in and beyond the Gallery. She edited Gallery as Community: Art, Education, Politics to discuss gallery activity beyond the site of the gallery, with an interest in context and situation and to problematise notions of community.

This talk was originally part of System Failure, a series of in-conversations looking at the systemic failures of the art world in its wider context. Held onSaturday 12 December 2015 at Block 336. This talk is programmed in partnership with Axisweb, and responds to their Validation beyond the gallery report.

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