Do galleries ever ask us what we want to see?

24/02/19 GDLP

When you go to a gallery, what do you want to see? PERSONALLy I enjoy big paintings of dogs; imagery and language I recognise from internet culture. I’ll take some rly careful installations of found objects, slightly modified, arranged; art so personal that it feels like someone is telling u a secret; or big dramatic video work with emotional soundtracks and real character. it is rare the stars align and a curator organises one of these exact dreams for me, but when it happens i am happy enjoying chance and aesthetic experience like antidote to mood and age 🌙. Life is / at its core / precarious for my generation but I’ve leaned in and am self-employed too for some reason. So, any time the exhibition space becomes solid in its presentation of a Thing, or confident, settled, funny, I’m glad. Ofc we all live different realities, drawn to our interests,, defensively. If I come to an exhibition that I find Super Boring then I usually concede it is probably healthier for the next visitor, and not the 1 for me. But this split between What I Want versus What I Get from a gallery is not just the musing of a spoilt art critic who isn’t getting her fill (I know not everything i see is gonna bang). consider the fact directors of major art institutions, festivals and artist-led spaces across the UK are 9 times outta 10 middle class, white, able-bodied, cis and straight etc. and do not represent the population around them, and things start to get a bit fascinating. These people hire others that look and live like they do, and they all sit together ( I imagine ) in plant-heavy glass offices with Macs sending emails and eating dairy-free yoghurt. the type of atmosphere where if somebody farted by accident everyone would just pretend it never happened instead of laughing it off and moving on. ANYWAY. These curators put on boring exhibitions of Charlotte’s best friend’s bronze sculptures and don’t take their blinders off to see that their small white cube gallery is competing with a much more interesting popular culture floating outside across telly, internet and WHSmiths bestsellers. Do you think people are gonna skip the final season of Game of Thrones to attend the exhibition opening of Julia’s abstract minimalist paintings? No, people fucking love coronation street, sophie kinsella, local history, true crime and the rise of Cardi B. We’re convinced we almost won the world cup last year. We read 6000 word buzzfeed articles about blac chyna’s infiltration of the Kardashian household, and dedicate more time reading horoscopes than sum niche art theory. When galleries receive funding from public taxpayer money, how can they NOT ask the public what they want them to do with it? ie. please screen Love Island. Not everyone is gonna be interested in giving their 2 cents, but some people will and that matters. To skip that step is a massively wasted opportunity, and keeps curators selfish gate-keepers of culture who serve visibility and finances exclusively to their White peers and no one else. But ! if they do wanna ask what you want for dinner, what’s the best way to go about mining such information without being exploitative?

        Croydon Art Store have commissioned us to write this text because they’re in a weird position themselves at the moment and looking to pull through it the right way. For context: CAS is the consortium of Turf Projects, Art Halo, Kingston School of Art and the local council, based in the Whitgift shopping centre in south london. Mostly they do research and engagement stuff but they are also spending time thinking about how arts can play a role in the future development of the Croydon area. u see, the shopping centre that houses their activity is marked for a looming Westfield redevelopment and they can and will lose their space very soon. CAS is thus considering whether a biennial art festival of sorts could survive their current form, and if so, how do they go about that consciously? how might they make their new form relevant and good for Croydon? They already recognise that instigating a conversation with people local to the area matters which is a good start, so i tried to find them more examples of good practice n got in touch with as many galleries and festivals as i could dedicate the time to. I was asking these projects if they had anything in the way of a public ragtag group they contacted when deciding what exhibitions to put on. a local advisory board or porous steering committee for example ? did they even bother ?

        the replies I got were mostly disappointing and along the lines of ‘it’s something we’ve thought about !! but it’s never really materialised so no we just pick our exhibitions ourselves :)’ so let’s use the following examples to shame everyone else into getting themselves into gear. it’s 2019, get a move on. But also I did not speak to EVERY PROJECT IN THE WORLD so there’s bound 2 be some glaring holes in what I go on to report. get over it, i have:

        Starting smol: I spoke to @mayaflew who was part of a focus group for the Royal Academy’s upcoming exhibitions, and was paid * £50 * for their input over the 2 hours. 'The first hour was about young people’s opinion and experience of the RA and what they can do to engage more - the second half was being shown exhibition posters and voting on them, saying what the max/min price we would pay for a ticket, advertisements and what the best methods for them to reach young people abt said exhibitions !!’ Part of me is like wow amazing get that RA money money, and the other half is painfully aware that directors and their teams only really have to outsource this kind of input when their workforce is so limited and out-of-touch. honestly overthrow the whole thing and hire a more representational team, but I guess this is a start (as long as they actually take opinions on board).

        Another small example via insta: @floramscott is currently interning at Dorset County Museum which is closed for refurb but has a pop-up museum in a busy shopping area. there’s a book people are encouraged to write in to describe what they think ‘should be in the new museum to represent who we are as a town/community now, rather than just historical agriculture.’ There is an example on a board next to the book with someone mentioning that there’s a mosque now so they should have something like a prayer mat in the new museum to indicate as much. @floramscott said ‘I really liked reminding the public we’re there for them so they should see themselves in us.’ this is such a nicely balanced remark. And sometimes I look at the really sad-looking guest book in gallery entrances filled with email addresses like celeb signatures and think it’s such a wasted opportunity for direct critique. As with this Dorset book, the gallery guest book could be a real conduit for opinion instead of a weirdly pointless site for bragging. Visitors and curators could be writing back and forth like drunk people with sharpies on club bathroom walls. Imagine the drama. I also heard briefly from people who were on ‘visitor panels’ and young ppl groups at Spike Island and FACT where they could talk marketing materials and the shows (unpaid); and someone at a college in Oxford is on an advisory board for diversifying the portraits hung there. Small dribs n drabs of convo, all these things should be mandatory, frequent, and taken v seriously !

        Now, speaking to the arts producers themselves. Grundy in Blackpool were the only gallery I could identify with local residents on their Advisory Board (again, i didn’t speak to every gallery nor did I have time to ask the ppl on the board how they find it, but mentioning anyway yoloooo). Auto Italia are currently working with their trustees to set up regular ‘curatorial crits’ bc they want to get ‘feedback from a range of our different audiences and how they see / relate to the programme.’ obv i wish it was already in place for everyone’s sake but I appreciate how explicit the name of that is and hope the language and invitation translates ! The gallery has also been working with ppl from their local council of Tower Hamlets, secondary school teachers and local pupils to develop a young people’s programme that is relevant, and literally requested. Primary and The Art House both internally survey their studio holders/artists and residents which is like, probably standard but neither have formal advisory boards that look outwards.

        Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival don’t have a formal set up for this either but make an effort to just literally speak to people on the ground and be present. Their director Peter Taylor comments, ‘I live in the centre of town so in the day to day speak with a lot of people. This leads to people coming directly forward with programming ideas. One idea that worked out was a focus on Philip Trevelyan at the festival in 2016. Another was park volunteers last year whom we connected up with Jessica Sarah Rinland, leading a walk following the presentation of her film Black Pond. It’s a slow build but I think that one to one contact and conversation is still really powerful.’ I appreciate accessibility to the ppl in power here, and casual can be better. Art Night’s current Artistic Director Helen Nisbet spoke similarly on ‘trying to speak to as many local artists / people as possible. Meeting in pubs or for coffee to talk to them about how life is, their concerns’ in the Walthamstow area ahead of this year’s festival.

        I know Tate Liverpool are onto their second Artist’s Breakfast since new director Helen Legg joined last summer. These invite local practitioners to pop in for a coffee and a chat and I haven’t been able to attend yet but hav heard mixed things; huge gratitude that the opportunity was there to mix with the top, and some frustration that it wasn’t a very useful opportunity. I spoke to one attendee for a ~ direct quote ~ who said, ‘It was the 1st time any institution has invited me to meet with their team. The actual morning was a meet and great format but new Director Helen said she would not be able to meet with every person who turned up in the short space of time. This was honest but it did lead the way for the usual self entitled characters to scrummage around to compete for her attention which left the rest of us to twiddle our thumbs. The majority of the Tate staff came down from the office, stayed together in the same corner of the room and only really seemed interested in being there for the free grub rather than introducing themselves to the participants.’ feel like this either needs a rejig or a more clear purpose because the casual aim is leaving some good people on the sidelines; n it’s ‘purpose’ comes off as token engagement and some immaterial social capital. What if there was one Saturday when everyone could book in a slot to show the head of tate their portfolio or say their piece on what they want the gallery to be doing? it would be packed. it would be amazing. and a bit more fair.

        Sum more talk on food and its power to bring ppl together: there’s Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art all the way up in the north who close the galleries every Thursday from 1-2pm for an open and free Community Lunch where staff sit down to eat with visitors (everyone, not just ppl that make art). They describe it as ‘a chance as a team to chat with and listen to the interests and concerns of a massive range of people’; and it’s true! hav been to a fair few of these myself and the conversation is interesting, easygoing, and very invested. the fact it happens every single week really speaks to MIMA’s institutional philosophy where its visitors become constituents, not just strangers passing through. So good to close the galleries too, to take an hour to reflect and be people again. I was telling Chesterfield artist Bella Milroy about this and she said that MIMA’s approach might be the best way to go about public input, because ‘when you’re not there with your clipboard asking for feedback, that’s when you get the best comments. It just happens, it’s natural, and actually people are far more open.’ She was comparing this with the medical equivalent of Patient Participation Groups, where people are invited to speak to a representative at their local general practice in a group setting. They can feed back on issues or things the GP could improve upon, but she said without a fair facilitation or structure, group dynamics had likely taken over because all they’d managed to materialise from so many discussions was a bubble machine in her surgery’s waiting room to calm patients. funnily enough it sounds like stress. The long rows of tables that mima use and their regularity (ie not a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to make a dent) might be the way to go.

        besides Berwick really, what I largely failed to find were specific examples of a given individual’s opinion outside the institution actually materialising. I got a few replies from festivals that were disappointing, talkin bout how they run on an open call basis so no they don’t have a local advisory board - as if the open call process handed over ownership of the decision-making from the curators to people submitting. but not everyone’s going to apply to an open call, they still might not feel like it is for them; and who’s on the selection panel? Is it the typical Arty People lineup or a mixture of ppl with different interests and investments? Hmm. The Liverpool Biennial recently began their Liquid Club project, ‘a monthly discussion group which invites collective thinking and drives the development of Liverpool Biennial 2020’ but when it comes to that, i fully refuse to attend. I literally wrote them a 6000 word review of the last festival and they never bothered to reply to some major concerns. I mention it now because if criticism is not a conscious and transparent part of your operation, why should you be allowed to mine the valuable information of your audience? how can we trust the Biennial is going to take any opinions on board? it makes the Liquid Club look like a token gesture until the festival proves it actually cares about what we all think. 

        let me just namedrop myself for a minute and OUTPUT gallery (for good reason i promise). When OUTPUT began I wanted a local advisory board because I was scared of it just being myself making the programming decisions. i have very limited tastes (did you read the first paragraph?) and a significant amt of privilege. at the very beginning though there was zero activity or an identity to discuss so I waited a little bit and in the process of becoming, i played off the OUTPUT name and organised a series of INPUT events. at these, people could come in and put their name forward for an exhibition, recommend someone else, or give me their ideas and criticisms. one on one sat at a desk in the gallery, sometimes a queue, but often not. INPUT totally burst my own filter bubble and i met some amazing artists and took on some proposals once i got that arts council coin. i also started group crits and art socials as per requests, and have planned more painting exhibitions bc thats what people kept asking for in the most recent round.

        The INPUT philosophy was inspired by my time working for AIR studio, which I’ve spoken about before so I’ll be brief;; At the beginning of 2016, when AIR was thinking of doing a project in North Woolwich, director Anna Hart set up the North Woolwich Curators Club with five local residents she had identified there 2 figure out what they should even do, and only then wrote the arts council app that would go on to be match funded by Newham Council. the club met weekly throughout the year to discuss the shape of the public programme and strategise on how and where to deliver it. they were not arts professionals but still had an interest in creativity + shared the excitement that NoWo would become a site for art. I was working as a producer on the project n I saw this group become more confident, and express a certain amount of ownership over the project which was completely fair.

        My final example on this subject arrived when speaking to Birmingham gallery Grand Union who q frankly win this round of Do Galleries Ever Ask Us What We Want. well done, u win,, a car. Last year they initiated their Collaborative Programme and hired Jo Capper as curator. Capper and I spoke on the phone while I just fangirled at her modesty, relieved to hav found a solid model for my research~ some good in the world~ sum patience. Listen to this. Her work for the past 10 yrs has been focused on community development work. When she started the role at Grand Union, she recognised the cultural capital the area held as well as the opportunity the job offered in being able to create a platform and some further visibility for organisations working with social justice. but she wanted to go about it the right way. The area is in flux. Digbeth is an industrial part of the city under the thumb of gentrification but a few pockets of community remain - some residential areas including social housing where migrants or refugees are placed with q a high turnover. She told me that, ‘rather than me dream up ideal projects to take to the world, I wanted that to be collectively dreamt with the community. You couldn’t just have artists telling everybody how to live their life and be in the world. It had to come from the community context.’ And so, in the time she’s been there, Capper has set up the ‘Repair and Care’ group. At the moment, the group looks like 6 people who meet to reimagine the area, its people and its story; and they use this speculative fiction to advise on Grand Union’s programming, how the gallery thinks about its future and ‘the future of lots of residents/small business owners/arts organisations in Digbeth.’ This makes sense. and it feels level, non-patronising, active, genuinely useful. And rather than some community service with volunteers, the group are being paid £10/hour for 2.5 hours a month to do this work. I think it’s worth copy and pasting Capper’s original call out for this when she was first identifying who might want to be involved - her language was so precise, but nicely arty and determined. She wrote,

‘Art has the freedom to dream, explore and imagine that is not constrained by a specialised or instituted thought.

    Grand union has gained a reputation for enabling people to tell their stories.  Stories that are boundless.  

    Would you be interested in taking part in a new journey with our organisation - one that creates new spaces for stories for Grand Union and its communities near and far. A story that is a call to action. A story that can offer restoration and social justice, a creative playful space. 

    I have been part of community development groups before, and I am always astounded by how the coming together creates more than the sum of its parts. I like how the combined resources of a group responds to the idea that we could do more with less, and how that is inspiring to others.

    Pragmatics, as a group we will work to develop a strategy/programme that will be funded, initially I have a budget to pay a living wage for participation in your contributions, however we want to work with you to build a collective community of care. One that responds and works to repair and connect individuals with the communal experience of being, living and working in the city.

    Are you interested? If so I am going to ask that you are able to commit 2.5 paid hours per month to meet for a period of 6 months starting in April? Please reply and let me know your thoughts.’

    The group is now comprised of 6 people including a gardener, local resident, and someone that works for the wildlife trust - and they’re aiming to double that number going forward. To put the group together, Capper ‘spent six months just meeting and talking to people. Some of it is just really based on intuition and thinking about the different care people can provide.’ I am glad this exists and wish i could be a fly on the wall in birmingham 2 see how it plays out, and how much risk is allowed to be taken. how far are the GU curators willing to really step outside of ‘instituted thought’ like Capper challenges. what will they make room for? I think the smaller scale, the better; more productive, careful. ! but ! you need to be sat in a room with the right kind of person.

        I want to end with a serious conversation I had with a curator who has to remain anonymous. Their take on this topic exploded my thinking past little examples of People Being Nice, because yeah everyone can be nice but realistically arts workers are operating under structural issues bound by money issues. From the speaker’s perspective, as a result, engagement efforts are limited in creativity, limiting a sincere opening up of the arts for marginalised identities. instead they are a form of risk management; because if the gallery isn’t getting the right kind of hard-to-reach visitors in their space, they risk lose their funding. In a way I think GOOD, that will TEACH THEM A LESSON ! but these NPOs get stuck in a panicked operation where curators (and the artists they invite) are forced into trying to achieve a social practice that brings in targeted identities without any genuine want, perspective or relationship, and no creative core; like the art-part of getting them in is lost, it just matters that they got them there. Because of this pressure, there’s a disconnect between what people want in the galleries and what the institutions need to happen to tick boxes + be able to function financially. When it comes to asking what the public wants to see in the space then, the curator I spoke to was suspicious that these external pressures could do anything other than force an insincerity onto the relationship between the gallery + their visitors. And thus maybe scale is key here, actual creativity, and a humanity outside of diversity frameworks? imagine that lol. It’s a mess, the whole thing. But yeah I appreciate Croydon Art Store commissioning this research before even getting into it. I hope they can keep these examples and concerns in mind when putting something together; 2 know what to watch out for, to know when to listen and take risks. And this kind of transparency is key so we can hold each other to account; understand the pressures that shape things, learn how we can undo.

 

If you have any more examples please get in touch. but yes this text is nearly at 4000 words so GOODBYE n let’s hold out hope for love island season 5 premiering in galleries 2k19.

if u don't want to read but u wanna listen instead, pls find the recording of this above ^

{ the only reason The White Pube can still exist is because some of our readers choose to support us each month via Patreon. We sometimes do talks and other jobs but Patreon is how we get paid for the actual writing here - the reviews n art thoughts and so on. And it's so important to us 2 that we can stay independent critics without ties to big funders or institutions, public or private. Thank you for being our old timey patrons - we'll do our best to produce quality output; write stuff that is thoughtful and sincere. }

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