Curating Outside of the White Cube

This seminar took place at the Little Blue Hut on June 27th. The guest curator was Sian McMillan who is currently working at Stour Valley Arts, a really interesting organisation who commissions new work for King’s Wood. Sian is currently working closely with sound artist Lee Patterson on a new commission.

The topic for this seminar was inspired by the fact fact that people participating in the Satellite Programme are challenged by the lack of standard gallery spaces throughout Whitstable, therefore many artists have to be inventive about the types of spaces that they use. Many used beach huts, the street, the beach, their living rooms, churches etc.

Working in public spaces certainly raises issues/concerns/challenges that don’t exist when you are working within standard gallery spaces. The audiences are going to be different; there will be the art-going public that will make the work their specific destination, and there will be the general public who might stumble upon it. We have to consider all audiences and adjust our language accordingly (artspeak is not a universal language). With this in mind communication should be a priority in any place that you are working. If it is in a public space didactic materials, events and generally making yourself known and telling people what you are doing are good ways of diminishing chances of resistance and animosity from local people. Even if they don’t like the artwork or the project, the more informed people are the more they will be willing to accept it.

Sian and I are both working in Kent where we aren’t from. In some ways both of us agreed that this can make doing public projects quite difficult because it takes a lot more time to build a network, a good reputation and therefore trust. It is our responsibility as curators to understand the demographics, what are local concerns, issues and what are the notable spaces. We are depending on people’s generosity for information and cooperation, which they are not obligated to give. However doing projects in a place where you are not from, can also allow for a lot more freedom.

Sandra Drew, who is currently Director of Stour Valley Arts, moved from Australia to the UK and ran a gallery in Canterbury in the 80’s describes her experience of programmig public artworks, “I think there’s something about coming from outside and being able to operate without constraints. I was doing things that I didn’t know I shouldn’t be doing. Somehow there is a freedom to come from outside and take on things that others don’t think are possible. It came out of looking for gallery spaces in the Southeast – they didn’t exist. At that time there were virtually no galleries who were artist-oriented in the sense that there were single person shows, and the gallerist’s role was predominately to support the artist.”

An interesting model of a contentious public art commission is the Ashford Ring Road. The project received some negative reactions from the public, which in retrospect might have been related to the the lack of information that was dispersed by the council who had commissioned the work. When the public did read about the commissions, their opinions were partly formed by local newspapers which had written about it in a relatively negative manner. This brings up one of the key issues relating to commissioning any work that exists in the public realm; it is imperative that curators and commissioners make sure that their ideas and intentions are communicated to the public who will be encountering the work on a daily basis. This becomes especially important when public money is involved and it is in the public realm. There were no public talks or programming to support the work, the audience ended up feeling angry and isolated rather than engaged or further aware of their local environment.

With the Biennale on the other hand, there is now a certain amount of acceptance. If you are doing a project and say that it’s part of the festival people are more open to it. They are tolerant because they know what it is, and this is something that tradition helps build as it has now becomes part of the Whitstable culture. This is not to say that certain projects are not sometimes met with protest, but that generally people are more prepared and open to the artworks that are featured.

When organising the Satellite Programmes I emphasised to the artists the need to go to Whitstable and to understand the place if they weren’t from there. There are so few galleries in Whitstable that artists had to be imaginative in terms of what could work for their projects. You also want to maintain the integrity of building – a happy medium between the site and the artwork. Part of that is making it safe and figuring out logistics such as working amenities, extension cords, lighting etc. It is ultimately a curatorial issue – artists were charged with the planting of work. In my own experience almost every project I’ve done is about finding space, and ensuring that the space fits the context of the work.

In her essay ‘Of People and of Place’ Mary Jane Jacob describes the Liverpool Biennale as ‘bringing poetry to an otherwise un-poetic place.’ Oftentimes site specific artwork if curated well, will highlight what is often overlooked or something people would pass. The game then is not to accumulate numbers of visitors necessarily but to focus on more engagement from the people who are already there.

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