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Day Five

Technically today marks the end of my first working “week” (five days over 5 weeks) interning at Hazelhurst gallery and arts centre.

I celebrated, as I assume is traditional, by spending nearly an hour this morning scanning hardcopy documents into digital documents.

Typical of galleries, Hazelhurst keeps a visitor’s book at the entrance to their main gallery for visitors to comment on current exhibitions. Now I have no idea if it’s also typical for galleries to create copies of these comments for the exhibiting artists as mementos (retrospectively it might actually have been a wise idea to  ask), but I thought it was a pretty neat thing to gift to the artists. And hence why I spent my morning scanning a visitor’s book.

Though a tad monotonous, going through the book as I scanned it was a surprisingly educative experience. Like many people my age, my ability to handwrite is vestigial at best, a hallmark of older, darker times. So I’d never really bothered to leave a comment in a visitor’s book before. I assumed though that the comments would be blandly positive and polite.

What I actually learned was visitor’s books are essentially the pre-digital equivalent of online comment sections. Filled with trolls.

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Like their online counterparts, visitor book trolls can rarely spell correctly.

To be fair there were plenty of the aforementioned generically positive comments. But I was kind of amazed by the significant number of negative, and in some case just plain baffling comments that people had written down.

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But is this really the place to share that?

After I commented on this I was informed that a disgruntled visitor had actually disliked an exhibition so much one time that they accosted the curator while they were speaking to someone. Way to get upset about not enjoying a free art exhibition bro. I mean at least the art made you feel ~something~. The experience reminded me of how in nearly every industry you’re going to come across people you can’t please, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.

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My morning of – let’s be honest – filing, led into the rest of the day spent researching. I’m starting to realise why so much of university is spent doing research-based assignments; that skill is going to be helpful later on. Much as I was scanning the visitor’s book as a memento for artists who had exhibited in previous exhibitions, I was tasked with searching for all previous media and event listings to also gift to these same artists.

I realised two things while completing this task.

  • Shameless self-promotion seems to be (unfortunately) so important in attracting press for art exhibitions. Maybe I’m just a terrible researcher, but there was a very meagre supply of media coverage available on the exhibitions involved. An occasional write-up in the regional paper, a brief mention in the Sydney Morning Herald’s “what’s on this weekend” section, and a whole bunch of obscure event listing sites that I’d never heard of were all I could really find on the exhibitions. I imagine that as an artist, if you really want to get your work into circulation, you’ve got to keep doggedly putting yourself out there and promoting your work.
  • There are SO many artists just in the Sydney general area. So many. I swear every time I’m at Hazelhurst I learn of another dozen. This actually might contribute to my first point – promoting yourself and getting exhibited might be kind of tough when there’s a whole bunch of equally eager artists trying to do the same thing in a culture that doesn’t really promote visuals arts as a viable career option. Also – how do all these artists get noticed and approached by galleries to exhibit? And what do they do when they’re not exhibiting at galleries, particularly when not every exhibition pays artists? I mean I know grants are a thing but I could not live solely reliant on that.

So all in all I suppose today has been quite introspective. I’ve raised quite a number of questions. Should probably see about getting them answered next time I’m at Hazelhurst.

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Curating 101. The Dos and Do Nots

This session at UOW I took a class all about curating. The class – creatively named Curatorial Practices – taught the basics on how to curate art and museum exhibitions in relation to contemporary society.

At the end of our 13 weeks of examining gallery space and considering the audience, we were tasked for our final assessment with producing an exhibition as close to professional standard as possible. Everything from exhibition concept to catalogue production.

Now to you naïve young upstarts this task might seem easy.

“Oh all you have to do is like hang up some paintings right?”

“So it’s just like you have to decorate a hallway. That’s pretty easy”

But us seasoned curatorial student veterans knew better than to underestimate the task ahead.

Artist’s impression of curators off to plan an exhibition

If you’ve ever been to a museum or gallery exhibition (and if you’re old enough to read this you really should have) you’ve probably overlooked the MASSIVE amount of behind the scenes work that contributes to a successful exhibit.

Looking back on our experience there’s a lot we did well, but just as much that we could have improved. If you’re of a creative inclination you might one day find yourself also holding an exhibition yourself. To help you on your curatorial adventure below is a neat little guide on what to do, and what not to do when curating an art show.

Do – Have a well-defined exhibition concept

The first thing our class decided on was the concept of our exhibition. Before you can do anything else you have to work out what exactly your show is about. Rather than come up with a concept at random, we worked backwards. Most of our class are visual arts majors and therefore already had significant portfolios of work to exhibit. Comparing our work allowed us to find common themes that lead us to our final exhibition concept and title – A Body of Work. Our concept – the ‘body’ – was specific yet broad enough to be applied to all the artwork on show. For us, starting with the artwork to define our exhibition worked extremely well.

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A specific yet broad concept. On the left an artwork examining ‘body’. On the right, also an artwork examining ‘body’.

Do Not – Forget to consider your audience

Forgetting to think about the audience was easily the biggest error during our exhibition. Your audience is the most important aspect of your exhibition! They’re the whole reason (presumably) you’re hosting an exhibition! Having now put one exhibition together, I would almost suggest that any future projects have a designated team member just for the purpose of thinking from the audience perspective. There are multiple elements that need to be considered from audience perspective when planning your exhibit.

What kind of audience will this exhibit attract?

How will the audience walk through the gallery space?

How long will it take the average audience member to view the exhibition? Will they need somewhere to sit and rest throughout?

Is the written collateral for the exhibition clear? Would someone without an art education understand it?

A major reason for why our team forgot to think about our audience perhaps comes down to the majority of us being art students, and being used to presenting artwork to an audience already highly educated in the arts. In most exhibition circumstances, this is unlikely. It’s very easy to distance yourself from the audience when curating an exhibition. However if you want your exhibition to be a success, you must embrace your audience.

Engage your audience. Consider displaying artwork they can touch, pick up or interact with.

Do – Set specific tasks for team members

There’s a lot of different tasks involved in putting together an exhibition. Curating. Publicising. Installing. Designing. Fetching coffee (very important). In our experience we found it best to assign everyone roles early in the project so they knew what tasks to achieve. To get a general idea of what roles you might need we found it helpful to look at curating guides set up by galleries. This guide from Museums Victoria was particularly helpful, as was this one by the University of Maryland. Having set roles (and therefore set tasks) for everyone makes putting together your exhibition much more efficient as there is less confusion as to who is doing what and the workload is shared. Putting together an exhibition is essentially a large group project after all, and we all know how the workload can be split in those…

Do – research your role

I volunteered to work as the publicist for our exhibition. Having done a bit of journalism and PR work incidentally during university I felt I had a basic grasp on the role. Treating this like any other assignment however, I thought it’d be a sensible idea to actually research what being an exhibition publicist entails. So like most people born after 1990 I googled it. A blunt approach but effective; the search results included a host of job listings for gallery publicists that essentially spelled out what kind of jobs I’d have to achieve. Without this research I might not have known to write a media release, or to write a brief on possible publicising routes. Researching my role, just as everyone researched theirs, undoubtedly improved the quality of exhibition materials produced.

Do Not – Forget to communicate with your team

It’s here that I’d like to mention a disclaimer. Just because you’ve been assigned a set role and tasks does not mean you should forget about the rest of your exhibition team. On several occasions our group erred due to lack of communication. The biggest mistake we made was relying far too heavily on online communication, rather than face-to-face. This meant some of our exhibition labels weren’t collated in time, there were mistakes on labels and no one really checked the wall text (which we agreed in hindsight needed revision). It also meant that all our audience feedback, vital for gauging how what people thought of our show, went missing as everyone thought someone else was collecting it. This lack of communication meant we were too absorbed in our own roles and were often unaware of the help or input other team members might need.

Be like Jason. Communicate with your team

Do Not – Leave object layout until the day of install

Another issue that arose from lack of communication was how the artworks should be arranged in the gallery space. Although we’d seen photos of each artwork being exhibited, we overlooked the importance of viewing them physically in comparison to one another. On the day of install so much time was taken up just deciding how to arrange the artworks. This is easily something that could have been previously decided prior to the day. Post-exhibition discussions included how we could have used photos of the images to create mock up arrangements, but I believe that the mixture of two-dimensional and three-dimensional works would require us to physically arrange the works in the gallery space regardless. To be fair an attempt was made to examine the gallery space and how the works would fit in it during the week before the exhibition. Without the artworks to move around in the space however not much could be achieved. Better examination of the gallery space and how the works fit in it are simple steps that could be achieved in planning future exhibitions.

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Our very high-tech, last-minute artwork arrangement strategy.

Do – know how to install artworks

Thankfully the excess of time spent deciding how to install was quickly made up when we went to physically hang the works. Most of our team were familiar with the basics of art installation and this made a significant difference to the install time. Initially hanging a painting might seem like it will take 2 minutes. All you need to do is hammer a couple of nails in and you’re done right? In reality there are a host of considerations to make. The work needs to be level. It needs to be hanging the appropriate (usually 150cm) distance from the ground. It needs to be centred in its space. Having an install team who knows all these basic rules and techniques (like our team) is a massive bonus for anyone planning an exhibition.

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Install takes longer than you’d think. This actually took her 5 hours to hang straight.

Do – form relationships with your artists

The amount of time spent on picking the object layout came in part from disagreement between the artists submitting their work for show, and the team members curating and designing the exhibit. There was the idea from the designer to arrange all the artworks together on the one wall, comparable to how you would make a scrapbook page. The artists however were reluctant to have their works hung this way, feeling it would detract from the individuality of each piece. There was similar debate when it came time to hang the artist statements. Forming relationships with the artists you’re exhibiting means the work is being shown with input from the creator. Not everything the artist say has to be adhered to; it’s a two way relationship and curators can give valuable external perspective.

These are great but could you do 100 more?

Do – Think like a curator, not an artist

The final piece of advice I’d give to aspiring curators is to not forget that you’re a curator, not an artist. This can be difficult is you’re hosting an exhibition of your own work, as we were with our exhibition. What I mean by this is that when you think like an artist, you think about your own artwork. How it fits in the gallery space, how it challenges conventions, how you want the audience to view it. As a curator you have to think on a bigger scale.

How do all the artworks fit in the gallery space?

How will this exhibit challenge itself?

How will the audience react?

Your role as a curator is to create an overall sense of harmony between the works on show. Our group found this difficult. For all of us who study visual arts concurrently, we seemed to forget to take off our artist berets and put on our curator hats. If like us you’re curating your own artwork in a group show, try to switch responsibility for your artwork with another team member. This helps to remove the concern for one artwork so that you can perceive the exhibition as a whole.

Gallery

From streets to students; UOW’s street art gems

Stereotypically viewed as the domain of rebellious youths and bored delinquents, street art has evolved into a highly sort after and commoditised industry. Its success in recent decades has led to street art infiltrating auction houses, public art galleries as well as private collections. It’s even made its way to the art collection held here at the University of Wollongong (otherwise known as the UOWAC). Now many of you may be surprised to hear that UOW even has an art collection – from first impressions the university seems more concerned about collecting ducks.

Sometimes the two overlap…

UOW however has over 4500 pieces of art in its collection – a collection which includes street art.

If you wander over to building 24 you’ll notice something different about the corridors on each floor. Usually art from the UOWAC is placed throughout the campus buildings or acquired at the behest of the faculty that resides in said building. But like Swiss army knives and goon sacks building 24 is multi-purpose. No one faculty ‘owns’ it and rooms in the building are often hired by groups in the wider community. To accommodate the diversity of the building, UOWAC commissioned three different artists to decorate each of the floors. One of the artists commissioned was the Sydney born, New York based street artist Vexta, who’s bright and fantastical artwork Fragmented Worlds adorns building 24’s first floor corridor.

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Vexta’s psychedelic blend of geometric and natural forms transform the otherwise bland white corridors of ennui uni students are ever so familiar with. Her commissioned work is a combination of canvas paintings, sculpture and stencilled paintings applied directly to the corridor walls. Vexta was given artistic freedom when commissioned, the only stipulation being that the resulting artwork be interesting to a young audience and somehow connected to the university, the Illawarra region or student life in general (these guidelines are applied to all works acquired as part of the UOWAC). The inclusion of street art in the UOWAC demonstrates its commitment to celebrating diversity of culture and contemporary talent. UOW’s attempt to keep up with the young folks by including street art in its collection reminds us to consider the peculiarities of curating this art form.

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Acquiring street art for a collection can be ethically questionable – and not for the reasons you might think. In regards to UOWAC’s Vexta artwork it was a fairly straightforward process. Vexta was asked to do a commission, she agreed, the work was completed, UOWAC acquires something awesome by a street artist. Everyone is happy. Issues arise however when galleries and private collectors acquire street art directly from off the streets. When a street artist creates a work in a public space it is commonly viewed by the artist – and by many of the locals – as a gift to the community. Physically removing the work for sale (as has been done with many of the walls the infamous street artist Banksy has painted on) is unethical. You wouldn’t take a Picasso from a gallery and sell it – but it’s ok to take a Banksy on the side of a factory? When auction houses sell and collectors buy street art removed from its original location then they not only ignore the wishes of the artist, they also devalue the artwork by removing it from its intended context.

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Street art have such fleeting lives in their natural habitat. The art form, as you may have guessed, is art found on the ‘streets’. It is directly applied – in most cases illegally – to features of suburban and metropolitan landscapes. Street artists are fully aware that their work will likely only exist for a small period of time before local councils remove it, so the durability of a work isn’t that important. Being directly applied to a buildings surface is a defining feature of street art, but means its permanency in an art collection is affected. Materials used may not be hard-wearing or properly sealed, leading to deterioration. Additionally should a curator wish to rotate the art on exhibit in a collection for example, any art applied directly to a building (as is common with street art) may have to be removed, destroying the work in the process. Vexta’s Fragmented Worlds however avoids this issue by including removable canvas paintings as well as a sculptural piece alongside the artist’s typical direct-to-wall stencil paintings. This ensures that the UOWAC retains permanent elements of Fragmented Worlds should Vexta’s work need to be removed from its current location.

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The UOWAC is unusual for its tendency to leave art on display once installed – the idea being that art owned by the university be as accessible and engaging as possible. Fragmented Worlds engages the viewer with its vibrancy and changes the entire atmosphere where it’s installed. That’s not to forget however that it’s still situated in a highly utilised university corridor – not a gallery. The only thing messier than a uni student is many uni students, and this is evident when you notice the affect thousands of students using the corridor have had on Vexta’s artwork. As previously said, street artists use walls and buildings as their canvases – but this also leaves them more exposed to damage. The aspects of Fragmented Worlds directly painted to the walls have already been scuffed by the everyday activities of busy staff and students. However due to the external, urbanised locales street art is commonly associated with, the unavoidable wear and tear perhaps subtracts less from Vexta’s art than it would a more traditional painting in the UOWAC.

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Discovering street art within UOW’s official art collection was, to say the least, unexpected. This is the same UOW after all that fastidiously removes unauthorised student chalk drawings. The inclusion of Vexta’s Fragmented Worlds adds diversity and contemporary artistic excellence to the UOWAC whilst engaging the audience to rethink their perceptions of the street art genre. Recognising street art as a legitimate form of artistic expression demonstrates the modernity of the art we’re lucky enough to experience at UOW.

Just don’t expect the excuse “it’s art” to hold up if you graffiti the McKinnon building.