Nature in Perspective: How I Curated an Exhibition
Curating an exhibition of any size is no small feat. Let alone when you've never done it before. Below is the story of how and why I curated a 40-piece exhibition entirely solo, in 3 months.
I'd been hitting walls in my professional development and becoming increasingly frustrated with job rejections and the constant refrain I kept running into; "We've gone with some who has more experience".
But as any young professional who is trying to break into an oversubscribed, underfunded industry knows, you need experience to get a job but you need a job to get experience. It's a vicious, and completely demoralising, cycle. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and get some experience for myself.
It began in late October 2022 with approaching my local arts centre, in a country village in Surrey called Cranleigh, and asking if they'd let me use their space. Luckily there was nothing planned in January and they very kindly allowed me use of the gallery for a three week period. So planning had to commence pretty quickly. The downside of Cranleigh Arts Centre's generosity was that I had only a little over 3 months to develop, research, plan, and execute the whole thing. Then, with Christmas festivities and the Arts Centre being closed from 24th December to 9th January, essentially that was cut down to six weeks. No pressure.
I came off the back of working at Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair in East London in the first week of November and had my first planning meeting with the Arts Centre on 7th November. My eyes had been open to the wealth and breadth of printmaking and the amazing result different techniques can garner. I happen to get chatting to a gentleman during one shift who mentioned his wife was an artist in the show, and his brother lived 20 minutes from Cranleigh. I spoke to his wife, a Japanese print artist called Sachiko Purser, and she agreed to be in the show, despite the fact that I didn't have a theme or any kind of plan at that point! She put her trust in me, something I had been begging employers to do for months, and followed through on her promise.
Sachiko's works are quite incredible. She uses a technique called photopolymer etching (an extremely complicated process involving metal plates, photo-sensitive film, and UV light, that I still don't quite understand) to print haunting images of endangered animals. She prints onto traditional Japanese paper, shikoku-shi. The results are arresting. Piercing white eyes confront viewers and remind us of our complicity in their slow destruction. It was a privilege for me to have Sachiko on board, and her body of work gave me a starting point for developing a theme.
Given that the Surrey Hills are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, there are a lot of local artists responding to the natural world in various ways, so I decided to go with a theme that allowed me to tap into that wide pool of talent. After some brainstorming for a title, Nature in Perpective was born. In moment of serendipity, there happened to be an event called Surrey Artists Open Studios going on, where artists across the county opened up their studios (usually their homes) for visitors to come and see what they do and how they work. This meant there was a handy list online of a few hundred artists working in the area. This made the arduous job of finding artists so much easier. I also went to a couple of local art fairs, and before long I had 10 artists willing and keen to be in my exhibition!
My artists were:
Now, I know that makes the whole process sound really very easy, but it was a little more complicated than that. I had a couple of artists turn me down, either because my show didn't fit the trajectory of their career or they were too busy. I had to drive across the county to visit artists and see their work in person, and make my case to them to trust me with their craft. As practically a child in many of their eyes, with no experience whatsoever of curating, I was asking them to take a leap of faith. It worked in my favour that many of the artists were pleased to have been approached, and just wanted to share their work, especially with new audiences. However, I also had to think about how different pieces and styles would work together, how much would fit in the space, and what I thought might be popular as all the work would be for sale. I'll admit it took some mental gymnastics but honestly a lot of it was trusting the process and going with my gut. I have little knowledge of the art market so I picked things that I liked, while maintaining some variation in style, colour palette, and medium. There was really no knowing what would fit in until I had it all in the space, and though I planned the layout in advance, once I got in to hang that plan all but went out the window.
Once artists had been contacted and pieces had been chosen, there was admin to do involving the loan of work. I wrote a loans form using the SPECTRUM website a guide, checked and double checked the rules around insurance, and chased up artists to give me all the right forms, permissions, and information. Some of them were so on the ball, but I have to say others were a little lax on the details. My advice to you when dealing with the idiosyncrasies of artists: be very explicit about what you need, be patient, and don't be afraid to ask twice, or three times, or as many times as it takes.
The other side of the organisational process was getting people to come to the exhibition. I made a flier (which in hindsight I think was a little naff) to distribute around the village, did lots of posts on social media. In the run up to the opening I did a 10 day Instagram campaign consisting of one post a day focused on each of my 10 artists. The best trick was that I did them as joint posts with Cranleigh Arts Centre's instagram, which massively boosted my reach. I also planned a Private View on opening night and sent out invitations to the artists and friends in the area.
Writing it down like this makes it all feel quite straightforward, but keeping on top of everything I had to do was a little daunting. I kept a constantly evolving to-do list to keep me focused, and at the start of the process made a timeline with self-imposed deadlines for major takes like choosing all the works and getting all the right permissions back. I did give myself little flexibility, given that I had initially decided I wanted the poster complete 6 weeks before I opened, but quickly realised that I didn't need to start promotion that early and risked piquing local interest too soon. A strong sense of organisation was really key, and breaking everything down into manageable chunks.
But by 19th December, when I 'broke up' for Christmas, I had all my artists, all my works, I had a plan of where it was all going, had permissions, I'd made all the labels and mounted them onto foam board, had written wall text for each artist and the theme of the exhibition as a whole and mounted that too, I'd made a poster and put fliers out, started promoting the show on various social media platforms, and planned a Private View. All I had to do in the new year to put the thing up.
Installation went surprisingly well. Once all the artists had dropped their pieces off I got to hanging. The Art Centre uses a rail and cable system, meaning no nails need to go in the wall and everything is completely adjustable. I had one day to do it all, and help with the heavy lifting, and didn't finish. I put things up and took them down again, finding a better fit elsewhere, I had to fit D-rings to a couple of works, and all the measuring and levelling took longer than expected, and longer than I had. By the end of the day everything was on the wall but I had no labels up and no works in browsers (I had to gut 2 artists to bring me browsers to borrow at the last minute as the unframed pieces I had wouldn't all fit into the one I had). Luckily, however, the gallery had not reopened to the public after Christmas when I was in to hang, and I still had two days till it opened again, so managed to blag my way back into the Arts Centre before opening day to make the finishing touches.
By the time we opened and had the Private View that evening I couldn't have been more proud of how it all looked and had gone. The pieces fit beautifully together, contrasting and complimenting each other, and filled the space perfectly while still giving each work its own space to breathe. I got a lot of compliments from staff, volunteers, and visitors. I even had one long-time volunteer tell me it was the best exhibition she had ever seen at the Arts Centre. I didn't sell that much (I blame the economic climate) but got such kind feedback and it was such a rewarding experience for me to be able to stand in a room and look around at an exhibition that I made! I did have to make a speech at the Private View which for me was the worst part of the entire process, but still I couldn't recommend it more if you're thinking about doing something for yourself. It really was a fantastic learning experience. It may seem daunting to start with, but it's more than doable. I had a little luck along the way, but with some determination and a few excel spreadsheets, it all became very manageable, and I could finally call myself a curator.