When I first started looking into the dank realities of the creative economic dungeon, I didn’t consider curation at all. Maybe because I never thought I would make a good curator, without an art history PhD, and I never enjoyed installing my work for exhibitions at college. I also wasn’t aware of how much curation might be one of the puzzle pieces that helps to find a better solution to our working practice in the creative industries.
Teaching is probably the first thing that got me thinking about putting on shows, because over the years it has led to being focused on (and wanting to promote) other people’s work. Maybe for that reason alone it is worth teaching for a while because it lets any artist focus on others’ work more than their own, which can never be a bad thing. It’s extremely freeing too. This year I’ve had present and former students get into a range of art prizes and prestigious shows and sell work, so suddenly I don’t care anymore when my work doesn’t get into these; I have a whole load of other people to feel excited for. In a strange way, it has made me feel more secure in what I do myself as well.
I eventually got involved with the Refresh Art Award, with Georgina Talfana, and my interest in that started out being mainly about the business model. I saw the project as research into the question of whether it was even possible to put on a show that didn’t collapse through lack of finance but that offered entrants value beyond the price of an expensive lottery ticket.
It turned out to be a really interesting piece of research, and we’re working on refining the model at the moment, but recently I got the opportunity to access another gallery space in connection with the thing I really wanted to put on myself for several years, and that is Spaghetti Intaglio.
I caught a printmaking bug at college and then had to work in a print studio afterwards just to keep getting access to professional equipment. Although life takes over, and soon I was missing the unfettered access to a wonderful print room that I’d had while studying. I needed to find things I could do away from the expense of a professional studio, and in snatched moments of time in between work and general life commitments. I was back to balancing on the corner of my kitchen table again, mixing up a range of preparations, like I had done when I first worked in prosthetics. Worse than this, I was living in a rented flat with my deposit being held hostage to a piece of flimsy carpet that would no-doubt cost a landlord in excess of 6 months rent to have cleaned should a drop of anything fall on it.
By the time I started working in an austerity-struck community college, I realised there was this huge extended community in the UK making splendid work by cobbling together pieces of non-pro print equipment, innovating and inventing their way through what can otherwise be an expensive and luxurious process. My thinking didn’t really catch up with what I wanted to do for years though and, like many others, my first instinct was to apply for funding to be able to showcase this work, and to give the artists an affordable way in to professional exhibiting and selling.
Several years and many rejected funding applications later, it dawned on me that (just as I’ve always been keen to do with my art practice) maintaining as much independence as possible is really helpful in any arts situation at the moment, and that extends to curation. So since then, I’ve been looking for ways to make an independent and profitable curation model accessible and worthwhile to artists.
Some have asked me why it needs to be profitable and whether a basic capitalist model is contradictory to what I’m trying to achieve here. My answer at the moment is that the freedom of a basic profitable business model is like no other given the current economic system that we live under. I’ve realised that this is the reason I set up Pudding Press Ltd, some time ago rather than limping on with mediocre collaborative arts projects. Having a clear vision of what I wanted, and knowing I needed to work with others that had particular skills in order to produce a high quality piece of work required this freedom.
A profit model means you can charge for things, and that means that you can pay people for their services. How many funded projects only achieve what they want to by exploiting a raft of unpaid graduate interns? I know it must be a lot because I have worked on them as a creative lead, often with a team of unpaid labourers. How many other great ideas end up with a mediocre output because they’re reliant on people working for free, who therefore may not be fully committed nor even have developed and relevant skills?
Working with a regular business model doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making a huge profit, or any profit at all, or even being paid for the work you do when organising things. Yet the principle is there, and you could do, and getting a tiny bit of pay for hours of work probably wouldn’t lead to the excesses of being a multinational tax evading corporation. At the moment that’s something I can live with easier than begging for bursary scraps from a system that actually just perpetuates the low-pay situation.
In the end the model with Spaghetti Intaglio is another experiment, and one that puts affordable exhibiting of something less mainstream at its heart. The entries that have already come in look fabulous and heart warming to anyone who wants confirmation that art is still going on away from expensive facilities and even more expensive universities.
I’d be really interested in responses to this, and what people think could make exhibiting better. In order to keep this as economically accessible as possible there is no entry fee to the open call, but rather chosen artists pay a reasonable hanging fee that means they just need to deliver and pick up work. The hanging fee will pay for the whole proceeding, from promotion, to a pdf catalogue, to any card payment fees entailed during sales. It also means that no commission will be taken on any sales. Framing was, and sometimes still is, always a huge financial barrier for me, especially as I often work with large prints and non-standard sizes. So framing is not essential to be in this show. Rather it is my job as a curator, in conjunction with the hanging team, to make the work look good. As this is a public space, artists are warned that framing is a more secure option that allows bolting to the wall, but if they are insured or want to take the small risk that I would, they can submit without this. For those living further away, no framing also means much cheaper carriage. There is going to be a large print fair event on the Saturday during the show, rather than a private view. This includes refreshments and some workshops and demonstrations of the techniques. More importantly, the tutor and hanging team will get paid. So that just leaves me as the curator, who might get paid if there is anything left over. Or I might just put some of my own work in the show and hope someone buys it.
So far, outside of having to justify my theoretical and aesthetic concerns in bursary applications, I am drunk on the power of realising that I finally get to put together shows of other people’s completely amazing work that may not have a platform at the moment. This was actually something we investigated with the Refresh Art Award, and I think there is still so much room to look at what contemporary artists are actually making and to give them an affordable platform. The problem with gaining sponsorship for things, is that it has to fit many other people’s agendas, and an independent model frees you from that.
This megalomania has certainly led to a whole list of shows I will now have to curate, because they are things that I wished I could have seen. I am convinced that independence is the way to get things seen that you can’t otherwise, and that this might be good for artists working with less-commercial imagery. It was certainly something I knew was the case with publishing and production, but these seem to have an easier relationship with the commercial. My relationship to fine-art was either being lucky enough to be a paid creative on projects, or the very mainstream educational experience of bemoaning that funding in the UK is hard to come by and that everyone works for free before giving up.
I actually don’t think that there are many better choices when looking at salaried mainstream curatorial positions for galleries and organisations. I recently saw an advertisement for an assistant curator’s job for a swanky and well-known London institution that almost paid as much as a year’s suburban rent for the annual salary. Not quite. Plus, obviously, once you’ve paid your rent you also have to pay for things like food, travel, council tax, utilities, and the list goes on. The entry level education for this job was definitely a masters, but they were most probably looking for a PhD, not to mention a raft of institutional experience. I had mentioned this to an art industry savvy friend who said, “they pay shit in museums at first to keep out unmarried poor people.” This is the other end of the problem.
I’d be really interested to know what artists think of exhibiting opportunities and what could be done to make them more economically sustainable, or filled with better nourishment for a career. If you’re interested to see what I’m doing with Spaghetti Intaglio, or would like to make a submission, please see my website. The call for entries ends in mid-November and the show is on in December. Come along, or download a free pdf catalogue then to see the work that was shown, with information about all the artists involved.