On Reflection: Week 6, Module Three

On the agenda this week, prepare for an exhibition to take place between 11 and 18 August.

Exhibitions are complex projects to undertake, requiring skillsets from a number of disciplines – that much was clear before the outset.

Delving deep into the subject of exhibitions: trying to highlight best practice, identify problem areas and possible solutions, and confirm areas for further research, has turned out to be a solid investment of time, has turned out to be informative and quite interesting.

Whilst some of the points discussed in ‘On Exhibitions …’ might be perceived as common sense, arguably being so obvious makes such points more easily overlooked and therefore adds to the value of covering them.

Exploring the hands-on, creative aspect of exhibiting has been incredibly appealing. There is something deeply, inherently satisfying about making things – mounting and framing photographs is a creative activity I have always enjoyed.

The research has highlighted several areas for further research, areas in which my knowledge is clearly lacking, areas such as copyright and other legal issues associated with exhibiting; funding, sponsorship and the legal obligations associated with sponsorship; and contracts between the exhibitor and the venue.

It’s interesting to step back and look at how we think. We automatically assume the obvious. Why would I want to stage an exhibition? The easy answer, perhaps the ‘lazy’ answer is because I want people to look at my images. After some interrogation, that isn’t a real answer at all. More valid answers range from it being a mutually beneficial experience for both myself and any venue offering exhibition space, through to it providing networking opportunities.

An important question to answer with some clarity. Anyone who is in a position to grant access to exhibition space will only do so after some convincing, you’ve got to sell yourself. And you can only do that if you have belief in yourself and understand your own motives. In short, if you want to convince someone else, first convince yourself.

The aim of this week’s research has been to increase my knowledge in relation to staging an exhibition, to facilitate staging an exhibition to a professional standard, and to enhance the viewing experience. An exhibition is an interaction between the artist and the audience, with the artwork acting as an intermediary: small details make a huge difference.

So, have I achieved my objective? Yes, for me this week has been most productive. I’m certainly taking away a much greater understanding with regard to staging an exhibition, a deeper understanding of psychological responses to art and their implications for the sequencing of images – the latter being an area of study which I find compelling.

As a final point, purely for interest, as a qualified accountant, it has been quite entertaining to read the various methods suggested for the pricing of artwork.

The ‘Context Effect’

‘Context effect’ is a term used within cognitive psychology and refers to the study and subsequent description of the influence of environmental factors upon an individual’s perception of a stimulus.

In addition to perception, cognitive psychology also investigates other such processes as thought, attention, language use, memory, problem-solving, and creativity.

‘Top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ design are both terms used within the disciplines of neuroscience, cognitive neurosciences, and cognitive psychology to describe the flow of information as it is processed.

More specifically, from a psychological perspective, ‘bottom-up’ processing (or data-driven processing) is carried out in one direction: beginning with the stimulus, information is received by the retina and moves to the visual cortex. Successive stages in the visual pathway carry out increasingly complex analysis of the input.

‘Bottom-up’ processing theory suggests that perception is based on innate mechanisms that have arisen through an evolutionary process, learning is not required.

‘Top-down’ processing refers to the use of contextual information in perception. For example, handwriting which is difficult to read becomes easier to understand when it is read, as complete sentences, in conjunction with surrounding words.

Higher cognitive information, either from past experiences or stored knowledge, is required to make inferences about what we perceive. Perception is, according to ‘top-down’ processing theory, a hypothesis based on prior knowledge.

Consequently, the ‘context effect’ is viewed as ‘top-down’ information processing.

De Ville and Foster inform us that ‘the meaning and significance of art is linked to the context in which we experience it’ (1997, p. 9), whilst Hopper suggests that ‘it is clear that meaning is affected by context – where you meet the work of art will shape, to some extent, your knowledge of it’ (Hopper, 1997, p. 18).

Additionally, Shore suggests that ‘the context in which a photograph is seen effects the meaning a viewer draws from it’ (Shore, 1998, p. 26).

Whilst the ways in which the ‘meaning and significance’ of art may be influenced by context are beyond the scope of this particular post (for example, what art, in what context?) and are an area for further investigation in its own right, the implications of certain physical characteristics of a context upon the interpretation of art placed within that context are easier to elucidate.

Colour constancy, for example, is a principle which suggests that the context in which an object is seen influences how we perceive the colour of that object. It is a feature of the human visual system, and ensures that colours remain relatively constant irrespective of varying lighting conditions.

Additionally, colour constancy serves to demonstrate that the senses involved in perception are not infallible.

Grey_square_optical_illusion

Figure 1: ‘Checker Shadow Illusion’ (Adelson, Edward H., 1995)

The ‘Checker Shadow Illusion’ (fig. 1) was created by Professor Edward H. Adelson (MIT) in 1995. The illusion is such that the area labelled A appears to be a darker colour  than the area labelled B. However, within the context of the two-dimensional image, they are of identical brightness (that is to say, they would be printed with identical mixtures of ink, or displayed on a screen with pixels of identical colour).

As a result, certain aspects of the environment into which works of art are placed for viewing are generally recommended.

The following extract is taken from the post ‘Putting “Context” into Context’ (14 April 2017):

Lighting should be subtle in order to avoid hotspots, prevent degradation of art by accelerated aging and assisting with lightfastness. Additionally, from an artist’s point of view, subtle, diffused lighting has significant advantages over strong, specular light. The diffused characteristics of reflected light bathe art in a light which allows subtle colour changes (hue or saturation) and contrast (determined by the difference in the color and brightness of an object compared to other objects within the same field of view) to be perceived accurately and with repeatability.

The background should not be a negative draw on the available light. Ideally, the colour should be neutral (grey works especially well). As a guide, dark walls make paintings appear lighter.

The background environment should enhance the artwork, by drawing attention to it rather than competing with it or being a distraction.

That being said, subtle colours enhance soft artworks, whilst art which is more graphic and has bold lines works well with a contrasting background.

A particular colour from a painting can be chosen and used to create an accent wall, drawing attention to that painting, in which case other walls would be a different colour.

In terms of finish, a matt or satin finish is best so that any reflected light comes from the art, not the surrounding environment. It should also reflect the overall mood of the collection.

In terms of relevance for my photographic practice, the interaction between my photographic images and any context in which they may be presented is an area of particular interest and as such is an area for ongoing research.

The intention is not for this post to provide extensive answers to any questions associated with how art and its environment interact. It is, however, intended as a starting point for further investigation – a reference point from which to navigate, fixing some key points in my mind as a precursor to that investigation, not least of which are the models used to illustrate the flow of information as we process our environment.

 

References:

De Ville, Nicholas and Foster, Stephen (1997) ‘Space Invaders’, in De VILLE and FOSTER (ed.) Space Invaders. Southampton: John Hansard Gallery

Hopper, R. (1997) ‘Introduction to Part One’, in De VILLE and FOSTER (ed.) Space Invaders. Southampton: John Hansard Gallery

Jones, Jonathan (2011) ‘What Colour Should Gallery Walls Be?’ in The Guardian (21 October 2011) [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2011/oct/21/colour-gallery-walls-musee-d-orsay (Accessed: Saturday 8 April 2017)

Kloss, Kelsey (2016) ‘How to Choose the Best Paint Color For Your Art Gallery Wall’ in Elle Decor (12 April 2016) [Online]. Available at: http://www.elledecor.com/design-decorate/color/advice/a8540/how-to-choose-the-best-paint-color-for-art-gallery-wall/ (Accessed: Saturday 8 April 2017)

McLeod, Saul (2008).’Visual Perception Theory’. Simplypsychology.org [online]. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/perception-theories.html (accessed: 19 July 2017).

Shore, S. (1998) The Nature of Photographs Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

On Exhibitions … (Some Practical Considerations)

Staging an exhibition for the first time, a daunting prospect.

The more you look into it, the more complexity the task takes on. The aim of this post is to pull together advice from a number of areas including friends and colleagues with exhibition experience: highlighting potential problem areas (and possible solutions), and suggesting areas for further investigation. Some of the points raised may seem to be obvious, even common sense – arguably that makes such points even easier to overlook.

Clarifying the reasons for wanting to stage an exhibition is fundamental.

Consequently, the first question I asked myself is ‘why do I want to exhibit my images?’

The obvious but superficial answer would be that I want people to see my images. Perhaps the biggest hurdle to jump in terms of setting up an exhibition is convincing someone to hand over part of their real estate for a period of time. So, a more persuasive set of answers are needed.

More robust reasons include the following:

Sharing my work is mutually beneficial, providing positive publicity for me as a photographer as well as for the venue owner

Anyone who agrees to lend space for my work to be exhibited is supporting both the local community in general and, more specifically, the local art community

Hopefully, my work will help decorate – perhaps even beautify – a space, even if only for a short period of time.

Establishing a goal is essential – not least of all because a benchmark by which the success of the exhibition can be gauged is needed. Is the purpose of the exhibition to generate revenue? Or for CV development? Perhaps to raise public awareness regarding a particular cause? Or to create networking opportunities?

There are a number of different types of venue in which a physical exhibition of artwork can be set up, for example, some offices have a reception area where wall space is given over to exhibitions of artwork on a rotating basis. Having first convinced myself of the validity for an exhibition of my work makes it so much easier to convince someone else to grant me access to their exhibition area.

Portraying a professional image is key in establishing a successful relationship between an artist and an exhibition venue owner. Images, mounted to a professional standard and carried in a dedicated print transportation box, demonstrate that you have both the professional attitude as well as the craft skills needed if they are going to hang your work on their walls.

Make it easy for venue owners to contact you – a business card is an absolute minimum, but ways for the venue to contact you can include a brochure which features examples of work.

Once a space for an exhibition has been secured, final decisions on which images to show can be made. A number of images may have already been identified prior to securing the venue. However, some changes may be required depending on the venue, for example, will images be needed, or fewer? Are the images appropriate for the venue?

Crucially, the images need to have cohesion – a theme helps images work well together as a body of work.

Due to layout, some exhibition spaces don’t allow all the images on display to be seen at the same time – images which can stand alone work well in such areas and can be linked together by themes such as geometry, texture, and colour.

An exhibition space which allows images to be seen together, for example in row along one wall, favours images which work together strongly as a series.

Colour needs to be consistent throughout all the images, as does printing style in general. This is especially true if you are planning to sell work, unless that artwork is a one-off piece, the printing needs to be reproducible and repeatable irrespective of whether it is in-house or outsourced printing.

Image size can be determined by two things: cost of printing, mounting and framing an image – obviously larger images cost more to prepare, and available space in the viewing area – larger images requiring more space to both hang and view, and vice versa.

Something which is quite often overlooked, and yet is as important as the image itself – being almost art of the image, is the mounting.

The purpose of the mounting is several-fold: it provides a means of securing the artwork in the frame, it helps protect the artwork by preventing direct contact between the artwork and the protective glass, and it helps guide the viewer’s attention towards the image.

White, or slightly off-white, tends to be favoured by museums and galleries. Most people find white or off-white agreeable and a simple, but classic mounting avoids the potential loss of a sale which can arise if coloured mounts are used. White or off-white is complimentary to the majority of images.

Standard (plain, not ornate) black frames work well for the same reasons.

Simple titles help a viewer engage with an image, whereas ambiguous titles can help lose a viewer’s interest.

A discrete label featuring the image title, together with details of size and type of print, should accompany each image. Again, consistency and professional finish are paramount.

This label can also be used to carry information relating to the cost of the artwork (pricing is beyond the scope of this post).

In terms of sequencing the images, there are certain psychological responses associated with the viewing of art.

A light area at or near to the edge of the image will usually be an entry point for a viewer to access an image. Subsequently, the viewer’s eyes will move through the image until a focal point is found and typically this is the area of greatest contrast – the point where the darkest blacks meet the lightest whites.

Other features of the image – colours, textures, tonal range, lines and patterns – will determine the viewer’s response: either holding the viewer’s gaze, or leading it out of the image.

This information can be used to provide a flow, or transition, from one image to the next with, say, an image with lines which lead towards the right edge, creating a sense of motion, being placed to direct the viewer’s attention towards the next image, placed to its right.

A statement of intent, in keeping with the title label for each image, should be placed in close proximity to the introductory image, giving the audience some context regarding the artist and the art.

An exhibition is clearly a sales opportunity. But it is also an opportunity to grow, to develop as a photographer. Collecting audience feedback is a key part of this development process. This can take several forms, for example, a recent combined exhibition of work by GCSE and ‘A’ Level photography students at my daughter’s school provided a guest book for those who wished to comment on their viewing experience.

Equally important is setting up a means of dealing with any leads which result from the exhibition? Will an incentive, financial or otherwise, be offered to those who view the exhibition in order to generate leads?

In reality, most exhibitions will have to work with the environmental conditions of the venue. Only large-scale, high-profile exhibitions will find that environmental conditions, for example, décor and lighting, will be changed to suit the exhibition.

Consideration should be given to the level of photo literacy expected from the audience. Too much or too little will both cause an audience to disengage with the art. If the chosen theme itself requires some specialist knowledge, it is worthwhile considering an appropriate publication to accompany the exhibition.

How should the artist engage with the audience, other than though the exhibition per se? Perhaps workshops are one way to do this?

What of the audience itself? Will there be one audience? Or will there be different audiences, each with differing needs?

And where would an exhibition be without an audience? Which leads us to marketing the exhibition. Advise the local press regarding the exhibition at the earliest opportunity. Preparing a press pack will help (invitation to the exhibition, exhibition announcement and other promotional literature, CV, offer of an interview, photographs).

With regard to promotional literature, care needs to be taken in identifying and then reaching a target audience. Trying to ‘tailor’ promotional literature to reach all the identified target audiences results in failing to reach any. This is purely because no group feels you are addressing them, you are not speaking in terms that they, as a group, understand.

Of course, this advice makes a large assumption, that those agreeing to provide exhibition space will allow the exhibitor to set up the exhibition themselves. But what about the venue which only allows an exhibitor to hang artwork using existing fixtures? Or insists on the artwork being handed over to them for hanging?

It then becomes a question of integrity on the part of the photographer as to whether they wish to hand over authorship of their exhibition to that extent?

As mentioned, pricing of artwork is beyond the scope of this post. Other subjects which can be deemed to be beyond the scope of this post, but are nevertheless worthy of a mention, are: the copyright and other legal issues associated with exhibiting; funding, sponsorship and the legal obligations associated with sponsorship; and contracts between the exhibitor and the venue.

See also: On Reflection: Week 6, Module Three

On Reflection: Week 5, Module Three

The brief for week five was to commence preparatory work for three discrete activities: an exhibition, a publication and a workshop.

The exhibition is to take place between the 11 and 18 August, whilst the publication and workshop don’t have a completion deadline.

Excellent preparation for the main exhibition in twelve months, a chance to have a ‘dummy run’ and identify any issues which may arise.

However, life sometimes gets in the way.

Moving home is one of the most stressful events in life – no matter how many times you may have moved, it never gets any easier. And there’s never an especially good time to move.

Circumstances related to this particular house move have made it impossible for me to contribute to the exhibition.

Notwithstanding the constraints imposed by the move itself, there will be a subsequent period where we will be without an internet connection.

OK, so there are ways around that, aren’t there. Yes, of course.

Complicating things further – a severe knee injury. I’m immobile for the foreseeable future. Severely debilitated, accessing alternative internet resources is impossible at the moment – as is any photography.

The exhibition is to take place in an area local to each student, with an online ‘Landing’ page featuring details of each contributing photographer together with thumbnails examples of his or her work.

Due to the global nature of the ‘Landing’ page, together with the deadline of 11 to 18 August for the physical exhibition, it is just not possible to complete the necessary work within the timeframe.

Whilst the exhibition, publication and workshop are not a compulsory part of the course, not being able to contribute to the exhibition is still a major disaster for me.

What could I have done to prevent this?

Well, if sufficient notice can be given to the ISP – at least 20 days, the internet can be up and running on the day you move in. This wasn’t an option in our case, once things started to move the situation just snowballed – the whole move was decided on and completed within twenty days.

And as for the injury, how do you legislate for such things?

So, the question becomes what can I do as an alternative?

During the ‘downtime’, the period when we will be without an internet connection, planning for an exhibition can still take place.

This seems to me to be a good investment of time, a chance to interrogate the process of staging an exhibition and of course, having established the dates of 11 – 18 August are not achievable, there is no reason why I can’t stage an individual exhibition in my local area at a later date.

Planning can also take place for the publication, and the workshop – again, opportunities to question how things might operate.

Turning negatives into positives, current circumstances should result in my producing some pretty comprehensive and robust project plans.

Some research will be required, I am fully aware that my knowledge relating to the staging of an exhibition is somewhat patchy.

Activities aside, time as well to pull things together generally, to consolidate. Things seem a little disjointed at the moment.

Lots still to be getting on with.

On Curation and Curating

‘Where once the curator needed only to be a specialist in their field, now they have to be communicators, computer and IT operators, fundraisers, outreach officers, research specialists, conservators, strategic planners, financially adept, project managers and on top of this…underpaid’ (Museums Association 2004: 3 in Edwards 2007).

… … …

‘People think curating just means choosing nice things’ (Worsley, 2016).

I tend to agree with this headline, believing that most people have very little knowledge of what curation involves. I include myself amongst those with a lack of knowledge regarding this profession.

What is involved in curating?

What are the skills essential to the role of curation, and what makes a good curator?

Interviewed by The Guardian in 2016, Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, informs us that curation not only involves being a custodian of artefacts, but also a custodian of the knowledge associated with those artefacts – their history:

‘Curating isn’t just a matter of taste. It involves building up a real knowledge of the items in your care. As the world gets quicker, and shallower, and bite-sized, retaining our ability to take a deep dive into history is more and more important’.

Conversely, Harriet Loffler (Curator of Modern & Contemporary Arts, Norfolk Museums Service) highlights that objects are not preserved or conserved in perpetuity – describing decisions regarding the disposal of items as ‘difficult’.

Ana Debenedetti, Curator of Paintings at the V & A, describes the role of a curator as that of facilitator and promoter of public access to collections held within museums.

This connection to people is echoed by Lucy Bamford, Curator of Art, Derby Museums: ‘working in a museum has given me a connection to people – to the rest of humanity – that I never had before’.

A postgraduate taking an MA in Museums Studies, Maja Michaliszyn, suggests that whilst the work of a curator is multi-faceted, the biggest challenge she has encountered has been dealing with time constraints, pointing out that ‘coming up with the theme and then building the narrative around the display was time-consuming, but at the same time a fascinating experience’.

Chandler (2009) describes curatorship as something which ‘typically involves structuring relationships and imposing organizational frameworks on works displayed within an exhibition’. She goes on to describe such ‘forms of classification’ as being ‘monographic, chronological, geographic, cultural, material or medium and thematic groupings.’

This immediately causes me to pose a question: if a curator’s role is to safeguard a repository of artefacts and history whilst acting as an intermediary, bringing such artefacts and knowledge into the public realm, to what extent do their decisions reflect an ideology? And is that ideology their own?

Bourdieu (1993, pp. 74 – 141) suggests that curators in distinguished institutions are able to exercise significant power with regard to promoting some artists to the detriment of others.

Claire Warrior (Senior Exhibitions Interpretation Curator, National Maritime Museum) suggests, however, that: ‘museums are sites of negotiated authority, in which curators remain responsible for the objective documentation of their collections, shaping credible narratives around artefacts through research and exhibitions’.

Times have changed and Warrior points out that ‘most curators have exited their ivory towers and firmly shut the door behind them, entering into dialogues with their audiences that are much more fruitful for both parties‘.

The profession of curation exists within a changing landscape.

The opportunity for individuals to curate has undoubtedly increased as a result of technological advances (e.g. the internet). But is everyone who becomes a custodian of something a curator? Or is that term best left to describe those with appropriate qualifications who undertake such work on a professional basis?

Lucilla Burn (Keeper of Antiquities, Fitzwilliam Museum) shares her thoughts on this issue, writing accordingly:

‘It seems you can curate anything, from a flower show to a weekend or even a shopping list. As a classicist I don’t in principle object to this revival of the etymological origin of the word curator, which literally means caretaker. But I’m not sure I want to go along with the growing feeling that the activities of museum curators aren’t any different from those of people who collect shells and lay them out in patterns on their windowsills. I’m as likely to pick up shells from the beach as the next person, but I do have two problems with classifying this activity as ‘curating’.

The first is: where do we draw the line? Am I curating the laundry when I sort out the odd socks and hang them in a neat row on the line? Are nursery nurses ‘child curators’? Are supermarket shelf-stackers ‘curators of retail display space’? If not, given that these all exemplify ‘taking care of’, why not? Where is the boundary line beyond which the term turns (really) silly?

And secondly: how helpful is it for ‘people who have specialist knowledge of, and work in and with museum and gallery collections, safeguarding and sometimes increasing them for future generations, studying them to extend knowledge and understanding, and helping numerous different audiences to appreciate them through a variety of methods and media’ to have lost their right to use the rather convenient, shortish word formerly used to describe their profession? What are we supposed to say at parties? My suggestion is that rather than meekly accepting that no, we aren’t a profession, that we have no special skills or abilities, and that everyone is a curator now, we need to ‘re-brand’ ourselves. Suggestions, please, on a postcard…..’

 

The purpose of this investigation was not to establish all the answers, instead it was to provide me with sufficient knowledge to be able to ask questions which are more meaningful.

Whose work will be featured in the exhibition? How many artists will contribute? And why?

How will work by different artists be linked? What will be the theme for the exhibition?

How will work be displayed? What display model will be used?

What is the intended length of time for the exhibition? Will there be different dates and times for groups (opening, private views, talks, workshops, closing? What will the opening hours of the exhibition?

How will viewers be expected to move through the exhibition? Will there be a specific flow?

Additionally, environmental factors such as lighting, and décor need to be considered as they contribute to the overall ambience of the exhibition and influence the viewing experience.

Whilst these questions are, arguably, common sense, I can now search for answers from a vantage point which is much more informed – interrogating issues much more incisively.

… … …

In conclusion, curation is a highly specialised role. I think a greater understanding of the curating role, the factors which act to influence it, and (at least some of) the theoretical models used within the profession will enable us as photographers to stage more meaningful presentations of our work – especially given that many of us will, at some stage in our career, be called upon to curate our own exhibitions.

 

References:

Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, In Randal

Johnson (ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Burn, Lucilla. (n.d.). ‘What is a curator?’. Artandscienceofcuration.org.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.artandscienceofcuration.org.uk/what-is-a-curator-lucilla-burn/ [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Chandler, Lisa. (2009) ‘’Journey without maps’: unsettling curatorship in cross-cultural contexts’. Museum & Society Vol 7, No. 2 [online]. Available at: https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/museumsociety/documents/volumes/chandler.pdf [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Edwards, E.C., (2007). ‘The Future for Curators’. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 18(S1), pp. 98–114 [online]. Available at: http://doi.org/10.5334/pia.290 [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Loffler, Harriet. (n.d.) ‘What is it that curators do?’. Artandscienceofcuration.org.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.artandscienceofcuration.org.uk/curators/ [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Michaliszyn, Maja. (n.d.) ‘What is curating?’. Artandscienceofcuration.org.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.artandscienceofcuration.org.uk/what-is-curating/ [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Museums Association, 2004. Pay in Museums. London: Museums Association.

The Guardian. (2016) ‘’People think curating just means choosing nice things’ – secrets of the museum curators’. The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/2016/jan/22/museum-curator-job-secrets-culture-arts [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]

Warrior, Claire. (n.d.). ‘What is a curator?’. Artandscienceofcuration.org.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.artandscienceofcuration.org.uk/what-is-a-curator-claire-warrior/ [accessed: Monday 26 June 2017]