For What It’s Worth: Diary June August 2013

The countdown to our final MA project has begun. We have a title for our exhibition: For What It’s Worth, and now the work begins in earnest…

Collaboration – I love it!
I really do; I find it to be the most stimulating way of working and usually find that – with the right mix of people – the end result is greater than the sum of its parts.
The ‘flavour’ of collaboration that works best for me is where each member of the team has recognised and acknowledged strengths and areas of expertise to offer. There will be aspects of a project where each team member retreats into their own space to be allowed to do what they do best. And there will be exciting points at which some or all of the team’s experience and skills will converge, igniting an alchemical reaction which has the potential to create something marvellous.

Research notes
Audience Engagement

Getting back in the loop
Having been away for a couple of weeks developing and curating projects elsewhere (and going to the International Ceramics Festival – of which, more later) I find that things have moved on apace. Alice has sorted the Private View and enough alcohol has been pledged to float a battleship!

I’m still yet to be convinced by the newspaper idea for our catalogue. I understand the reasoning behind it – chief of which being that the transport costs have blown our budget so there is very little money for printing. However, I really did prefer the previous idea we had all agreed on for a series of postcards which gallery visitors could select and use to compile their own catalogue, thereby providing  engagement with the exhibition and a way to measure audience response to the works, (the rationale being that images of the most popular, or ‘valued’ works would disappear faster than those of less popular ones). It was a slight and light-hearted thing, but I think it would have been a novel and interesting part of our audience response analysis.

I know the newspaper idea is very ‘now’ and we can play on the tension between the throwaway nature of such publications and the idea of ‘commemorative’ ephemera which rise in value due to their rarity. However, the fact that it is becoming such a common form of exhibition presentation bothers me as I feel we are just following the herd. I am also concerned at the amount of copy we will need to generate (even if we have lots of images) to fill an eight-page newspaper. I guess I am just an old-fashioned journalist at heart, but the acres of blank white space in the examples I have seen so far really disturb me! Ah well, sometimes collaboration involves giving ground  in order to keep a project on track, and I am sure it will be fine in the end.

Andrea and I met with Paula Sanchez from CultureWorksEast to firm up our ideas for public activities. It looks hopeful that CWE might be able to provide us with one or two workshops sessions from within one of their existing budgets, possibly the Arts Award Scheme. I intend to talk to Zoe Davidson, the Youth Projects manager at ADeC, to get another perspective on our plans – the more advice the better, at this stage!

I had my meeting with Zoe today and she was very positive about our plans. She also had some great suggestions for how to make the first activity (which I admit to having put together on the hoof) more meaty and meaningful. I now feel more confident that we can pull together something that will really sit well with the exhibition without either trivialising the theme of value in art or devising something so esoteric that very few people will want to engage with it.

Today was a perfect illustration of what can happen when you are in the right place at the right time! Our meeting with CWE had to be scrapped but we had a very productive meeting with Louisa Milsome and Anna Bird instead – almost at the end, at the point of ‘any other business’, I mentioned our plans for the outreach/public activities and Louisa revealed that NUA has a Schools and Outreach department. Fortunately, Tom Rollett and Alice Kent were in the building so Andrea and I put our ideas to them and they got quite excited – it would appear that our aspirations for FWIW and their role in education outreach have come together in a timely fashion since they are actively looking for things to put in their programme from September 2013. So… they will approach Foundation students at their contact schools and get back to us – this is VERY exciting!!

August already!! This past week has been a flurry of activity and Tom and Alice (K) have already had feedback from one school and are hoping for more come the beginning of term in September – but so far it looks like we will have at least 15 students for a workshop and curatorial talk. THIS is what curating means to me – to be able to communicate the passion I feel about art in any way I can, to reach people and enable them to understand and appreciate it for themselves! Tomorrow we will talk further and develop our ideas.

In the meantime, Alice (L), Andrea and I had a meeting with Lynda Morris – a final critique. It felt a bit strange, since almost everything has been set in motion and we cannot change direction now. I felt conflicted about some areas of the discussion, although I appreciate that Lynda has a wealth of experience and strong views about aspects of the curatorial approach. My deepest misgivings are around the idea of an archival display since I don’t feel that we have been able to discuss this properly in any depth. Several of the artists in our show have exhibited at Norwich or been involved in East but I don’t think that alone is sufficient reason to include extraneous material in a vitrine display if it doesn’t connect with the overall theme of Value, which is, after all, the focus of our show. Like the public activities, I think this is something that should have been woven into the exhibition planning from the beginning and I worry that, to bolt it on with two weeks to go could dilute the coherence of our concept.  However, Andrea made the valid point that her section dealing with the Materiality of Small Things talks about personal value  so perhaps we can make the connection between Norwich as a melting pot of conceptual art and its contribution to the art world at large. (Although most of the material we have so far only connects to the section on dystopian values, which, I fear, might only muddy the waters still further).  I worry that, without A LOT of supporting text, it could be perceived as being a bit parochial: I thought we were dealing with much bigger ideas – our show is in Norwich but should it be about Norwich? I really feel that that is an exhibition idea for another day.

(Update 13/08/13)
Well, I am very relieved to report that, with some tight editing, we have been able to get hold of some nicely relevant documents from Prof. Lynda Morris which will, together with the explanatory text, provide a geo-historical context to the Norwich connection. Another plus is that we have decided to move the vitrine into the expanded education and resource area, which I feel is a far more appropriate location for it. I should really learn to trust my instincts – things always seem to find their rightful place in the end!

Andrea and I had a further meeting with Tom Rollett from the Education/Recruitment department to discuss the workshop ideas. He loved the 1st activity – using a magnetic board to move images of works of art around and put them into different categories of value. I was relieved when he echoed my thinking around choosing very well-known works (eg the Mona Lisa): for students who may not have been exposed to much art, or who may be unused to stepping over the threshold of a contemporary art gallery, anything which puts them at their ease and makes them feel in control is a good thing. If they can recognize any of the works (even if they can’t name them or don’t know who they’re by), that is one less barrier to their understanding of the theme of our exhibition and lets them take ownership of it by making their own connections and personalising the experience. It will also set up opportunities for a discussion about value in art which we can then expand into a discussion of the exhibition.

Tom then suggested a drawing exercise the outcomes of which, again, can be linked back to to ‘Value’ in terms of materials/aesthetics/commericiality/ audience, etc.

Our 2nd activity (which will now become a third activity) we have decided to split into two parts as it is quite a dense and complex concept and probably not suitable for a 45 minute session. For Tom’s students we will probably devise something along the following lines:
We will gather together a selection of objects from public donations, charity shops, etc as planned – it is important that these are ‘worhtless’, discarded items. Then (and this is Tom’s brilliant suggestion) we get the students to select a few items and ‘curate’ them as if they were works of art. We will borrow some gallery furniture for this. This will set up, very neatly, a discussion around ideas of curating/selection/display, etc. And I’m sure M. Duchamp will get a mention!

Andrea and I still both love the idea of taking found and discarded objects and altering them to turn them into works of art. However, this really lends itself to a 2 hour session on its own and we are looking at the option of going back to Culture Works East to see if they could supply an artist to deliver a workshop, or possibly approaching Karl and Kimberley Foster, NUA staff members, whose own art practice is described as follows on their website: “hedsor’s practice straddles the worlds of learning and art practice, rationality and intuition, art interpretation and art history.  The Object Dialogue Boxes are artworks that can be handled and used.  The intention for creating them is that they generate as much dialogue, creative thinking and inquiry as possible“.

Our next meeting with Tom is scheduled for 20/08, by which time our written work will have been submitted and the exhibition installed. However, this was always going to be about more than fulfilling the demands of our MA course for me: we have been given the opportunity to help create a legacy out of our research which might be of practical use to the university in terms of its audience development. Of even greater importance is that we might be able to contribute to the breaking down of barriers for young people to understand and enjoy contemporary art. And, who knows – some of them might even be inspired to apply to study at Norwich University of the Arts in the future…

I can hardly believe it but the exhibition is almost finished – all the work is up and we just have to tweak some aspects of the Activity and Resource area. Which, by the way, is very generous in size, since we took a snap decision to install categories 2 and 3 in the same bay. And it’s all worked out wonderfully well!! I am so, so proud of the way we have worked together on this and my huge thanks go to Rick (technician, Arts Council), Anna, Louisa and Carl, who have all made our lives so much easier and taken almost all the stress out of the installation. we have been very spoiled by their attention and professionalism and the gallery only looks as fabulous as it does because of their combined efforts!

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