Swarm in a tea-cup (curating in a CIC)

As well as creating my own work, I curate the exhibitions at The Art House. This is a cafe/gallery/venue (i.e. a multi-use space, something with challenges I’ll write about another time) and is a CIC, or Community Interest Company. This means that it is run on a not-for-profit basis, so any surplus would be reinvested in its social/community objectives. One of these is community involvement which, to some extent, directs the way I curate. So, a for-profit commercial gallery might seek out whoever’s most lucrative, the Current Big Thing, or whatever the curator chooses. I still have freedom of choice, but with additional considerations such as providing opportunites and encouragement for new local artists, under-represented groups and so on. So, is ‘quality’ (however you choose to define that in terms of visual art) still a major consideration? Well, yes and no, or in other words, it depends.

We have open exhibitions aimed at artists with few, if any, previous exhibition experience, and generally anything offered is accepted if we have space. The work has to meet our hanging guidelines (no clip-frames for example), but isn’t scrutinised for artistic merit. The point is simply to provide opportunities, and I can safely say I derive great joy from seeing new artists beaming the first time their work is visible in public. After all, it how I started (and continue to develop sometimes). Dotted among these will be works by more experienced artists, and that’s fine. These exhibitions have been described by an ex-curator friend as ‘a bit like Village Hall art fairs’, but in a good way – for many participants it is a hobby, and will remain so. For others, it’s a tiny, tiny step towards something more.

However, there is more to The Art House’s exhibitions than this. We do want to sell work (yes, we take a commission) and we do want to bring in gallery-goers. As Southampton lacks any dedicated selling-galleries (yes, really), artists in the city have to exhibit in multi-use spaces, many (probably all) of which can have very long waiting lists. This means premises such as The Art House and other cafes/bars etc (none of which are ideal in terms of giving artwork due prominence), foyers in places such as Harbour Lights cinema, and so on. This paucity of gallery space does mean I get a huge number of enquiries as we are as over-subscribed as everywhere else; even after weeding out those that don’t meet our criteria (artists need to be local, or locally involved and we rarely exhibit photography), I receive about five times as many applications as I can possibly fit into our programme, regardless of how much I like them.

The upshot of all this is a programme which I try to organise like a mix-tape – a couple of full-time professionals, then someone new, then a group show and so on. We take part in Hampshire Open Studios, I refer exhibitions to the Press Association (it does work by the way), and we hold Private Views and ‘meet-the-artists’ evenings. Slowly, slowly our profile rises, and yes, we do make a fair number of sales, usually juuuuust before an exhibition’s due to close. So, to give you a flavour of what we do, below are some images from our current exhibition ‘Swarm’. Four artists (Madeleine Ayling, Vanella Mead, Caroline Misselbrook and me – yes, I do curate myself sometimes) took this one-word title and responded to it individually without seeing each others’ work; so, we only knew what the others had produced when we came to hang the show. Apart from my own work, all I knew (as curator beforehand) was how many pieces and approximate sizes. Responses from visitors have been extremely positive – some great conversations about our different approaches to the theme (I mainly focused on the density of human population, others went for insects or microbes). I hope you enjoy the images, and if you’re in the area, the exhibition’s on until Sunday 4th March.

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