Monday, 20 July 2015

Thoughts on doing an exhibition

This Spring I curated a loan exhibition on the painter George Morland, at the University of Leeds. I enjoyed it very much but it was extremely tiring work. The show had about 20 paintings and a number of prints and drawings. The catalogue was 100 pages long and had five essays and full catalogue entries for the paintings. 

Below are ** important things your humble guest curator learned. Professional curators will know most of these things already but if I had known them when we started planning the show I would have done some things differently, as you will see:

1. Choose work that looks good on the walls rather than the stuff that's of academic interest. This is by far the biggest lesson I learned. It was gold-plated advice given to me by Christiana Payne at an early stage of the show's planning but it only became real when I walked into the exhibtion for the first time - I had never guessed what an impact the room has on the visitor. Layla and Helen (see below) had done a fantastic job and I was bowled over. 

2. It's not all about the catalogue. As guest curator with an exclusively academic background, much of my time was spent writing and editing the catalogue. I hope we did a good job, but what people will remember is the exhibition itself.

3. Work with a good curator. The team at Leeds is small but Layla Bloom was dynamic, proactive, overstretched, underfunded, supportive, tactful, utterly practical, knowledgeable, committed, and altogether a great person to work with. Helen Butler also worked wonders on getting the catalogue ready and finding two important prints when a loan from Houston fell through. 

4. Get funding. In our case generous support from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art  paid for some research trips, producing the catalogue, and a really good one-day symposium. 

5. Do your utmost to see if the show can travel to another institution. There are all kinds of benefits here, but the key ones are: more money (another institution will usually pay for the show and cover the costs of onward transport for the works) and more coverage (more people will see the show, and you'll sell more catalogues). 

6. Don't underestimate people's interest! All kinds of people will show an interest; colleagues, private collectors, public, family, and so on. 

7. Don't overestimate the show's significance. It won't change anybody's life. 

8. Expect the unexpected. All kinds of stuff happens that disrupts your plans - in our case a bereavement meant a funding application wasn't submitted and we missed out on a chunk of funding. People can be very kind with loans. Three private lenders gave us work which enhanced the exhibition immeasurably. 

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