When creative works are presented to the public, the illusion of a seamlessness is a necessary factor. On opening night of a theatrical production, the audience is immersed in pure experience along with the characters, and hopefully not pulled out of the story by the visible hand of the designers or director. When a great work of art is debuted, viewers ponder the concept and the artist's skill, not the state of the studio that birthed the opus. Similarly, when a museum or gallery presents an exhibition to the public, the visitors enjoy the works and whatever context is offered up by the curators, and do not have to be concerned with what is involved in bringing that show before the public eye.
Well, dear readers, I'm here to dash your impression of this magic and mystery regarding exhibitions, and shine a bright light behind-the-scenes at the hard work that goes into presenting a cohesive, impressive, educational showing of artwork. The artists get the focus, but there are many unsung heroes involved an exhibit. There are countless considerations from conception to opening night — and for some planners, the work continues through the run of the show. These considerations vary with each institution, depending on the complexity of the exhibition and the ultimate goals of the organizers. Here, we present to you three stories of building an art show, representing a major Rochester institution, a gallery within an academic setting, and a fledgling art house that recently earned its white walls.
The Memorial Art Gallery holds four exhibitions per year in its Grand Gallery, and its exhibition program "tries to run along a similar track, although not exactly mirroring" the broad permanent collection, says Director of Exhibitions Marie Via, who will soon celebrate her 30th anniversary at the MAG. "So we're trying to pick shows that cover a span of media, local vs. national and international, historical vs. contemporary art." With only those four slots per year, it's difficult to cover that diversity in any 12 months, "so we're really looking at a three year period," she says.
Over the course of three years, MAG aims for dynamism in order to meet the diverse tastes of its broad audience. From the fall of 2009 through the current exhibit, the Grand Gallery has presented a wide variety of shows, ranging from the locally focused Rochester-Finger Lakes and Rochester Biennial shows, to the ancient-to-modern "Wine & Spirit," to the popular "Extreme Materials." These are a combination of packaged traveling exhibitions rented from other institutions that MAG interprets for the Rochester audience, and built-from-scratch shows that originated at the MAG.
The differences between putting on a borrowed show and creating one from scratch begin with some initial practical factors, says Via. These include whether the borrowed show will physically fit in the MAG's 4500-square-foot Grand Gallery, if it is available during a time when MAG has an opening in its schedule, and if the institution can feasibly afford to rent and support the show.
The overriding concern when considering temporary exhibitions "is to enhance the permanent collection," says Marlene Hamann-Whitmore, Curator of Education for Interpretation, who has been with MAG for 18 years. The desire is to pick up where collection leaves off, to fill in gaps, to have conversations that are parallel but also extend beyond what you normally see. "We often say that the permanent collection is the backbone of the institution, and the exhibitions are the legs," she says.
Part of Hamann-Whitmore's role at MAG is organizing the educational tours for each exhibition, which always touch back on the permanent collection. These tours might connect works in the show with works from MAG by the same artist, created in a different year, or using a different medium, or it might compare works created in the same time period or with a similar theme, or pair one artist in the show with an artist in the collection who whom he or she studied.
Similarly, for each Grand Gallery show, the curatorial and collections departments change the contents of the Forman Gallery, which is the space directly inside the double doors past the MAG front desk. These "Collection Connection" mini-shows appear a few weeks before a show opens to tease visitors with select objects and works from MAG's collection.
The team at the Memorial Art Gallery is typically engaged in some stage of planning four exhibitions at any given time, and all departments are involved at some point, from the librarians, to facilities, to marketing staff. The core team includes Via, Hamann-Whitmore, Registrar Dan Knerr, Exhibitions Assistant Chiyo Ueyama, and designer John King.
When MAG exhibits from-scratch shows, it involves "coming up with an idea you want to explore more fully, fleshing that out, searching for artists and particular works that will explicate that idea," says Via.
Often, there is a "magic moment" when a central focus arises, and everything else falls into place around that "golden nugget," says Hamann-Whitmore. From there, staff tackles all the lender-borrower negotiations for pieces outside the MAG collection, finding funding for the exhibition, making arrangements for work to arrive, designing the show, and planning opening night, as well as the programming surrounding the exhibition, including tours, lectures by artists or experts, and family days.
The curators and education department research, write, and concentrate loads of fascinating information and what Via calls "dense art jargon" into what will grab the public and not lose them. The institution doesn't always have the budget to produce an accompanying publication, and it can be a challenge for an enthused curator to post just enough, but not too much, information on the walls.
At any point, things can go awry — and they do. Via recalls an incident in preparation for the 75th anniversary exhibition held at MAG in the late 1980's, which sought to recreate the gallery's inaugural exhibit. This involved tracking down the location of each artwork from the original show, pre-Internet. When one stubborn work was finally located in the bedroom of the then-First Lady of the United States, she insisted that she couldn't part with it long enough for the run of the exhibition. Sometimes, it's just not possible to get a painting that you want, says Via.
The facilities department almost entirely recreates the Grand Gallery for each exhibit, building walls according to the specifications of the loaning curators, John King, MAG's curators, or some combination of all. An outside lighting designer is contracted to set up custom lighting for each work according to King's specifications. Lighting is important, says Via — it should enhance the work, complement it, evoke a feeling in the viewer, all without the viewer being aware of the manipulation.
Aid from the University of Rochester is brought in for additional help with painting and carpentry. Matting and framing must be done if work is not wall-ready. Local artists may be hired to recreate an installation to the specification of an artist who cannot be physically present to set up the work. The gallery store markets the exhibition and will often draw in work by local artists that relates to the theme of the show.
Located at the heart of Monroe Community College's Brighton campus, Mercer Gallery is highly accessible to current art students, to the institution as a whole, and to greater Rochester audiences. The presence of a thriving gallery on campus provides an advantage to art students, who learn more about the business end of the art world and come into contact with working artists.
"The gallery is as much a teaching space as a gallery space," says Kathleen Farrell, who has been the sole director of Monroe Community College's Mercer Gallery since it was created in 1986. "Each exhibiting artist is encouraged to conduct workshops, gallery talks, and demonstrations," she says.
As it's a smaller operation than some of the large institutions in Rochester, there is less compartmentalizing of roles where exhibition are concerned. "Forty percent of my job is the duties of the director of the Mercer Gallery," says Farrell, which entails planning, promoting, and organizing six major art exhibitions during the school year, as well as installations, and 10 to 12 events for the Internal Combustion Series, which are one-off events involving "video, film, sculpture, painting, drawing, dance, theatre, performance, installation, on the wall, off the wall, in the gallery, or outside the gallery." In addition, Farrell coordinates and promotes guest artist lectures, slide talks, and demonstrations. These events are planned two years in advance "with an attempt to include the involvement of the faculty and student body," she says.
Farrell's support team includes three to four students who are employed to assist with postcard distribution and e-mail blasts, and serve as gallery attendees and docents for the exhibition. Farrell also teaches an arts-management course in the spring semester, and her students help with planning and installing the exhibitions for course credit. Enrolled students also look at proposals from artists to help choose what exhibitions will work with Mercer's mission for the following academic year.
Farrell selects writers to create the content for the show catalogues, and guest curators are sometimes involved. This is the case with the current show, a tribute to former MCC professor and artist, the late Julianna Furlong Williams, curated by her husband, artist Lawrence (Judd) Williams.
Each show is up for about a month, and there are typically two to four days between shows for de-installation of the previous show and installation the new show, during which patching and painting of the walls takes place, new work is unpacked, the exhibition is designed and installed, lighting is arranged, and paperwork completed. And then it begins once more.
"I want 1975 events to be welcoming and open to anyone and everyone," says 1975 Gallery owner Erich Lehman, who also works full-time at RIT, and is one-fifth of the Rochester art collective, The Sweet Meat Co. "I started the gallery to share my love of art, and to show folks that collecting original artwork is within everyone's grasp."
"Let me cut to the chase," says Lehman. "Running an art gallery right now is, ultimately, selling a luxury item in a recession economy. I started the gallery knowing this, and almost out of necessity, 1975 was nomadic from the start. I was incredibly fortunate to partner with Lee Gray at Surface Salon back in 2008, who wanted to bring artwork into her original location.
"From a financial standpoint, it was low-cost to me — I didn't have to worry about rent, the artwork was covered under the host business's insurance, and I didn't have to worry about staffing a space. I started with $500 of my own money, and while I was building up a reputation and teaching people how to be collectors, I helped 'feed' the gallery through my freelance work."
"Being nomadic also gave me a lot of freedom," says Lehman. "If a show idea came up, I could respond by finding a suitable place and figuring out how to make it happen. That's still an option, even with a fixed location, because I have grand ideas of what can be accomplished here in Rochester," he says. The new 1975 Gallery location is in the former Little Bakery space at 89 Charlotte St.
Lehman puts together solo, duo, and group shows of artists he admires locally and nationally. "Show themes come from all over," he says. "For the bigger group shows, it's either an idea I got randomly or something that may have come from any number of random conversations with friends. For the smaller two- or three-person shows, the artists almost always come up with the idea themselves."
The only consistent themed show is the anniversary show, set in October. "I love Halloween, and our 'birthday' is in October, so I always look forward to that show each year," says Lehman. "It's generally also the only show where any artist who's shown with 1975 is welcome to submit work to, as long as their submission follows that year's specific theme."
Prep for each show typically begins about six weeks in advance. "I like to have print materials designed and in house about a month before, but three weeks in advance is the average." Lehman is a print guy at heart: "I really love tailoring the look and feel of the print pieces to set the tone for the rest of the event," he says. From there, he begins the crucial social-media blast to spread the word.
Though Lehman handles all of the web and print design, the promotion, the planning, and working with the artists, a team of friends regularly assists with an opening, and may help install large group shows. "Angie Carter from Bake It or Cleave It has been creating thematically based sweets and savories for openings since the beginning," says Lehman, "and friends associated with our former host spaces would often bring extra food to share as well."
Since moving into the permanent spot, Lehman has taken on an official assistant, local illustrator Justyn Iannucci, so that he can delegate more tasks as his operation expands.
"There's still a lot of details to be nailed down," says Lehman, regarding operating in his new, dedicated space. "I have to work around my full-time job, so while things get situated, expect a lot of evening hours and weekend hours." Show runs will be shorter, and the new space is well suited for solo shows and small group shows, he says. "My plan is to balance the schedule as close to 50 percent local artists and 50 percent national/international artists. I want this new location to be a true portal for Rochester talent, and I'm building connections with galleries in other cities to share our talent pools.
"I think 1975 serves a space in between all of the festivals in our area and the more established galleries like RoCo and MAG," says Lehman. "The reception and support from the folks at these institutions has been wonderful and very warm and supportive. There's plenty of room and need for all of us. In my opinion, a city without a thriving art scene is a dying city, and it is an incredibly exciting time in Rochester. I've been here for over 18 years, and I've never felt this excited about the possibilities."